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 winter’s auction offers a delightful array of his best-loved lithographs and rare prints.
Of the thirty posters created by Toulouse-Lautrec, this is, without a doubt, the rarest of them all. Wittrock indicates that there is “one known impression” and Adriani confirms that “only one example has survived where the lithograph has been used as a pictorial motif stuck onto a lettered poster… but the drawing had to be cut down somewhat on all four sides for the purpose. Arthur Huc, art-lover and editor of the magazine La Dépêche de Toulouse, used the lithograph, which was printed by the firm of Cassan Fils in Toulouse, together with the lettered poster… to advertise the serial novel ‘Les Drames de Toulouse,’ by A. Siègel” (Adriani, p. 23). He dates the lithograph to possibly the end of 1891 and the complete poster as seen here by the spring of 1892. Julia Frey, in her excellent biography of Lautrec, gives some background and detail on the novel and the artist’s approach to it: Lautrec’s “use of large grey areas created by spattering black ink on white paper produced a monochromatic effect which was probably intended to highlight the historical character of the serial, based on a true event, the Calas affair, made famous in the eighteenth century by Voltaire. In it, a father was tortured to death for not confessing to his son’s murder—in fact, a suicide. The notoriety of the case was based on the anti-Protestant bias of the trial, which condemned the father by arguing that he had murdered his son to prevent him from converting to Catholicism” (p. 301). Seeing the poster the way it was intended solves a mystery: Le Pendu is listed everywhere as one of the 30 posters by Lautrec, and yet without this context, it has seemed to most observers to simply be one of his many prints.
“The Montmartre chansonnier turned restaurateur, Aristide Bruant, was a strong, imposing personality, and in the several posters of him Toulouse-Lautrec conveys this by letting him dominate the picture completely, with virtually nothing else to distract our attention, and with Bruant’s characteristic red scarf, hat, and walking stick adding impact to the image… This design was seen by Bruant as a masterpiece, but the manager of the Ambassadeurs rejected it as too brutally frank and unflattering; the only way the performer could get it accepted was by warning the manager that he would not appear on stage unless there was a copy on either side of the proscenium, and unless the whole of Paris was plastered with further copies” (Wine Spectator, 46). The same image would be recycled by Lautrec two years later when Bruant appeared at the Eldorado (see PAI-LXII, 570).
Confetti has been with us since the Middle Ages, for weddings, triumphs, and seasonal red-letter days. But in the 19th century, “confetti” took the form of plaster lozenges. They made a mess. They hurt people. J. & E. Bella paper manufacturers of London had a better way: flecks of paper that were as pretty as they were harmless. The J. & E. Bella Co. commissioned this poster from Lautrec, then featured it as the catalog cover for one of the poster exhibitions the company hosted at the London Aquarium. “Confetti epitomizes Lautrec’s conceptual simplicity; broad masses are effectively defined with utmost economy of means. His deftly inflected lines emerge more calligraphically by virtue of the light-colored image, with its broad sweep of billowing, off-white dress. In this poster Lautrec’s dematerialization of form borders on abstraction” (Wagner, p. 25-26). The result: Toulouse-Lautrec’s delightful, gladdening design popularized the new form of confetti, literally transforming the way the world celebrates.
A ghostly woman descends from a castle into the dark woods, followed by a ragged dog, in “Le Tocsin” (“The Alarm”), a Gothic romance by Jules de Gastyne, which was serialized in the Toulouse-based newspaper La Dépêche.
Summer, 1895. Lautrec and fellow artist Maurice Guibert are on board the steamer Le Chili, en route along the Atlantic coast from Le Havre to Bordeaux. Lautrec cannot keep his eyes off the young woman berthed in cabin No. 54. She’s meeting her husband in Senegal. Lautrec, suddenly obsessed, ignoring pleas from Guibert, refuses to get off the boat at Bordeaux. Finally, he is persuaded off the boat at Lisbon. But not before he’s captured a photograph of the unknown woman, which he turned into a lithograph of the exact same pose, “exquisite both in its execution and in the remoteness of the subject’s personality” (Wagner, p. 31): ideal for the Salon des Cent, with its running themes of meditation, admiration, and preoccupation.
This poster was created to advertise Willette’s magazine, La Vache Enragée, which lasted for only a single year. Wittrock, who rates the rarity of this state as “uncommon,” also indicates that “the image in the poster was drawn by Toulouse-Lautrec in imitation of the style of A. Willette” (p. 808). This is one of the few Lautrec posters with movement: the runaway cow is the centerpiece of a remarkable caricature depicting sheer panic in some, curious complacency in others—an obvious reflection of the world that swirled around the artist. Julia Frey explains in her wonderful biography of the artist, “Henry shows a vachalcade, the cavalcade of starving, angry artists for whom the magazine was spokesman, attacking Senator Béranger, whose morals squad was trying to censor them” (Frey, p. 421-22).
Night. The downtrodden trudge with their belongings down the empty avenue. Their backs are bent, the cart is freighted, the horse strains at the load. It’s a completely counterintuitive—and brilliant—way to advertise the new Socialist periodical L’Aube (“The Dawn”), which appeared on the racks of the bouquinistes in May, 1896. Lautrec designed the scene in turquoise, using his spatter technique to suggest the grainy quality of the day’s first early, uncertain light. Ebria Feinblatt points out that “the robust female pushing the cart illustrates Lautrec’s mastery of movement, here almost geometrized in her shape” (Wagner, p. 29).
In-gallery viewing February 7-22 (daily 11am-6pm)