Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was the great mythologizer of Montmartre, the licentious cauldron of Fin-de-Siècle 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 summer’s auction offers a delightful array of his best-loved lithographs and rare prints.
“At the height of cancan’s popularity, dancers formed groups which offered their services as a unit: whether the Troupe de Mlle Églantine was the best of them we don’t know, but it is certainly the only one publicized by the best. Toulouse-Lautrec did it at the request of his friend Jane Avril. From left to right, we see Jane Avril, Cléopâtre, Églantine, and Gazelle. As with his Moulin Rouge poster, he lets the white of the petticoats, punctuated by stockinged legs, do most of the talking, but he also offhandedly gives each girl a distinct character in only a few lines lining their facial expressions” (Wine Spectator, 43). This is in the finest condition we’ve ever seen!
“May Belfort, whom [Lautrec] represented in at least ten works, had gained a reputation for corrupt innocence by appearing onstage dressed as a baby holding a black kitten in her arms, and ‘miaowing or bleating’ her popular song, ‘Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow-Wow,’ whose lines had a double meaning which was not lost on the French-speaking audience: ‘I’ve got a pussycat, I’m very fond of that’” (Frey, p. 382). This would have been particularly amusing for the audience, as Belfort was in an openly lesbian affair with the English dancer May Milton.
With a banjo-playing clown as a remarque in the lower right corner, this distinctive version of May Milton was printed in an edition of just 25 copies. “Extremely rare,” says Wittrock (p. 788). An English dancer at the Moulin-Rouge, May Milton was in an affair with May Belfort (see no. 459). Toulouse-Lautrec’s portrait of her is so subtly bizarre that Picasso included it in the background of his early painting “The Bath” (1901). “Milton is shown in a seemingly impossible position,” Ebria Feinblatt writes. “Lautrec so twists the position of Milton’s right leg that, instead of a back kick, the foot emerges from the side. At the same time, this pose answers the artist’s need to continue the unbroken, undulating pattern that starts with the wavy hair hanging down to her puffed shoulder sleeve… the undeniable presence of the figure [is] arresting” (Wagner, p. 27). This is signed and numbered 17 from an edition of 25 copies.
“The only poster by Lautrec that relates to photography, the medium that so significantly influenced French artists beginning with the Realists and Impressionists, is Sescau, Photographe… The lively Paul Sescau, who was given to the same pleasures as Lautrec and other friends, was the first in his field to photograph the artist’s work and from him Lautrec learned the art of photography. As did Degas, Lautrec often used photographs for figures and compositional motifs in his painting and posters. It is not known who printed the Sescau poster, but Lautrec defrayed the costs… In this poster a woman (possibly Jane Avril) in a red print gown holds a lorgnette in her black-gloved hand and acts as a large repoussoir element, vivid against the overall moss green of the background. The woman’s contracted and shrinking attitude, suggesting that she is fleeing from the camera, is an ironic comment probably intended for Sescau, who ‘used his studio mainly for seduction.’ Head and body largely hidden by a dark cloth, the photographer in Lautrec’s drawing is converted into an almost extraterrestrial creature whose head is composed of a square box with a bulging eye-lens, intent on pursuing or exposing his object. The woman’s dress, designed with a repeating pattern of question marks, could be said to add irony to the message” (Wagner, p. 26). Julia Frey’s interpretation is even more explicit and interesting: “Sescau… who was reputed to use his studio primarily for sexual liaisons, is completely hidden under the black cloth of his camera, but the cloth itself dangles between his legs in a long phallus-shape, and the elegant woman of his focus seems to be trying to flee” (Frey, p. 422). This is the rare state with a mask over her face.
“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.
“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 version is hand-signed by the artist.
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.
“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).
The subject is a book exposing the decadence of Berlin society, written by Lautrec’s friend Victor Joze. His “poster focuses the spectator’s attention on the hindquarters of four horses, the largest of which [is] also being closely observed by a caricature of the Kaiser standing in a guardbox. The implications of this, along with the book’s title, provoked a protest from the German ambassador to France and nearly caused an international incident. Joze, too, wrote Lautrec asking for him to withdraw the poster, as he felt the depiction of a German officer, together with the anti-German tone of the book, would not be tolerated by the police and could get him in trouble. Lautrec, however, refused to stop distribution of the poster, and as he had paid for it [himself], the publisher was not able to stop the distribution. [Thereafter], according to art dealer Edmond Sagot, the value of [Lautrec’s] work quadrupled” (Frey, p. 398).
(and hundreds more!) at auction
Sunday, June 23 at 11am EDT
for full details on all 490 lots
All lots viewable online one month prior to auction.
In-gallery viewing June 7 – 22 (Daily 11am-6pm)