Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) 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.
Despite the fairly discouraging reactions to his first artistic attempt at publicizing Aristide Bruant, Lautrec also designed this poster, at Bruant’s request, for his appearances at the Eldorado on the Boulevard de Strasbourg. He used new stones for the drawing, with the same dimensions and the same color arrangement as the design for his Ambassadeurs poster two years prior, but reversed. Strategically, this was a brilliant move, as the Ambassadeurs poster was already well known to the public. However, the management of the Eldorado was hardly more amenable, as we see from a letter by Lautrec which may refer to the Eldorado poster: “Bruant, my good friend. Enclosed the states as requested. As far as the poster ex condition is concerned, there are no good impressions left. The Eldorado management was very mean, haggling over the price and giving me less than the printing costs at Chaix. So I have worked at cost price. I am sorry they misused our good relations to exploit me. It remains to be hoped we will be more careful next time” (Adriani, p. 23). That said, once the poster was printed and hung it became “one of the undisputed masterpieces which adorned the billboards of Paris. Such an impressive combination of form and color, of picture and lettering, has probably never been achieved since. Just as the red scarf and the wide-brimmed hat were Bruant’s trademark, so too this poster epitomize[d] Montmartre and its cabaret in the heyday” (Schardt, p. 176). This is a two-sheet poster.
“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.
Pictured at the Divan Japonais café concert, Jane Avril “appears to be almost smiling, as if the whole thing were an inside joke. Jane is accompanied—or, more likely, being accosted—by noted critic Edouard Dujardin, no doubt with amorous intentions, but Avril’s faintly bemused expression indicates that she is used to this, and will be able to handle him without any trouble. Note that the performer—although it is a great celebrity, the famous Yvette Guilbert—is not the focus of the poster, and Toulouse-Lautrec makes sure of it not only by placing her somewhat indistinctly in the poorly-lit background, but even by going to the length of deliberately cutting her head off… Toulouse-Lautrec has made good use of spatter, a technique which adds another dimension to poster art: here, for example, it effectively separates the solid black of Jane’s dress from the less important dark mass of the bar and the orchestra” (Wine Spectator, 42).
“Henry, the frustrated athlete, was compulsively familiar with the vocabulary and technical aspects of a variety of sports in which he could participate as a spectator: horse and bicycle racing, wrestling, navigation and yachting, bullfighting. He watched them all with the same intensity that he watched a line of dancers or a circus bareback rider, attracted by the beauty of the movement, but also by the smells, sounds and excitement of the spectacle” (Frey, p. 353). His deep knowledge of the cycling field shows up abundantly in this poster for the French agent of the Simpson bicycle chain company. In the foreground is the champion cyclist Constant Huret; in the background are Tristan Bernard, the sports impresario who was a close friend of Lautrec’s, with Louis Bougle, the French agent who adopted the name “Spoke.” A touch of levity is added by what seems to be a “bicycle-built-for-ten” in the upper left corner; in fact, it’s two five-seaters, known at the time as “quints.” This is the finest specimen we’ve ever seen!
“A friend of Paul Bernard (later known as Tristan), who was then director of the Buffalo (Neuilly) and Seine (Levallois) velodromes, [Toulouse-Lautrec] would install his squat frame in the infield, from where he would miss nothing of the cycling spectacle. Louis Bouglé, known as Spoke, commissioned a poster to launch the Simpson chain—the reverse of the almost omnipresent system with teeth meshing into holes in the chain set. This remarkable first draft—200 copies of which were apparently printed unlettered—represented the diminutive Welsh prodigy Jimmy Michael slipstreaming during a training session, a toothpick clenched between his teeth, as was common practice at the time to help with swallowing and breathing during exertion. But Spoke turned the design down, on the ground that Lautrec didn’t know how to draw a bicycle!” (Handlebars/Joystick, p. 50). Feinblatt points out that “a great number of these were destroyed by fire,” making it one of his rarest posters today (Wagner, p. 30).
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.
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.