All About Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

The Belle Époque era (1871-1914) was an age of artistic renaissance. As train travel and industrial growth created new jobs and a fast way to reach them, cities like Paris became the most crowded they had been in modern times. Artists flocked to the metropolis during this era, making it very much the center of the art world. With this exciting growth came real logistical struggles; and the narrow alleyways of Paris needed to expand.

By 1870, Paris boasted wide boulevards and grand monumental buildings. Surreptitiously, while Paris was being rebuilt great advances were also being made in the field of printmaking. Jules Cheret discovered a faster and more efficient way of printing multi-colored posters, and modern advertising changed forever.

The artists of the Belle Époque could now, quite literally, take their artwork to the streets. Two of the most important poster artists of this era are the innovative printmaker, Jules Cheret and the groundbreaking artists, Henri de Toulouse Lautrec. Here we focus on Lautrec, please click here to read all about Cheret.

Henri de Toulouse Lautrec (1864-1901), had a short life in which he created an extensive amount of groundbreaking art in form of paintings, drawings, and prints. Born into an aristocratic family, Lautrec had a series of birth defects as a result of genetic inbreeding. Stunted in height (he was under 5 feet tall) and emotionally damaged from a sterile childhood, Lautrec lived a life in the shadows.  His bohemian lifestyle in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris inspired Lautrec to highlight the darker underbelly of Parisian society. This alternative lifestyle manifested itself directly in Lautrec’s art – broad flat planes of color were drawn from his time in opium dens filled with Asian woodblock prints, strong shadows came from his nightly visit to the Moulin Rouge (where he had a reserved seat) with its warm gas lighting, and his fervent use of line stemmed from the joie de vivre that flowed out of the cabaret and can-can moves of the Parisian stage performers.

The inherently lonely Lautrec surrounded himself with bright young things, actresses and prostitutes whose hunger to live in a modern world filled him with joy. It is no coincidence that many of them, when needing a poster designed to promote their next show, chose Lautrec as their artist. One such performer was May Milton. Milton appeared frequently at the Moulin Rouge, both in a group as well as a soloist. While many reports describe her as relatively untalented, she did work frequently. Lautrec has depicted her here in this 1895 poster as she very much was in real life, with a strong chin and blue eyes.

The use of the plain paper to create the color of her dress, against a vivid blue background forces the viewer to look only at the performer and her name above. In just a few strokes, Lautrec has captured his subject in a way that no one can look away. You’ll notice the venue Milton is performing at is not even mentioned.

This simplicity of form was groundbreaking during its time, and when on to lay the groundwork for what would later become cubism. In fact, this very May Milton poster is featured in Picasso’s 1901 painting, The Blue Room.

We are honored to have in the Gallery at the moment a very special version of this poster. It is hand signed in blue pencil by Lautrec as number 8/25. It also has Lautrec’s printed Remarque image of his beloved Banjo Player. To further add to its value, it is in superb condition with fresh colors and no damages. The poster measures 24.75” x 31.375”, it is conservation mounted to linen.

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