Washington D.C.’s Phillips Collection: ‘Toulouse-Lautrec Illustrates the Belle Epoque’

Amy Henderson
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Mademoiselle Églantine’s Troupe 1

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Mademoiselle Églantine’s Troupe, 1895–96. Ed. Note: For detailed captions on all images, see story end.

The Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. has recently opened an exhibition that showcases an extraordinary collection of Toulouse-Lautrec lithographs. Toulouse-Lautrec Illustrates the ‘Belle Epoque’  focuses on about 100 “defining images” that embrace the artist’s entire lithographic career (1891-1899) and provide a fascinating window into Montmartre’s fin de siècle  café and cabaret society.

After training in Paris with academic painters, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec set up his studio in the bohemian district of Montmartre. He immersed himself in the café and cabaret culture of the Chat Noir, the Mirlton, and the Moulin Rouge, and became the district’s vivid chronicler. His colorful illustrations of these clubs andAmbassadeurs, Aristide Bruant their high-kicking stars became the artistic rage of 1890s Paris.

Right: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Ambassadeurs, Aristide Bruant, 1892.

The 1890s also marked the re-emergence of artistic lithography, and advances in color printing techniques provided a highly attractive format for Toulouse-Lautrec’s big and colorful style. His first lithograph, the poster Moulin Rouge, La Goulue (1891), launched his work as an instant artistic vogue. The poster was produced in 3,000 impressions, and its massive size and range of colors were transformative. A new fad for posters resulted, and Montmartre’s streets became virtual cityscape Jockey, The (2)museums with large, colorful posters lining its sidewalks.

Left: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, The Jockey, 1899. 

In a catalogue essay, Gilles Genty describes “the new visual culture” produced by Toulouse-Lautrec’s lithographs. (24)  It was a visual culture based on personality, with star performers like Anna Held, Yvette Gilbert, and Jane Avril holding the spotlight not only on stage, but in photographs and increasingly in posters. Toulouse-Lautrec’s purpose, to Genty, was “to outstrip photographs in terms of visual impact,” a feat he accomplished by filling large scale prints with vibrant and colorful depictions that immediately grabbed the eye. His prints were modern, immersed in the electrifying culture of Montmartre’s club life—its everyday characters, its iconic figures, its brothels. Toulouse-Lautrec’s prints captured everyday scenes as if they were “snapshots.” (25)

Right, below: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Divan Japonais, 1892–93. Divan Japonais.1a jpg

The artist’s famous depiction of Aristide Bruant was highly dramatic, showing the singer’s  cloak draped over his shoulder and a red scarf flung around his neck. As Genty writes, the poster “commanded attention through its use of stark patches of black and red on a pale background—flat, unmodulated areas of color, as in Japanese prints.”  The poster made Bruant a recognizable figure all over Paris.  (24)

Although Toulouse-Lautrec has been the subject of such blockbuster exhibitions as the National Gallery of Art/Chicago Art Institute’s 2005 blockbuster Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre and a 2014 traveling exhibition, Toulouse-Lautrec and La Vie Moderne, the exhibition at the Phillips Collection is uniquely focused on the artist’s lithographic career. A collaboration with the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, this exhibition shows the evolution of some of Toulouse-Lautrec’s most MoulinRouge, La Goulue - prooffamous lithographs, giving viewers a glimpse into how his print-making evolved.

Left: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Moulin Rouge, La Goulue (1891. Trial proof

The Phillips Collection describes this exhibition as displaying “never-before-published trial proofs, unique images, and rare prints …along with richly colored final impressions.”  Renee Maurer, Associate Curator at the Phillips, states that “This show is special because it not only features an impressive number of familiar images, but by displaying trial proofs, it also offers visitors a behind-the-scenes look at the genius of Toulouse-Lautrec’s prints.”  (Press Release, page 2)

By Amy Henderson, Contributing Writer

The exhibition will be at the Phillips Collection until April 30, 2017.

Toulouse-Lautrec Illustrates the ‘Belle Epoque’ is a collaboration between the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the Phillips Collection; the catalogue, distributed by Yale University Press, is available for $27.99 online at www.shop.phillipscollection.org.

Amy Henderson is Historian Emerita of the National Portrait Gallery, and writes frequently about media and culture.

Caption detail (in sequence):

-Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Mademoiselle Églantine’s Troupe, 1895–96. Brush, spatter, and crayon lithograph, printed in three colors. Key stone printed in turquoise, color stones in red and yellow on wove paper, 24 5⁄16 × 31 5⁄8”. Private collection

-Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Ambassadeurs, Aristide Bruant, 1892. Brush and spatter lithograph, printed in five colors. Key stone printed in olive green, color stones in orange, red, blue and black on two sheets of wove paper, 52 15⁄16 × 36 5⁄8”. Private collection

-Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, The Jockey, 1899. Crayon, brush, and spatter lithograph, printed in six colors. Key stone printed in black, color stones in turquoise-green, red, brown, gray-beige and blue on China paper. State II/II, 20 3/8× 14 ¼”.Private collection

-Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Divan Japonais, 1892–93. Crayon, brush, spatter, and transferred screen lithograph, printed in four colors. Key stone printed in olive green, color stones in black, yellow, and red on wove paper, 31 3/4 × 23 15⁄16”. Private collection

-Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Moulin Rouge, La Goulue (1891). Brush and spatter lithograph, printed on two sheets of wove paper. Trial proof 65 3⁄4 × 46 7/16”. Private collection

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