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 spring’s auction offers a delightful array of his best-loved lithographs and rare prints.
“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).
“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 most probably the rarest of all Lautrec posters: Adriani cites only one other known impression of this second state (exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art’s Lautrec show, 1985, cat. #269). In this poster made for her appearance at the Petit Casino, the singer is “framed by long black curls under an enormous cap, her hands hiding most of a yellow-eyed kitten. Lautrec presents her on a diagonal plane, her brilliant orange-red dress slanting to the left, her shoulder brought forward in the picture plane to place her in a frontal position. The flat sweep of her gown below the frilled, green-splattered sleeves is, taken by itself, merely a red sail or banner” (Wagner, p. 27). In this version, the most obvious difference other than the addition of the “Petit Casino” type is the substitution of red streaks for the usually seen solid dress.
“In Paris from the autumn of 1899 to the summer of 1900, [Lautrec] seemed to live his former existence, making paintings and prints and maintaining contact with friends… In some ways he seemed more willing to live conventionally than he had before. He returned to his childhood interest in horses and the race track, having driven himself regularly to Chantilly, the Bois and Longchamps to watch horses. The works he did now maintained the fine-lined, almost drawing-like quality of his painting” (Frey, p. 480). Though “The Jockey” and three other lithographs were created with the intention of publishing a portfolio of horse racing subjects for the print dealer Pierrefort, this was the only one of the four ever realized as a print. But it’s one of his finest, conveying the raw energy and speed present on the track. You can almost feel the weight of the hooves as they hit the turf and hear the breath of the animal as it gallops by on this overcast, cold morning. This is one of 112 impressions.
This is one of 100 impressions from the Elles suite. Another scholarly interpretation of the Elles suite is that, rather than simply a collection of brothel motifs, it portrays the domestic life of a lesbian couple, one half of which was the clowness of the Moulin Rouge, Cha-U-Kao. Such a reading gathers likelihood in the knowledge that the publisher, Pellet, favored risqué themes. Here, a voluptuous woman, possibly the aging clowness, undoes her corset while a prospective client looks on—some historians speculate that this is her lover in drag.
This is the complete first edition of 1898, consisting of nine drawings (stones he sent from Paris to the London publisher), plus the cover. Adriani notes that unlike the 1894 Album of Yvette, “what distinguishes this series… is the close-up view adopted by Lautrec, which concentrates on the face, taking far less notice of the general scene; indeed, the singer is hardly ever shown full-length. Unlike his earlier use of the graphic medium, with its bravura delight in delicately sprayed detail, here the artists relies on the interplay of the sweeping chalk strokes and broad shading to convey deep psychological penetration” (p. 306).
“This colour lithograph was used in its third state as cover for the Catalogue d’Affiches Artistiques, published in June 1896 by A. Arnould. The model for the debaucher was Lautrec’s painter-friend Maxime Dethomas (1868-1928)” (Adriani, p. 249). Wittrock says this is one of only four known proofs.
In-gallery viewing February 24-March 25 (11am-6pm daily)