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.
Both Lautrec’s first poster as well as his first lithograph, the Moulin Rouge design marked not only a new direction for the artist, but for art and advertising in general. It is a masterpiece in every respect of the word, magnificently capturing the essence of two popular performers at the music hall: the dancer La Goulue and her partner Valentin le Désossé. By leaving the paper blank, Lautrec captures at dead center the heart and soul of the cancan: the rush and swirl of layer upon layer of lacy petticoats, erotically calling to the viewer. In a letter to his mother, Lautrec writes: “I am still waiting for my poster to come out—there is some delay in the printing. But it has been fun to do. I had a feeling of authority over the whole studio, a new feeling for me” (Lautrec by Lautrec, p. 90). This is the two-sheet version of the poster, without the top text banner. It should be noted that this is the way that it was sold in the 1890s. With the missing banner, it would have been too large for the print galleries and print collectors who began the collecting craze of the era. And how prized was this image at the time? Arnould, in his 1896 catalogue, sold it for the highest price of any French poster: 25 francs, which was 10 times the price of the Elles poster and five times the price of La Revue Blanche. It was rare then—and it’s rarer still today!
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 cabarets in the heyday” (Schardt, p. 176). This is a two-sheet poster.
Victor Joze, a Polish writer of cheap erotic novels and a friend of Lautrec, in 1892 published “Reine de Joie/Moeurs du Demi-Monde” (Queen of Joy, or, The World of Easy Virtue). It was a perfect subject for Lautrec. The episode shown is one in which the heroine of the novel, Hélène Roland, kisses the corpulent Olizac on the nose at dinner. At the insistence of Baron Rothschild—who believed the main character in the novel, a Baron Rosenfeld, to be modeled on himself—attempts were made to suppress the entire edition. This did not, however, prevent the publishers of Fin de Siècle from riding on the publicity of such a scandal and selling parts of the story. As Ebria Feinblatt notes: “The poster is one of the most piquant and popular that the artist produced… Aside from the acutely realistic characterizations, the impact of the composition lies in the skillful use of pure color to model the forms, which assume an abstract quality” (Wagner, p. 19).
“Universally considered his most brilliant and successful design” (Wagner, p. 22), Toulouse-Lautrec shows “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 the rare first state of the design before letters. The 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 and curious complacency in others—an obvious reflection of the world that swirled around the artist.
Parisian actress Marcelle Lender had been appearing in a series of comic operas, principally at the Théâtre des Variétés, since 1889. Utterly enamored with the performer, Lautrec did many drawings of her in a variety of her roles. Here, she is depicted in Chilpéric, an operetta-revue that was revived in 1895. “The main attraction in Chilpéric was the bolero, danced by Marcelle Lender as the Galaswintha at the court of King Chilpéric. It was not so much the flimsy plot of this medieval farce as the actress… who led Lautrec to sit through the operetta nearly twenty times. Always watching from the same angle, from one of the first tiers on the left, he would lie in wait with his sketch pad” (Adriani, p. 157). Lautrec’s attentions were well repaid. His half-length portrait of Lender in her fantastic Spanish costume, bowing to the audience applause, is considered a lithographic masterpiece. “No other lithograph is printed with such a wealth of subtle color combinations, and none embodies, as this does, the opulent decoration of an age moving towards its close” (Adriani, p. 161). This is the Pan edition, in extremely mint condition.
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).
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