Cover of the publication The Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec: Prints and Posters from The Museum of Modern Art, published by The Museum of Modern Art
“The Moulin Rouge hired the most famous dancers to perform the quadrille
naturaliste (cancan), which delighted spectators with its swish of petticoats and flashing flesh as legs flew high—knickers optional,” writes Sarah Suzuki, Associate Curator in the Department of Drawings and Prints, in The Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec: Prints and Posters from The Museum of Modern Art
. The exhibition catalogue brilliantly chronicles the short life and career of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and the Parisian fin-de-siècle world he depicted. Suzuki creates a vivid portrait of the various elements of Lautrec’s life: the world of cafés, nightclubs, and the theater; women of the upper and lower classes; artists and writers; the culture of belle époque Paris. The catalogue accompanies the exhibition The Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec: Prints and Posters
, which features, almost exclusively, work from MoMA’s collection.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Miss Eglantine’s Troupe (La Troupe de Mademoiselle Eglantine). 1896. Lithograph. Sheet: 24 1/4 x 31 1/4″ (61.6 x 79.4 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller
Born to aristocratic parents who were first cousins, Toulouse-Lautrec was afflicted with genetic abnormalities. He stopped growing in his early teens at the height of four feet, 11 inches, and as he continued to mature, the growth of his nose and lips outpaced that of his face, causing drooling, lisping, and sinus troubles. Physically unfit for many of the social and sporting elements central to aristocratic life, Toulouse-Lautrec moved to Paris to study art, where he pursued both his creative and social life with vigor. He spent his days working on painting and lithography, and his absinthe-fueled nights at the opera, theaters, cafés, or nightclubs. His life and work merged; he became a chronicler of the Montmartre scenes he frequented.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Aristide Bruant in his Cabaret (Aristide Bruant dans son cabaret). 1893. Lithograph, sheet: 53 3/4 x 37 15/16″ (136 x 96.3 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Emilio Sanchez
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Seated Clowness (Mademoiselle Cha-u-ka-o) (La Clownesse assise) from Elles. 1896. One from a portfolio of twelve lithographs, sheet: 20 7/8 × 15 13/16″ (53 × 40.2 cm). The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller
Suzuki describes Toulouse-Lautrec’s subjects as “resoundingly populist.” She writes, “Toulouse-Lautrec was a nightly visitor to the theater, the circus, and the opera, finding tremendous freedom and inspiration in those milieus.” Toulouse-Lautrec portrayed the performers he adored, like “The Clowness,” Mademoiselle Cha-u-ka-o, a nightclub entertainer.
An 1893 lithograph shows Toulouse-Lautrec’s friend Aristide Bruant, the proprietor of the Mirliton—a Montmartre café. Although Bruant is shown in profile, his back to the viewer, contemporaries would have immediately recognized his large felt hat and velvet coat; the portrait rests on social signifiers rather than on faithful depiction. Suzuki explains that Toulouse-Lautrec “used the low-cut dress of La Goulue, the high-stepping posture of Jane Avril, the gloves of Yvette Guilbert, and the profile of Valentin, rather than traditional portrait likenesses. Toulouse-Lautrec himself was quoted telling Guilbert, ‘Ma chere, I don’t detail you. I totalize you!’”
Using MoMA’s extensive collection of Toulouse-Lautrec’s prints, posters, journals, songs sheets, theatre programs, and illustrated books as her inspiration, Suzuki paints a portrait of an artist whose unique biography, persona, and taste is clearly reflected in his art. She places Toulouse-Lautrec squarely in and of his historical milieu, positing that his work might be seen as a visual distillation of the spirit of the Parisian belle époque.
Don’t miss the exhibition, on view at MoMA now through March 22, 2015. To learn more about Toulouse-Lautrec, download a free preview of the catalogue, or visit MoMAStore.org to purchase the book.