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.
This is the deluxe French edition, numbered 63 of 100 impressions, and with the artist’s red monogram stamp. 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). Rare!
“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).
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 following lot). 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.
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 Reine de Joie of the title is Alice Lamy, the central character in a book which at 180 pages is little more than a novella, and tells a picaresque tale of a pretty Parisienne who, when jilted by her lover, Charles, embarks on a career as a courtesan. She “finally hits the jackpot” when she’s “introduced to the super-rich Baron Rozenfeld… Alice enters into a purely mercenary arrangement with the Baron whereby he will pay her a huge monthly retainer and provide her with a fabulous mansion… in exchange for her services as his mistress. The denouement comes at a dinner when Alice unrolls her napkin to discover the title deeds to the property, whereupon she kisses him, sealing their bargain” (Sweetman, p. 306-308). 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 extremely rare one-color proof; Wittrock notes there are only two other known copies. “By 1893 if there were any doubts that there was a printmaking renaissance and that lithography dominated this general print revival, those doubts were quieted forever by a new publication entitled L’Estampe Originale… From March 1893 to early 1895, in collaboration with [critic] Roger Marx, [André] Marty published a series of quarterly albums of ten prints each (except for the last which contained fourteen prints) in the media of etching, drypoint, mezzotint, woodcut, wood engraving, gypsography, and lithography. In all, the publication encompassed ninety-five prints by seventy-four artists representing the young avant-garde such as Lautrec and the Nabis, as well as their established mentors including Gauguin, Puvis de Chavannes, Redon, Chéret, Whistler, Bracquemond, and Lepère. L’Estampe Originale offers a remarkable cross-section of the most advanced aesthetic attitudes in Fin-de-Siècle French art” (Color Revolution, p. 22). Marty felt that Lautrec “deserved ‘a place of honour in the golden book of the modern print’… [and he] accorded Henri exactly that place, using him as the artist for the cover of the first issue” (Frey, p. 323). Lautrec shows us his favorite model, Jane Avril, at his favorite lithographic workshop, Ancourt, studying a proof pulled by Père Cotelle, the experienced printer at the Bisset press behind her.
The relationship between legendary performer, Yvette Guilbert, and Toulouse-Lautrec was certainly tumultuous. He was attracted to her and sketched her repeatedly for several years, portraying her, as Frey mentions, “always as ugly and generally without her permission” (p. 311). However, Guilbert eventually realized that Lautrec was helping to advance her career and they became friends. But the irritation between the two never faded, particularly in the manner in which they mocked one another. Frey recounts Guilbert’s anecdote of this ceramic design: “One day he admired a large turquoise tile table of mine and I expressed the wish to have a tile from him to make a little tea table. He did not answer but later brought me a caricature of myself to sign. I wrote: ‘Mais petit-monstre, vous avez fait une horreur!! Yvette Guilbert.’ (But little monster, you have made me horrible!) Soon after this incident a tile made from that sketch with my criticism and my signature arrived” (p. 311). Lautrec took the sketch to the potter, Emile Muller, in Ivry, and it was copied onto a ceramic tile; ten copies were made, the glazing on each quite different. What to make of this? Julia Frey, as always, provides a perceptive analysis: “The design is similar to the rejected sketch for the 1893 poster and may be interpreted as a joke to tease Guilbert for her anger. His decision to place a comment so insulting to himself on a work which in reproduction was almost certain to be seen by people who were not in on the joke seems complex. In a way, this is another negative self-image, a joke on himself to ward off the unkind jokes of others” (p. 312). Only four copies are known to exist outside of museums, with this being one of the finest specimens.
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.
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