By John P. Walsh
The nineteenth century in France brought about a radical transformation of the role of the artist. In place of artwork for aristocratic patrons, artists in all media were increasingly left to their own devices and began creating works of art in their studios and looking to sell them in the open marketplace. Innovative forms, new subjects, and new styles emerged from these changing economic structures brought about by the dawning of the industrial and technological age as well as the growing importance of cities.
In Paris and elsewhere, enterprising artists sought to attract new clients increasingly composed of the urban bourgeoisie. By the mid-to-late nineteenth century the involvement of the public in artistic matters became an irrevocable fact which had been secured by the improved means of mass production. New processes in lithographic and photographic printmaking, for example, made art widely available to a popular audience. The entry of this sort of democracy into artistic production coincided with current aesthetic influences such as a Japonisme movement prevalent in France in the years before 1890. In addition, there was a new understanding of modern beauty that began around 1830 that rejected traditional forms of beauty manifested in classical and later art forms.
By the early 1890’s when Henri Toulouse Lautrec (French, 1864-1901) created his mass-produced posters in Paris a new artistic practice had appeared whose idea of beauty was contemporary, sophisticated and subtly realistic. By 1890, Lautrec’s art could react in several ways to the modern art tradition. Toulouse-Lautrec repudiated the bourgeois modernity of the Impressionists from the 1870’s and 1880’s displayed in the drawing-room paintings of Claude Monet (French, 1840-1926) and Pierre-Auguste Renoir (French, 1841-1919) and, owing to cultural spaces that had shifted by the 1880’s to artistic cabarets and literary cafés, Lautrec could also claim to be a direct heir to an earlier 1830’s romantic bohemian and 1840’s flâneur.
There are several interpretations for this cultural shift and its effects on artists and artistic practice in the 1890’s including Toulouse-Lautrec’s mass-produced commercial posters. Building on a rejection of bourgeois art forms, Mary Gluck at Brown University argues that artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec—who with others was a creature of the cabarets and cafés—desired commercial mass media to be the means by which the public sphere would eclipse individual lives which modern society had fragmented. At the center of their art production, Gluck believes, is a distinct vision of modernity identified with a city’s public space as opposed to the private anonymity of bourgeois culture (see Popular Bohemia: Modernism and Urban Culture in Nineteenth-Century Paris, 2005). To strive to transform the public sphere by way of the legacy of the café-concert about and for which Toulouse-Lautrec created a significant amount of his mass-produced commercial art could only be an ambitious cultural task. These cabarets and café-concerts, mostly centered on and around Montmartre in Paris, were crowded, loud and often rowdy. Its performances and clientele were often unpolished and popular. Small but well-known art movements such as Les Arts incohérents and their Montmartre cabaret Les Hydropathes begin to describe the level of social parody and frivolity to be expected within these establishments. While Lionel Richard at the University of Picardy attributes these activities to social rebels (see Cabaret, Cabarets: Origines et décadence, 1991), Jerrold Seigel at New York University views it as a calculated new relationship between the popular classes and the bourgeoisie where the aspiring artist, such as Toulouse-Lautrec, could create art for potential customers (see Bohemian Paris: Culture, Politics, and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life, 1830-1930, 1986). For T. J. Clark, the cabaret’s diverse audience as a venue for some form of cultural democracy by way of a mixing of classes is illusory (see “The Bar at the Folies-Bergères,” The Wolf and the Lamb: Popular Culture in France, From the Old Régime to the Twentieth Century, 1977). Charles Rearick of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, casts an eye on those frivolous aspects of the Montmartre cabarets, dance halls, and literary cafés. His conclusion is that these activities allowed a Parisian to escape modern society’s social constraints of respectability typically found everywhere else (see Pleasures of the Belle Epoque: Entertainment & Festivity in Turn-Of-The-Century France, 1985). Phillip Dennis Cate at The Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum at Rutgers University viewed the role of cabarets in the artistic context of these bohemian antics being the genesis of what became twentieth-century avant-garde aesthetics (see The Spirit of Montmartre: Cabarets, Humor, and the Avant-Garde, 1875-1905, 1996). It is the affirmation of the values of spontaneous experience and direct communication as an integral aspect of the modern experience and, for the fin-de-siècle bohemian, parodic performances which helped criticize the official art establishment that carried forward into artistic attitudes in the new century.
