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.
“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 most probably the rarest of all Lautrec posters. 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.
Provenance: The Gregory Peck Collection
“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.
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).
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 work 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).
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).