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.
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 is the rarest state of his design: one of 50 impressions, before letters, hand-signed, and with the red monogram stamp.
This is a unique variant: the only known copy which, instead of the solid red dress, uses brush strokes of red and has the title May Belfort at bottom. As Feinblatt correctly indicates, “A rare early state of the poster reproduces the strokes on May’s dress, which were brilliantly converted into opaque vermillion in the later states” (Wagner, p. 27). “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).
Lautrec’s friend André Marty was a publisher and dealer in graphic arts, and also the founder of a chain of interior decorating shops that he called “L’Artisan Moderne.” As a favor, the artist helped him to publicize that venture by designing this charming poster showing “a craftsman, the medalist Henri Nocq, taking instructions from his very charming lady client” (Adriani, p. 99). This is the rare proof before letters.
“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 following lot).
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 the rarest of the versions, from an edition of only 25 copies, hand-signed by the artist, and including a small snake remarque in the lower left. 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).
This is the sixth image in Lautrec’s famed “Elles” series. Once again, we are inside one of the rooms of the maisons closes, intimately observing a woman from behind as she stares deeply at her own reflection in a hand-held mirror. This is one of 100 impressions (No. 13) with the stamp of Pellet.
The subject is a book exposing the decadence of Berlin society, written by Lautrec’s friend Victor Joze. His poster “focuses the spectator’s attention on the hindquarters of four horses, the largest of which [is] also being closely observed by a caricature of the Kaiser standing in a guardbox. The implications of this, along with the book’s title, provoked a protest from the German ambassador to France and nearly caused an international incident. Joze, too, wrote Lautrec asking for him to withdraw the poster, as he felt the depiction of a German officer, together with the anti-German tone of the book, would not be tolerated by the police and could get him in trouble. Lautrec, however, refused to stop distribution of the poster, and as he had paid for it [himself], the publisher was not able to stop the distribution. [Thereafter], according to art dealer Edmond Sagot, the value of [Lautrec’s] work quadrupled” (Frey, p. 398). This is the rare proof before letters.
Provenance: The Collection of Mr. & Mrs. Edward M.M. Warburg, New York. Exhibited: Fogg Museum, Harvard Museum of Art, 1961; Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center, 1965.
The few known self-portraits by Lautrec run the gamut from wry and witty to somber and insightful. This small drawing straddles that line, presenting a soft but merry side of the artist rarely appearing in his other works.