The fruit of reflection for this late-nineteenth-century artistic period in Paris is numerous and diverse. It leads to the observation—whether of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec or the variety of subjects in his mass-produced commercial art—that the stereotype of the artist, poet, or performer as bohemian, owing to their psychological nuance and stylistic antisepsis as aesthetic modernity—and possibly its inverse—becomes a source for their estrangement and alienation from modernity—that is, to emerge as an alienated human figure detached from their society and time. With Toulouse-Lautrec’s sixth poster (Divan Japonais, 1893) it is clear that his mass-produced commercial poster art in Paris was making an important impact on modern art in the 1890’s. It was a new art form for its deploying the rapidly developing technique of color printing. It utilized new approaches to composition and subject matter which were created for a mixture of new and popular commercial establishments. Finally, and perhaps most significantly, they became the first regularly displayed art commodity for public mass consumption. Each of these art principles and practices found in Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters of the 1890’s continue to impact contemporary art-making today.
1. Moulin Rouge-La Goulue is a lithograph done in 4 colors: yellow, blue, red, and black. The Moulin Rouge opened in 1889 and, in summer 1891, the poster was commissioned by its owners. It depicts La Goulue (“The Glutton”) who is 21-year-old Louis Weber (1870-1929) and Valentin-le-Désossé (“the Boneless”) (1843-1907). This is Toulouse-Lautrec’s first, largest, and many estimate, most complex and artistically important poster. Printed by Charles Levy, it is made up of two sheets although Toulouse-Lautrec thought the printer had made mistakes and didn’t use him again. When this poster was plastered around Paris, the artist knew that his own silhouetted profile could be found in the background of silhouetted figures. The art of the streets pioneered by Jules Chéret (1836-1932) and immediately recognized for its implications by writers such as the Goncourt brothers and J.K. Huysmans (1848-1907) Lautrec exploited in the 1890’s aided by technological advances in color printing that continued to improve throughout the decade.
2. The poster Le Pendu is a lithograph done in 2 colors: black and dark green. It was commissioned by a magazine editor to publicize a new theater play. Based on a true story of a wrongful capital death, the poster depicts the son’s suicide. Created in charcoal in late 1891, it was printed in 1895 in a limited edition for collectors only.
3. The poster Ambassadeurs Aristide Bruant is a lithograph in 5 colors yellow, blue, red, black, and olive green. Aristide Bruant (1851-1923) was a singer and this was a promotional poster for a café concert that opened in June 1892. The poster appeared all over Paris and on stage during the performance. The café owner thought the poster was a “disgusting mess” and refused to hang it until Bruant threatened to cancel his show. The subject wears a heavy dark velvet jacket, red shirt scarf, and wide brimmed hat with a riding crop. His head rises out of a dark mass which is lifted wholesale from a Japanese print by Katsukawa Shunshō (1726-1792).
4. The poster Eldorado Aristide Bruant is a lithograph in 5 colors (olive green, yellow, red, blue, and black). It includes the letters “TL” and signed monogram which will appear on other posters. The poster was created for the singer’s event on Boulevard de Strasbourg (north of Boulevard Montmartre at Sebastopol). With the same but reversed design, the customer and artist cut poster costs while increasing brand identity. In modern art the figure of the imposing heroic individual performer was new and Bruant became an overnight celebrity that year in Paris. Toulouse-Lautrec made no money on this project because the café owners were shocked by its content and refused to pay him.
5. The poster Reine de Joie is a lithograph in 4 colors (olive green, yellow, red, and black). It includes the emblematic letters “TL” and is signed. The poster was an advertisement for a suggestive new serialized novel by Victor Joze (1861-1933) and depicted the moment in the novel when the heroine kisses a fat banker, the latter being modeled by Georges Lasserre, a Lautrec friend. The poster, also used as the novel’s cover, caused a scandal across Paris and prompted a poster tear-down campaign. Speculation ran rampant as to who might be the real-life personalities on which characters in the novel were based.
