In celebration of the 150th anniversary of the French artist, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest presents The World of Toulouse-Lautrec until August 25, 2014. The retrospective will exhibit a selection of lithographs from its vast collection alongside These Ladies in the Refectory, a painting owned by the Museum of Fine Arts.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born in 1864 into one of the oldest aristocratic families in France. Though he suffered from a rare genetic disorder, his talent for drawing came at an early age, and he was given the opportunity to study under the French painter, Fernand Cormon.
The aristocratic artist, Toulouse-Lautrec, was notorious for his drinking and scandalous lifestyle that became inseparable from his legendary life. His career lasted just over a decade and coincided with two key developments in late 19th century Paris; the inception of modern printmaking, and Paris’s nightlife and bohemian culture.
In 1884, Toulouse-Lautrec moved to Montmartre. Perched atop a hill in the north side of Paris’s city center, while initially a rural village, by the second half of the 19th century, it became an extension of Paris. Among its narrow streets and rusted windmills, it was known for its “revolutionary politics and underground culture.” It lured artists such as the young avant-garde Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.
The now-bustling hamlet became his home and the main inspiration for his artwork. The French artist attended the theater not to listen to the performance, but to take note of the actors’ features, sculpted by make-up, from perspectives that best exposed them under stage lighting. He endorsed the theater’s entertainers as celebrities and promoted the popular medium of the advertising lithographs to “the realm of high art.” The dance hall performers and prostitutes in his paintings are humanistic and personal, divulging the wit and sadness hidden under the gaslights.
Unlike most artists of that period, Lautrec was not looking for acknowledgement. Instead, he felt it was important that his work should be accessible to as many people as possible, and he was, therefore, thrilled when they were printed in newspapers. Moreover, the public appreciated the splendor and the color-effects in his posters.
Lautrec gained sincere recognition in 1891, when he designed his first color poster for the Moulin Rouge. The Paris music hall had recently opened and was exceedingly popular. The poster, commissioned by the Moulin Rouge director was “deliberately brutal and simplified,” and was an immediate sensation. The newspaper, L’éclair Journal Politique Independent, wrote that Lautrec’s work had a “new pictorial flair” with personal, spicy colors and dry humor with a speck of cunning that showed through in his work.
From that time on, Lautrec passionately made lithographs, creating approximately 360 pieces, of which 30 were advertising posters. For Lautrec, his paintings and lithographs were on the same level of importance. At his exhibitions, he usually displayed his paintings alongside his posters and lithographs to convey to his viewers that the works all had the same status.
In The World of Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition, artwork is organized by thematic sections. For example, one group presents the characteristic figures and performers of the Parisian nights, calling to mind the dance halls and cabarets, music cafes as well as stars like French can-can dancer, Jane Avril, French cabaret singers Yvette Guilbert and Aristide Bruant.
Lautrec’s oil painting entitled These Ladies of the Refectory (1893-94) is the core of the Brothel section in addition to an 1896 lithograph series that portrays brothels with curiously compassionate titles such as the 1896 lithograph, Elles (Girls).
The French artist immersed himself in the realm of brothels, dance halls and cafes to create unforgettable images of its residents, presenting an insider’s view of Paris. In his lithographs, various castes circulated and pageantry had a place both “on and off the stage.” He fostered a distinct graphic style illustrated in brilliant color and expressive lines. Though Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec died young at age 36, he characterized the image of fin-de-siècle Paris for generations.
By: Dawn Levesque
Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest
The Metropolitan Museum of Art