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How Toulouse-Lautrec Immortalized The Stars of Paris

  • Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec - Poster for La Chaine Simpson
March 30, 2019
Balasz Takac is alias of Vladimir Bjelicic who is actively engaged in art criticism, curatorial and artistic practice.

During the course of the 19th century, Paris became the hub for artists, wanderers, and misfits. It was a city which offered a voluptuous leisure time saturated with dance, absinthe, and sex. As the century was about to end, one man came to full prominence for portraying its bohemia and decadence – Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

The posters, prints, and paintings of this astonishing artist captured forever the gestures and faces of various performers, dancers, and actors of Montmartre, the heart of the city’s fussy nightlife. Thanks to Toulouse-Lautrec, some of them entered art history, such as the iconic dancer Loïe Fuller, meaning that the artist promoted not only himself but the entire city in all of its glory.

Showing the artist’s pioneering role in graphic design and celebrity culture is an outstanding exhibition called Toulouse-Lautrec and the Stars of Paris, held at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Left Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec - Englishman at Moulin Rouge Right Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec - May Milton
Left: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec – The Englishman at the Moulin Rouge, 1892. Lithograph. Bequest of W. G. Russell Allen. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston / Right: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec – May Milton, 1895. Gift of Lee M. Friedman. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Exhibition Concept

Although this particular exhibition is definitely focused on the work of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, one of the most prominent Parisian bon vivans of the late 19th century, it also narrates the broader social and cultural shifts happening at the turn of the century. The French capital practically set the foundation of the popular culture by promoting various artists and entertainers as celebrities.

Alongside the iconic prints, the exhibition will feature Toulouse-Lautrec’s rarely seen early drawings and paintings, works by his contemporaries such as Mary Cassatt, Pierre Bonnard, Edgar Degas, etc., as well as recently restored films, music, instruments, and fashion garments.

The poster Moulin Rouge: La Goulue from 1891, commissioned by the glorious dance hall Le Moulin Rouge, will open the exhibition; this work was crucial for the artist since it set a new standard for poster design by engaging different approaches popular at the time, such as shadow theater and the Japanese woodblock prints. Alongside it, on display will be Eldorado: Aristide Bruant in his Cabaret from 1892, the first poster to include the self-designed monogram, or in contemporary terms, a logo: HTL, for Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Left Henri de Toulouse Lautrec - Divan Japonais Right Henri de Toulouse - Lautrec - Jane Avril
Left: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec – Divan Japonais, 1893. Lithograph. Lee M. Friedman Fund. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston/ Right: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec – Jane Avril, 1893. Lithograph. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1932. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

The Five Sections

The rest of the exhibition will be presented in chronological order in following thematic sectionsA Creative Life, Paris by Day and Night, Behind the Scenes, The Show and The Stars.

The first section called A Creative Life will introduce the audience the artistic development of Toulouse-Lautrec, and his outstanding ability to record an impression with only a few quick moves on paper. Some of his early studies were focused on horses and people, subjects that fascinated him throughout his entire life. In 1882, the artist arrived in Paris and started his training with academic painters; during that time he was fascinated with the work of Edgar Degas, so his work Racehorses at Longchamp from 1871 will be on view. Early Toulouse-Lautrec paintings, two of them being At the Café La Mie (about 1891) and The Hangover (Suzanne Valadon) (1887–89) will be shown for the first time together. This section will underline the artist’s experimentation with lithography, a medium he frequently used; therefore, a lithographic stone used by the artist will be on display alongside two of the prints that it produced.

The second segment titled Paris by Day and Night will feature the city’s changing landscape during the artist’s lifetime. The paintings of modern life by Mary Cassatt, Pierre Bonnard, Robert Henri, and James Jacques Joseph Tissot, as well as prints by Edgar Degas, Maxime Lalanne, Auguste Lepère, Henri Rivière and Jacques Villon will be displayed along with Toulouse-Lautrec’s advertising posters promotinh a variety of popular products, services and venues.

Behind the Scenes highlights the Elles portfolio from 1896 made while the artist was living in a Parisian brothel, so it features images of sex workers and courtesans.

The section Show will focus entirely on the Parisian nightlife. Toulouse-Lautrec’s depictions of Caudieux, the human cannonball, and May Belfort, an Irish songstress known for her signature baby-doll costume and black cat, will be accompanied by the works Rehearsal of the Pasdeloup Orchestra at the Cirque d’Hiver by John Singer Sargent made around 1879–80 and Stuffed Shirts (Les Plastrons) by Pablo Picasso from 1900 will be on display.

The exhibition will end with the section called The Stars, entirely devoted to six Montmartre celebrities – actor, painter, and sculptor Sarah Bernhardt, cabaret star Yvette Guilbert, Moulin Rouge dancer Jane Avril, nightclub owner and performer Aristide Bruant, opera performer Marcelle Lender, and dancer Loïe Fuller; all of them became famous through the works of Toulouse-Lautrec. This section features popular works by Toulouse-Lautrec such as Le Divan Japonais (1893, MFA), which depicts Yvette Guilbert on stage and Jane Avril as a spectator.

Six rare prints of Loïe Fuller, hand-colored film by the Lumière Brothers featuring the Serpentine Dance (a choreography invented by Fuller); a reconstruction of a shadow theater honoring the 1900 World’s Fair; a kaleidoscopic card that creates illusions of movement and changing colors; two postcards that can be illuminated by visitors; and a case of chic Parisian accessories will be on view as well.

Pablo Picasso - Stuffed Shirts
Pablo Picasso – Stuffed Shirts (Les Plastrons), 1900. Oil on panel. Gift of Mrs. Charles Sumner Bird (Julia Appleton Bird) © 2011 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Toulouse-Lautrec and the Stars of Paris at MFA Boston

The exhibition is curated by Helen Burnham (Pamela and Peter Voss Curator of Prints and Drawings), who aimed to show the atmosphere of fin de siècle by focusing on the significance of nightlife spectacles, new forms of socialization as a novelty which inspired primarily Toulouse-Lautrec, but other artists as well. Burnham stated:

The exhibition addresses the roots of a major aspect of public life today: celebrity culture and the power of images. It also offers a remarkable opportunity to experience the depth and quality of Boston’s holdings of works by Toulouse-Lautrec. Few cities could mount a show of this nature without numerous outside loans. We have been able to put together a focused perspective on a critical aspect of an innovative artist’s career by combining two great collections and inviting the participation of a handful of important nearby supporters.

Here is important to mention that the museum’s conservation team undertook the preparation and framing of pieces loaned from the Boston Public Library’s collection. The exhibition will be accompanied by an array of public programming.

Toulouse-Lautrec and the Stars of Paris will be on display at MFA Boston from 7 April until 4 August 2019.

  Editors’ Tip: Toulouse-Lautrec and the Stars of Paris

Lavishly illustrated with high-quality, full-color reproductions of Lautrec’s iconic images alongside some of his rarely seen sketches, and illuminated by insightful essays, this volume shines a spotlight on the stars of the Paris stage, the birth of modern celebrity culture and the brilliance of the artist who gave them enduring life.

Featured images: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec – Poster for “La Châine Simpson” Bicycle Chains, 1896. Lithograph. Anonymous gift in memory of John G. Pierce, Sr. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Pablo Picasso – Stuffed Shirts (Les Plastrons), 1900. Oil on panel. Gift of Mrs. Charles Sumner Bird (Julia Appleton Bird) © 2011 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.