6. The poster Divan Japonais (1892-93) is a lithograph in 4 colors (olive green, yellow, red, and black). The cabaret on rue des Martyrs came under new ownership in 1892 and was totally refurbished in a trendy Japanese style. The poster depicts 24-year-old Jane Avril (1868-1943) with critic Edouard Dujarden (1861-1949) in the cabaret. On stage are shown the long black gloves of new singer Yvette Guilbert (1865-1944). In a stylistic move, the artist cuts off Guilbert’s head and shoulders in the poster much to the consternation of the young singer just getting started in her career. (She later commissioned a poster by another artist to depict her complete figure). When this poster went up all over Paris it created a sensation and was another triumph for Lautrec. In 1894 the Divan Japonais closed to be replaced by another establishment. As with his other posters, there were several preliminary sketches the artist made for Divan Japonais. The posters used the new and improving popular mechanical technique of color printing and applied it to commercial establishments and popular entertainers, subject matter usually reserved for cruder forms of advertisement.
Divan Japonais is one of Toulouse-Lautrec’s early posters. In his poster career the artist usually used anywhere from 2 to 5 colors. It is signed by Toulouse Lautrec. This Montmartre cabaret was taken over in 1892 by a new owner and totally refurbished in the avant-garde Japanese style which was the inspiration for the cabaret’s name. By February 1893 when this sixth poster was made by Lautrec and put up all around Paris, his 5 previous posters had already made him famous.
7. The poster Jane Avril is a lithograph in 5 colors (olive green, yellow, orange, red, and black). The same subject who appeared in Divan Japonais, Jane Avril commissioned this poster for her performance at the Jardin de Paris, a new café-concert. The letters for the name of the establishment were added later by someone other than Lautrec. The artist first produced 20 collector prints and after, with its newly-added letters, the poster went into mass production. Known as La Mélinite—a type of explosive—Jane Avril looked to this poster to reinvigorate her career as a performer in Paris. The poster helped her to take Paris by storm as she went on to perform at the Casino de Paris, the Moulin Rouge and the Folies-Bergères. In terms of composition, the poster is noteworthy for its strong diagonals inspired by Japanese prints and the detail of a large musical instrument—including the meticulously drawn hairs of a musician’s fingers—which rounds out the design and is seen as homage to Degas who used a similar motif in his artwork.
8. The poster Aristide Bruant Dans Son Cabaret is a lithograph in 4 colors (olive green, brown, red, and black). Lautrec’s third image of the singer became a Parisian icon. From the poster’s inception the singer used this image to promote his appearances—and for the next twenty years until 1912.
9. The poster Au Pied De L’Echafaud is a lithograph in 4 colors (grey, red-brown, red, and black). The poster was an advertisement for the memoirs of a prison chaplain published in 1893.
10. The poster Caudieux is a lithograph in 4 colors (olive green, yellow, red and black). Lautrec depicts Caudieux, who was a popular cabaret comedian, to be striding across the stage. Lautrec used the partial figure in the prompt box in other artwork.
11. The poster Bruant Au Miriton is a lithograph in 2 colors (olive green or black and red). Represented with his back to the viewer, the popular performer is identified simply by his costume and the way he stands. This artistic device had already been used by Degas based on a theory by an art critic that a person’s economic and social class could be revealed simply by the way he or she comports themselves. The poster was recycled by Bruant as a songbook cover.
12. The poster Babylone D’Allemagne is a lithograph in 5 colors (olive green, yellow, red, dark blue and black). This was Lautrec’s second poster for another Victor Joze novel following his Reine de Joie. Lautrec wrote to his mother at this time to relate how busy he was with his art projects. Because of Joze’s anti-German message in the book, the author wanted the poster suppressed but it went up all over Paris nonetheless.
13. The poster L’Artisan Moderne is a lithograph in 4 colors (dark blue, yellow, green, and brown). The lettering is not done by Lautrec. Because of the impact of the cabaret and book posters, Lautrec began to be commissioned to make posters for the trades. This poster was provided to an interior design firm.
14. The poster P. Sescau, Photographe is a lithograph in 4 colors (dark red, yellow, green, and dark blue). The lettering is not done by Lautrec. This poster was provided to Paul Sescau, a professional photographer and personal friend of the artist.
15. The poster Confetti is a lithograph in 3 colors (dark olive green, red and yellow). This is Lautrec’s poster for the English paper manufacturer Bella & de Malherbe. The model is Jeanne Granier (1852-1939). These paper manufacturers hosted poster exhibitions in 1894 and 1896 to which Lautrec was invited.
