Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) was the great mythologizer of Montmartre, the licentious cauldron of Fin-de-Sìecle Paris. His first poster, Moulin Rouge / La Goulue (1891), revolutionized the art of lithography. For a frenzied ten years, until his death in 1901, he created magnificent art out of grotesquery, and designed poignant moments from within the heart of decadence. This winter’s auction offers a delightful array of his best-loved lithographs and rare prints.
“For Lautrec the theatre was to be found in the boxes as much as on stage. One of his best known inventions, La Loge au Mascaron Doré (The Box with the Gilded Mask) was a programme for Marcel Luguet’s play Le Missionnaire (The Missionary), which had its première at the Théâtre Libre on 24 April 1894. With its economical use of colour, this is one of Lautrec’s greatest achievements in the field of small scale colour lithography… Above left we see the profile of the English illustrator Charles Edward Conder… who had met Lautrec at the Moulin Rouge” (Adriani, p. 110).
Marcelle Lender and Numa Auguez appeared in the Offenbach operetta, “La Chanson de Fortunio,” in 1895 at the Théâtre des Variétés. In this delicate depiction, Toulouse-Lautrec renders them as nearly ghostly figures engaged in a quiet moment. This is one of 25 impressions.
Bruant’s strong, forceful, and in many ways vulgar style was ideally suited to the intimate cabarets where fashionable society went “slumming” for thrills. Lautrec captures this brutal quality of the entertainer and the disdain with which he treated his audiences by having him show us the broad of his back, with his red scarf forming an exclamation point on it. The pose itself makes a complete, self-contained statement—Toulouse-Lautrec at his very best.
“In the summer of 1895 a competition was held by the art-dealers Boussard, Valadon et Cie. for a poster to advertise a biography of Napoleon by William Milligan Sloan, which was to be published in the Century Magazine in New York in 1896. No doubt encouraged by Maurice Joyant, a friend from his youth and director of Boussard and Valadon, Lautrec entered the competition… Although the handling of the motif should actually have appealed to the specially selected jury—the successful society painters Detaille, Gérôme and Vibert, and the Napoleon scholar Frédéric Masson—the design was not judged worthy of a prize. From the 21 entries, Lucien Métivet, a minor illustrator and former fellow student of Lautrec’s in the Atelier Cormon, won the prize. The rejection of Lautrec’s work is all the more astonishing since Lautrec, no doubt with the jury in mind, produced a composition in full sympathy with the elevated traditional image of the great man, and aimed to give an accurate representation of the historic facts, even down to the details of the uniforms. After vain attempts to sell the design elsewhere, the artist decided to have an edition printed at his own expense” (Adriani, p. 190). “Lautrec’s Napoleon occupies a distinctive place in his oeuvre as his only poster on a historical theme. Omitting any glorifying attributes, Lautrec presented his famous subject directly and humanly; there is dignity and restraint in the hint of Napoleon’s pride and melancholy. Yet it was probably this very simplicity and absence of panoply that was responsible for Lautrec’s failure to win first prize” (Wagner, p. 28). This is one of 100 signed impressions (#89).
“Universally considered his most brilliant and successful design” (Wagner, p. 22). The Wine Spectator introduces Toulouse-Lautrec’s world-famous lithograph this way: “Jane Avril on stage doing her specialty, which, according to contemporaries, was essentially a cancan that she made exotic by making a pretense of prudery—the ‘depraved virgin’ image aimed at arousing the prurience in the predominantly male audience. The sexual innuendo was captured by the artist by contrasting the dancer’s slender legs with the robust, phallic neck of the bass viol in the foreground—a masterly stroke that not only heightens our perception but also creates an unusual perspective: we see the performer as an orchestra member would, and this allows Toulouse-Lautrec to show, as if inadvertently, how tired and somewhat downcast she looks close-up, not at all in keeping with the gaiety of the dance that is perceived by the audience. It is clear, as Maindron has pointed out, that she is dancing entirely for the viewer’s pleasure, not hers, which makes it a highly poignant image. Seemingly without trying, Toulouse-Lautrec not only creates a great poster but makes a personal statement: Only a person who really cares about his subject as a human being would portray her with such startling candor” (Wine Spectator, 41). This is a hand-signed poster dedicated to A. Alexandre.
Lautrec created only three known proofs of this lustful image on silk—and this is the only one that is known to be hand-signed. The original lithograph (see No. 388A) was entitled “Le Débauche” (The Debaucher) and was subsequently used as the cover of the Catalogues d’Affiches Artistiques, published in June 1896 by A. Arnould. In this case, the debaucher is Lautrec’s painter-friend, Maxime Dethomas (1868-1928), shown pinching the nipple of a poorly-clad woman. Frey makes an interesting observation: “It has been said of Dethomas both that he was an eager participant in seductions and brothel visits, and that he was in fact a little straight-laced and that Henry’s use [of him in this image] was a kind of teasing. Increasingly, however, when Henry showed his friends in compromising positions, it was because he had observed them thus” (p. 411).
“By 1893 if there were any doubts that there was a printmaking renaissance and that lithography dominated this general print revival, those doubts were quieted forever by a new publication entitled L’Estampe Originale… From March 1893 to early 1895, in collaboration with [critic] Roger Marx, [André] Marty published… a series of quarterly albums of ten prints each (except for the last which contained fourteen prints) in the media of etching, drypoint, mezzotint, woodcut, wood engraving, gypsography and lithography. In all, the publication encompassed ninety-five prints by seventy-four artists representing the young avant-garde such as Lautrec and the Nabis, as well as their established mentors including Gauguin, Puvis de Chavannes, Redon, Chéret, Whistler, Bracquemond and Lepère. L’Estampe Originale offers a remarkable cross-section of the most advanced aesthetic attitudes in fin de siècle French art” (Color Revolution, p. 22). Marty felt that Lautrec “deserved ‘a place of honour in the golden book of the modern print’… [and he] accorded Henri exactly that place, using him as the artist for the cover of the first issue” (Frey, p. 323). Lautrec shows us his favorite model, Jane Avril, at his favorite lithographic workshop, Ancourt, studying a proof pulled by Père Cotelle, the experienced printer at the Bisset press behind her.
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