How Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec captured the “underworld” of bohemian Paris

Labelled as one of the pioneers of graphic design, the French creative known best for his posters for the Moulin Rouge Cabaret will be at the centre of the Victoria Art Gallery’s latest exhibition.

The hillside neighbourhood of Montmartre was the gathering place for some of the 19th century’s greatest creatives. Located just outside of the then-Paris city limits, the area boasted no city taxes, and plenty of wine made by the nuns of Le Sacré Coeur.

The district, which gave inspiration to the likes of Vincent Van Gogh, Emile Zola, Edgar Degas and Pierre-Auguste Renoir, was at the centre of the bohemian lifestyle trend. Characterised by a love of arts, sexual freedom and a pursuit of pleasure, the movement birthed an entertainment scene spearheaded by iconic clubs like the Moulin Rouge.

A new exhibition at the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath looks to explore this culture, using the work of the clubs’ famed poster makers to tell the narrative of Paris’ “underworld”. At the centre of the showcase, is the work of illustrator, painter and “pioneering graphic designer” Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Jane Avril at the Jardin de Paris, 1893

Toulouse-Lautrec moved in “celebrity circles” when he moved to Montmartre in the 1880s. Influenced by the flamboyancy and debauchery of the world around him, his poster work was appropriately provocative and decadent.

“He was at the forefront of the late 19th century move to employ cutting edge artists to market events and products,” says Victoria Art Gallery manager and exhibition curator Jon Benington. “The streets of Paris provided the ‘blank canvas’… thanks to a relaxation in French publishing laws at the time.”

Reine de Joie, 1892

Toulouse-Lautrec’s signature style involved a method known as “crachis”, or “spatter”, whereby ink is spattered onto a lithographic stone.

He coupled this with a strong influence from 19th century Japanese woodblock prints, which saw him create pieces with simplified forms, flattened perspectives and bold colours.

“His outstanding gift was his draughtsmanship,” Benington says. “[He was] able to say an enormous amount with great economy of means.”

Abassadeurs Aristide Bruant, 1892

But it was his penchant for caricature which made Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters so famous. So famous indeed, that “fans ripped them from their hoardings”, according to Benington.

“He had a knack of being able to capture the most characteristic, and often quirky, features of his acquaintances, while avoiding flattery at all costs,” he says. “People on the street knew instantly what star was being featured.”

According to Benington, Toulouse-Lautrec was “drawn to irregular and inherently distinctive features”. Among his most preferred subjects was dancer and singer Jane Avril, for whom he produced several posters to promote her shows.

Jane Avril, 1899

Toulouse-Lautrec’s 1899 depiction of Avril, the last he made of the star and penultimate he designed before his death in 1901, is Benington’s favourite among the 32 posters of his on display at the exhibition.

“It is such a strong silhouette and was based on a professional photograph of the performer, demonstrating the extent to which Lautrec embraced all forms of modernity,” he says.

The poster, which was rejected by Avril in reality and not used commercially, is thought to be among the rarest works in Toulouse-Lautrec’s portfolio.

Caudieux, 1893

Toulous-Lautrec and the Masters of Montmartre runs from 15 February to 26 May 2020 at the Victoria Art Gallery in Bath, BA2 4AT. Ticket prices start from £4.95, with an additional 10% discount for those booked online.

All photos courtesy of Musée d’Ixelles-Bruxelles / Courtesy of Institut für Kulturaustausch,Tübingen

Latest articles