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Popular Culture

Learn about how popular culture influenced modern art.


Divan Japonais

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
(French, 1864–1901)

1893. Lithograph, composition: 31 15/16 x 23 3/4" (81.2 x 60.3 cm); sheet: 31 15/16 x 24 1/2" (81.2 x 62.2 cm)

Though poor health and hard living led to his untimely death at 36, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec became the de facto chronicler of Parisian nightlife during a career that lasted just over a decade. He was a fixture at the cabarets, dance halls, and theaters of Montmartre, a working-class neighborhood home to many artists. In paintings, drawings, prints, and, especially, posters, he captured the atmosphere and denizens of this nighttime world, and promoted its entertainers as celebrities.

Toulouse-Lautrec eventually established himself as the premier poster artist of Paris. So when Édouard Fournier re-opened his Divan Japonais cabaret after a refurbishment, he commissioned the artist to help him spread the word. Toulouse-Lautrec made Divan Japonais, a poster that opens onto the cabaret’s lively interior. Into this space he set three figures, each one a good friend of his and a prominent, widely recognized member of the Parisian performance and literary scene. At the center of the composition sits the slender Jane Avril, a famous cancan dancer. To her right, his yellow beard mingling with his ruffled cravat, is art critic and literary journal founder Édouard Dujardin. In the far background, the singer Yvette Guilbert performs on stage. Though Toulouse-Lautrec cropped her head out of the frame, viewers would immediately recognize the long, black gloves as her signature accessory.

A work of art made from paint applied to canvas, wood, paper, or another support (noun).

A representation of a human or animal form in a work of art.

A work of art made with a pencil, pen, crayon, charcoal, or other implements, often consisting of lines and marks (noun); the act of producing a picture with pencil, pen, crayon, charcoal, or other implements (verb, gerund).

French for “beautiful era,” a term that describes the period in French history beginning in 1890 and ending at the start of World War I in 1914, which was characterized by optimism, relative peace across Europe, and new discoveries in technology and science.

A work of art on paper that usually exists in multiple copies. It is created not by drawing directly on paper, but through a transfer process. The artist begins by creating a composition on another surface, such as metal or wood, and the transfer occurs when that surface is inked and a sheet of paper, placed in contact with it, is run through a printing press. Four common printmaking techniques are woodcut, etching, lithography, and screenprint.

Modern can mean related to current times, but it can also indicate a relationship to a particular set of ideas that, at the time of their development, were new or even experimental.

A printmaking technique that involves drawing with greasy crayons or a liquid called tusche, on a polished slab of limestone; aluminum plates, which are less cumbersome to handle, may also be used. The term is derived from the Greek words for stone (litho) and drawing (graph). When the greasy image is ready to be printed, a chemical mixture is applied across the surface of the stone or plate in order to securely bond it. This surface is then dampened with water, which adheres only to the blank, non-greasy areas. Oily printer’s ink, applied with a roller, sticks to the greasy imagery and not to areas protected by the film of water. Damp paper is placed on top of this surface and run through a press to transfer the image. In addition to the traditional method described here, other types of lithography include offset lithography, photolithography, and transfer lithography.

The arrangement of the individual elements within a work of art so as to form a unified whole; also used to refer to a work of art, music, or literature, or its structure or organization.

To request, or the request for, the production of a work of art.

The perceived hue of an object, produced by the manner in which it reflects or emits light into the eye. Also, a substance, such as a dye, pigment, or paint, that imparts a hue.

The area of an artwork that appears farthest away from the viewer; also, the area against which a figure or scene is placed.

French for “advanced guard,” this term is used in English to describe a group that is innovative, experimental, and inventive in its technique or ideology, particularly in the realms of culture, politics, and the arts.

Rise of the Poster
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s brief career coincided with two major developments in late 19th-century Paris: the explosion of nightlife culture and the birth of modern printmaking. Lithographed posters proliferated during the 1890s due to technical advances in color printing and the relaxation of laws restricting where posters could be placed. Dance halls, café-concerts, and festive street life invigorated nighttime activities, and Toulouse-Lautrec’s brilliant posters, made as advertisements, captured the vibrant appeal of the prosperous Belle Époque.

Proliferation of the Poster and Print
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec took up lithography at a high point in its history, when it was a relatively easy and inexpensive way to produce posters and prints. These works proliferated, and middle-class collectors eagerly bought them up. Toulouse-Lautrec made more than 350 prints and 30 posters, as well as lithographed theater programs and covers for books and sheet music, all of which brought his avant-garde visual language into a broad public arena.