Arts: Toulouse-Lautrec – A Smile and a Wink…

Toulouse-Lautrec and Paris, an exhibition of prints, drawings and paintings by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and others at The Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts. (This exhibit was mounted in 2009 but is worth thinking about here.)

Utter the name Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) and you are bound to evoke smiles. The Pint-Sized Purveyor of Prints, Posters, Paintings and Pencil Sketches of Paris and its Pleasure-seeking Populace is something of a comic presence in the history of art with his lively and sometimes bawdy depictions of street life, night life, cabarets, brothels and circuses.

His life was no joke, however. Born of aristocracy, Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa was the son of married first cousins and suffered many physical maladies resulting from the inbreeding of the family. His legs ceased to grow after an accident at the age of 13 and as an adult he was only 4 feet 6 inches tall.

But with a prodigious talent and work ethic, his trademark cane, beard and bowler hat, and a flair for the telling detail – after all, isn’t that what artists do? – Toulouse-Lautrec built a world-famous and immediately identifiable body of work that was curtailed by his shortened life of 36 years at his death from alcoholism and syphilis.

In this thoroughly enjoyable exhibit at The Clark Art Institute – a place that always mounts top-drawer shows – using material taken from the Clark’s own collection of drawings, pastels and prints, one gets a peek into the life of “the quintessential chronicler of Paris, as it is understood by those who come here seeking bright lights and wild pleasures,” said one observer.

From leering old men to top-hatted aristocrats to the self-absorbed and cockamamy cabaret stars of the day, the characters are all depicted with verve and laser precision. Toulouse-Lautrec insinuated himself handily into this culture with his artistic flair, although his amusing caricature certainly offered him physical entrée into this sometimes freakish bohemian world.

HTL became a favorite artist of the owners of the famous clubs – Moulin Rouge, Le Mirliton, Moulin de la Galette, Folies Bergeres – and was frequently commissioned to do promotional lithographic posters for their shows. And while Pierre Bonnard, Edgar Degas and others are included in this exhibit their work pales next to Henri's whose draughtsman skills bubble with individuality as if to say “this is my territory”.

His forte always was that subtle gesture that only the cocky little artist/voyeur could detect. Just observe the descriptive expressions in the detail (below) from The Englishman at the Moulin Rouge, a litho from 1892. He certainly intended to send up his older British artist friend, the gray man depicted against the colorful but unsettled younger women offering a hilarious window on one creepy sexual pursuit that is as old as time.

HTL depicted actors in plays, rapt audiences, street life, couples dancing in the clubs, nighthawks out seeing and being seen, and all the other moods and mannerisms of a city not just of lights, but of life. And dynamism is everywhere in the work from his comical 8-part study of Yvette Guilbert, the most famous Paris cabaret star of the 1890s, to the bold 1899 poster (above) of performer Jane Avril in a black dress with a snake stitched on it as if squeezing her body. Awesome!

That work is very modern, breaking down the picture into a series of flat planes that represented the shift in art that was going on as Toulouse-Lautrec worked. Avril certainly must have adored the work.

Other celebrities of the day who found themselves at the tip of HTL’s pencil include Madame Rijane, Sybil Sanderson and the naughty La Goulue (“the glutton”) who took the notorious CanCan just a little further than most. She is featured as a ghostly white presence in a lithograph called At the Moulin Rouge: La Goulue and her Sister, of 1892.

HTL’s street scenes are open-air theater and while Bonnard’s street work is more encompassing landscape, Toulouse-Lautrec focuses in on just a few figures in gestures that are as evocative as the cabaret stars that he befriended in his career. In In the Bois de Boulogne, (above) he captures a scene in the famous Paris park with a few well-placed sketch marks. The contrast between the airy girl figure and her tiny pooch with the black horse and rider in the background is nicely seen and sets this print apart.

The direct process of lithography offered Toulouse-Lautrec the opportunity to transmit his draughtsman’s skills to a large audience through reproduction. Without lithography, perhaps we’d never have heard of him.

In one etching in this exhibit called The Ladies of the Chariots by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (there’s a mouthful) the fine marks of the stylus and the other techniques of etching like aquatint offer a much more modulated and rich detail and tone that reminds us of the limitations of lithography in which HTL often used simple blocks of color. That in no way is intended to diminish Henri; it is just an observation of his style. He never would have taken to etching because it is far too indirect and cumbersome a process for his lively gestural approach.

Some of the most striking pictures in this exhibit are drawn from an album that HTL produced in 1896 called Elles which can be translated to Them or Those Women. This is Toulouse-Lautrec’s portfolio done in the brothels of Paris where he befriended many of the girls and was said to have been accepted into their world, perhaps as an outsider himself.

This grouping demonstrates an interesting shift in psychology. While his main body of work traditionally evokes theatricality and life, the behind-the-scenes tableaux at the whorehouses of Montmartre are muted and static as if to expose the ornery truth behind the glitz and glamour of Paris’ night life. One girl looks entombed as she sleeps covered in a pile of blankets while others appear bored and listless, doing their workaday bathing and hair.

The Elles lithos offer a unique perspective on the pleasure culture that HTL was so famous for portraying, but this time backstage without the costumes, the lights, the makeup and the masks. These works are almost in the genre of fellow Frenchman Millet who chronicled the grim truth about the rural peasantry as people without much hope and no glamour whatsoever. As well, perhaps Elles was a mirror of HTL’s life itself.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s last works had the circus as their subject and were done from memory as he was institutionalized for his many congenital maladies along with lifelong alcoholism. He is credited with the invention of a drink called The Earthquake – 3 parts absinthe and 3 parts cognac.


During his life, Toulouse-Lautrec made 737 canvases, 275 watercolors, 363 prints and posters and more than 5,000 drawings, along with ceramics and stained glass.

This exhibit is as much a historical document as an artistic one. While Renaissance painting, for instance, covered centuries and often depicts historical events that occurred a millennia and a half before and were reinterpreted over and over, Toulouse-Lautrec is no Raphael.

Because his oeuvre chronicles one brief period more like a news reporter than a novelist. We are seeing in his work, directly, the birth of the modern age. We see the electric lights that did not exist just 20 years previous. We see the evolving dress of the modern era, and sophisticated urban women liberated from their cloistered lives. We see the lively city that Paris was and is. And in it all we see the reflection of a man who lived an abridged but memorable life, someone we all can recall not only with a smile but with a well-earned wink too.

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