16. The poster May Belfort is a lithograph in 4 colors (olive black, red and yellow). Following his trades posters Lautrec returned to the subject of the single musical performer. May Egan (whose stage name was May Belfort) was an Irish singer who appeared at the Cabaret des Décadents where Jane Avril performed.
17. The poster La Revue Blanche is a lithograph in 4 colors (blue, red, black, and green). The subject is Misia Natanson (1872-1950) who was married to Thadée Natanson whose brother was editor of La Revue Blanche from 1891 to 1903. Misia was muse to a generation of avant-garde artists, composers, and writers as the publication itself was the remarkable meeting point for the Paris literary and artistic worlds in the 1890’s. Lautrec shows Misia wearing an ostrich feather hat, spotted dress, fur jacket and muff and ice skating which was a popular activity in Paris. Two preparatory drawings for this poster are known.
18. The poster May Milton is a lithograph in 5 colors (blue, red, black, yellow and olive green). This poster was never posted in Paris but produced as an advertisement in a magazine to promote the U.S. tour of May Milton, an English dancer at the Moulin Rouge in Paris. Picasso owned a copy of this poster and used some of its compositional elements in his own artwork. Art dealers would commission limited editions of black-and-white lithographs of performers such as May Milton because they sold quickly.
19. The poster Napoleon is a lithograph in 5 colors (blue, reddish brown, black, yellow and olive green). Toulouse-Lautrec produced this poster for a book cover competition that he lost. Failing to sell this artwork, the artist produced a limited edition of 100 copies at the artist’s expense. The artist’s fee for his poster artwork varied a good deal, although during his career Lautrec clearly made more money from the output of his graphic work than his paintings.
20. The poster Salon Des Cents is a lithograph in 6 colors (blue, dark blue, black, yellow, ochre, and red). This poster is Lautrec’s homage to a married woman he met and became infatuated with during a summer cruise in 1895. The young woman sits in a deck chair under an awning facing out to sea. He produced the poster at his rentrée to Paris that fall and used it for international poster exhibitions sponsored by the journal La Plume at the Salon des Cent during winter 1895-96 and later in 1896 at the Libre Esthétique exhibition in Brussels.
21. The poster The Chap Book is a lithograph in 5 colors (olive green, blue, yellow, pink and red). The lettering is not done by Lautrec. The artist used the setting of an Irish-American bar near Place Madeleine in Paris to promote The Chap Book, an American magazine. Along with its identifiable characters, Lautrec includes the image of a bartender preparing a cocktail which was a libation newly introduced to Paris.
22. The poster La Chatelaine, Ou ‘Le Tocsin’ is a lithograph in 2 colors (blue and blue-green). This poster was commissioned by former Republican politician and Editor-in-chief Arthur Huc (1854-1932) to advertise a novel by Jules de Gastyne (1847-1920) which appeared in his newspaper in popular serial form in 1895. Letters were added by others after copies of the poster were printed for collectors of Lautrec’s increasingly popular artwork.
23. The poster Troupe De Mlle Églantine is a lithograph in 4 colors (green-blue, red, yellow and dark brown). The lettering is not designed by Lautrec. This was commissioned by Jane Avril for her work in London at the Palace Theatre and elsewhere. The formation dance was comprised of four identified dancers including Mlle Églantine and Jane Avril and derived from the famous French can-can.
24. The poster La Vache Enragée is a lithograph in 5 colors (dark blue, green-blue, red, yellow and black). The lettering is not designed by Lautrec. This was an advertisement for a new monthly magazine founded by Adolphe Willette (1857-1926). Its editor, Adolphe Roedel, organized an annual parade through Montmartre called the Vachalcade to lampoon the artist’s state of life in a major urban center.
25. The poster Elles is a lithograph in 4 colors (yellow, dark green, orange and blue). Later lettering is not designed by Lautrec. Degas would visit a Paris brothel to sketch its denizens, but Lautrec moved in for weeks at a time to do his artwork. Elles is a series of lithographs of the lives of prostitutes. Although considered some of the finest of lithographs of the nineteenth century, its portfolio of prints could not find collectors and they had to be sold singly. An exhibition of the complete lithographic series was held at La Plume starting in April 1896 where Lautrec adapted Elles’ title-page lithograph as the poster to advertise the show.
