Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901) was a modern chronicler of Belle Époque Paris. Entrenched in Montmartre life, Lautrec eagerly recorded the late 19th-century dance halls, cabarets, and restaurants integral to his social life with honesty, humor, and liveliness. One of his favorite forms of entertainment was the theater; he attended plays often, at one point seeing the operetta Chilpéric 20 times in 1895. In addition to the better-known paintings, posters, and prints in which he depicted many of the Parisian actresses and performers that he most fervently admired, Lautrec also illustrated a number of programs for plays at various theaters. A selection of these remarkable program covers, all from MoMA’s collection, is included in the exhibition The Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec: Prints and Posters, on view at MoMA through March 22, 2015.
The programs are from an album of 50 theater programs illustrated by Lautrec and several of his contemporaries, compiled between 1887–98 by the French collector and bibliophile Henri Beraldi (1849–1931). The collection features a wide range of plays, from Alfred Jarry’s seminal King Ubu (Ubu Roi, 1896), to stage productions by Lautrec’s friend Aurélien Lugné-Poë, including The Silent Life (La Vie muette, 1894) by Maurice Beaubourg and The Sunken Bell (La Cloche engloutie, 1897) by Gerhart Hauptmann. Together, the programs offer a window into the Parisian avant-garde theater scene and its leading actors and actresses of the era. Acquired for MoMA’s collection in 2008 and exhibited now for the first time, the programs remain in pristine condition, thanks to having been preserved within the collector’s album since the time they were first produced.
Fourteen of the programs are on view in the exhibition: seven by Lautrec, two by Henri-Gabriel Ibels, and one each by Paul Ranson, Henri Rivière, Georges de Feure, Félix Vallotton, and Alfred Jarry. Together they offer rich contextualization to Lautrec’s depictions of the actors, performers, and singers in the exhibition’s surrounding lithographs and posters. The remaining programs are available to view on a touchscreen in the exhibition.
Commissioned by three of the leading avant-garde theaters of the day, the Théatre Libre, the Théâtre de l’Oeuvre, and the Théâtre Antoine, among others, Lautrec and the other artists developed original designs to serve as covers for the programs. Yet the images, printed as lithographs, also functioned as autonomous artworks that audiences could collect to display in their homes. Lithography, a mostly commercial printing technique that had been invented in the early 19th century, was just beginning to flower artistically in the hands of Lautrec and his contemporaries; their inventive designs for the theater covers, in which image and text are often dynamically integrated, are a testament to the creative possibilities the artists were exploring with this technique.
A number of the cover designs, such as the one that Alfred Jarry (1873–1907) designed for his own play, King Ubu (Ubu Roi), 1896, reflect and complement the often revolutionary subject matter of the plays. Others, including Henri-Gabriel Ibels’s (1867–1936) program for The Fossils (Les Fossiles) by François de Curel, 1892, deviate completely from the storyline and rather represent a wholly independent artwork. Ibels’s image demonstrates his fondness for bright colors and the stylization of Japanese prints.
Lautrec designed his first theater program, for Bankruptcy (Une Faillite) by Björnstjerne Björnson and Maurice Vaucaire’s The Poet and the Financier (Le Poète et le financier), two short plays, in November 1893, under commission from André Antoine, founder of the Théâtre Libre. Loosely following a scene from The Poet and the Financier, the cover depicts an aide attending to the seated Countess Gisèle while she prepares at her toilette. As the attendant’s features fade discreetly into the background, Lautrec illuminates the results of the Countess’s laborious beauty regime through color—her radiant golden locks and red lips define her appearance. Lautrec’s portrayal of the female character mirrors the tone and setting of his landmark series of colored lithographs, Elles, 1896 (also on view in the exhibition). In this scene and in Elles, he portrays women during intimate and personal moments, lost in acts of quiet reflection rather than engaged in overtly erotic or provocative behavior.
In another program, The Box with the Gilded Mask (La Loge au mascaron doré) for the Théâtre Libre’s 1894 play, The Missionary (Le Missionnaire) by Marcel Luguet, Lautrec allows us a glimpse of the audience but focuses primarily on an elegantly dressed redhead—a favored subject of Lautrec’s—who embodies the grandeur and pageantry of a night at the theater. Seated high in the balcony, adorned in a whimsical hat and sophisticated dress and sporting opera glasses, she peers down imperiously at the stage below, observing the actors and the fashions of her fellow theatergoers. Just as she is spying on others, Lautrec gives us a voyeuristic glimpse of her in an unguarded moment. Dramatically framed by deep red curtains and a decorative column, Lautrec’s model may be his friend, the celebrated performer Jane Avril. The theater’s owner, André Antoine, wrote in April 1894, “Lautrec has designed an admirable colored program for The Missionary, which collectors will fight over some day.”