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.
at Rennert's Gallery: 26 W. 17th St., NYC
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!
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).
This is the very first limited edition print by Lautrec, one of 100 signed and numbered copies, with Ancourt’s stamp. It was published “by the art-dealers Boussod, Valadon et Cie., where Lautrec’s old friend and later biographer, Maurice Joyant, was manager. The print was offered for sale in October 1892 for 20 francs… As early as July the artist claimed to be so far highly satisfied with the results of his experiments in the field of colour lithography: ‘My little efforts have turned out perfectly and I’ve caught onto something which can lead me quite far—so I hope” (Adriani, p. 28). Shown entering the Moulin Rouge is La Goulue (Louise Weber, 1870-1929), and as opposed to her audacious cancan in the prior year’s Moulin Rouge poster, she is demurely entering the music hall with her trademark chignon piled high on top of her head. Much as he did with Aristide Bruant, Lautrec shows us La Goulue from behind and the effect in both cases is to strengthen the position and personality of the performer—so well-known, so self-assured that they can show us their backs and get away with it. It’s a rare and exquisite print.
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.
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. 457). 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 hand-signed and numbered 6 from an edition of 25 copies, and extremely rare!
This limited edition print includes Lautrec’s cat remarque, and is one of 25 copies. “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. According to Wittrock, this is the “extremely rare” version: number 6 of 25 hand-signed and numbered copies with the cat remarque.
This is one of ten images included in Lautrec’s “Elles” suite, which were created from his observations of women at the maisons closes from 1892-1895, and issued in an edition of 100 numbered copies. “Attentively he noted their monotonous routine at the wash-stand, ‘in the humble pose of bodily hygiene,’ as Huysmans called it… Lautrec showed the prostitute marked by the meaninglessness of her acts—gone are the poses of the desirable temptress—and he gave back to his Olympias and Nanas their humanity, as he showed them in their daily routine… Yet Lautrec does not take a moral stand. His sense of decency lies hidden in the graphic detail, in the beauty and reserve of the colour in these sheets” (Adriani, p. 222). This print is numbered 34/100 and includes the paraph of Peletier, deckled edges, and Lautrec’s stamp at lower left.
A well-loved cabaret personality in Montmartre, Caudieux was a large, floppy ball of a man, shown here with coattails billowing behind him as he exits, stage right. As the actor purses his lips in self-satisfaction after what we can imagine to be a fine performance, a hollow-cheeked audience member gawks curiously up from the orchestra pit. Feinblatt calls this “a study in dynamic motion and concentrated energy… and his bustling sweep across the boards is an unparalleled rendering of movement among Lautrec’s posters” (Wagner, p. 20).
This 1899 lithograph of Jane Avril, one of the landmark works of the Art Nouveau period, is the second-to-last poster Toulouse-Lautrec would ever design. It was a fitting, poetic coda for the artist. Avril and Lautrec’s friendship blossomed with their careers. Beautiful but shy, elegant but melancholic, Avril was the opposite of La Goulue, her boisterous rival at the Moulin Rouge. But with several superb early posters, Lautrec elevated her fame such that Avril replaced La Goulue as the star of the show in 1895. In the early months of 1899, Toulouse-Lautrec had a nervous breakdown and was confined to a sanatorium. Out of friendship, Avril commissioned this work from him. Working from a photograph as an aide-mémoire, Lautrec “distilled the very essence of Avril, where the serpentine nature of her dancing is emphasized by her swaying body… and the wrap-around snake motif” (National Gallery of Australia). “She liked the poster very much, but her impresario refused it, and it was never shown” (Abdy, p. 80-81). For this poster, Lautrec used an innovative process which required only three printings for the four colors used (Adriani, p. 411).