26. The poster L’Aube is a lithograph in 2 colors (dark blue and blue-green). The lettering is not designed by Lautrec. This was another advertisement for a new journal, the leftist L’Aube, first published in 1896. After its printing, the printer and artist had a rafter of remainders of this poster which they tried to sell for next to nothing.
27. The poster Cycle Michael is a lithograph in 1 color (olive green). Bicycling had developed into a cult sport in France by the 1890’s. Lautrec’s interest in the new sport led to this poster commission of British cyclist Jimmy Michael with his trainer (left background) and a sports writer with a hand in his coat pocket. The bicycle company rejected Lautrec’s design in part because the depiction of its mechanics was inaccurate which left the artist to print a limited edition for collectors at his own expense.
28. The poster La Chaîne Simpson is a lithograph in 3 colors (red, yellow and blue). The lettering is not designed by Lautrec. This is Lautrec’s second poster for the new sport of bicycling which had become immensely popular in France in the 1890’s. It depicts popular rider Constant Huret (left) and, in the background wearing hats, two British and French bicycle and chain manufacturers. Lautrec was fascinated with the cycling sport and its imagery appears in other of his artwork.
29. The poster The Ault & Wiborg Co is a zincograph in 4 colors (brown, red, yellow and black). The lettering is not designed by Lautrec. The smallest of Lautrec’s posters, it was commissioned by an American ink manufacturer whose sitters are not precisely identified. Before it became a poster advertisement, Lautrec had an edition of it printed which he titled Au Concert.
30. The poster Jane Avril is a zincograph in 4 colors (black, red, yellow and blue). After six years of intense poster production, Lautrec temporarily left its practice in 1897 and 1898. When he returned to it in 1899 he found that technology had advanced to make the printing technique for his artwork more efficient. This poster was commissioned by Jane Avril but never publicly displayed. Lautrec looked to capture her dancing style and graceful and wistful figure which the artist admired. The serpentine-themed dress Jane Avril wears was a popular motif in the Art Nouveau.
31. The poster La Gitane is a lithograph in 5 colors (black, grey, red, brown and blue). The lettering is designed by Lautrec. Lautrec’s last poster was produced for a Carmen-like play that opened in January 1900 at the Théâtre Antoine in the tenth arrondissment. The play was unpopular, the poster never published, and Lautrec’s modern art poster career had come to an end.
Ash, Russell, Toulouse-Lautrec:The Complete Posters, Pavilion Books Limited, London, 1991.
Beauroy, Jacques, Bertrand, Marc, Gargan, Edward T., editors, The Wolf and the Lamb: Popular Culture in France, From the Old Régime to the Twentieth Century, Anma Libri, Saratoga, CA, 1977.
Cate, Phillip Dennis, The Color Revolution: Color Lithography in France, 1890-1900, Peregrine Smith, Inc., Santa Barbara and Salt Lake City, 1978.
Cate, Phillip Dennis and Shaw, Mary, editors, The Spirit of Montmartre: Cabarets, Humor, and the Avant-Garde, 1875-1905, Jane Voorhees Zimmerli Art Museum, Rutgers, New Brunswick, New Jersey, 1996.
Denvir, Bernard, Toulouse-Lautrec, Thames and Hudson, London, 1991.
Gluck, Mary, Popular Bohemia: Modernism and Urban Culture in Nineteenth-Century Paris, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2005.
Foxwell, Chelsea, Leonard, Anne, et.al. Awash in Color: French and Japanese Prints, Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago, 2012.
Oberthur, Mariel, Cafés and Cabarets of Montmartre, Peregrine Smith Books, Salt Lake City, 1984.
Rearick, Charles, Pleasures of the Belle Époque: Entertainment & Festivity in Turn-Of-The-Century France, Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1985.
Seigel, Jerrold, Bohemian Paris: Culture, Politics, and the Boundaries of Bourgeois Life, 1830-1930, Penguin Books, New York, 1986.
Thory-Frèches, Claire, Roquebert, Anne, Thomson, Richard, Toulouse-Lautrec, South Bank Center, 1991.
Weisberg, Gabriel P., Montmartre and the Making of Mass Culture, Rutgers University Press, News Brunswick, New Jersey and London. 2001.
Text ©John P. Walsh. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system.