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His shadowy City of Light

Special to The Times

IN the last years of the 19th century, Montmartre, a poor Paris neighborhood high on a hill, burst into a frenzy of popular song and dance, creative art and decadent high jinks -- a frenzy with wonderful imagery that still lingers in our minds. We owe most of those images to the works of the diminutive and doomed artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Toulouse-Lautrec was a painter and lithographer of extraordinary appeal. Museum-goers and buyers of reproductions love his paintings, prints and posters of cancan dancers and caustic singers and depressed prostitutes and bourgeois men on the prowl.

This is demonstrated once again by the crowds that now stream into the National Gallery of Art for its extensive exhibition “Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre.” More than 9,000 people showed up March 20 for the opening -- the largest opening-day crowd at the museum in 20 years of record-keeping. The exhibition, which closes in Washington on June 12, will go to the Art Institute of Chicago (July 16 through October 10) for its second and final stop.

The show is not a simple retrospective. The curator, art historian Richard Thomson of the University of Edinburgh, has put the work of Toulouse-Lautrec in context by exploring the commercial phenomenon of Montmartre entertainment and its attraction for many other artists as well. While the show displays 140 works by Toulouse-Lautrec, it also includes more than 100 by 50 other artists. This arrangement makes clear, for example, that Toulouse-Lautrec looked to the works of Edgar Degas for inspiration, and that other artists -- such as Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen, who drew posters for Le Chat Noir cabaret -- could create icons as striking as those of Toulouse-Lautrec.

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Yet the exhibition also makes clear that Toulouse-Lautrec dominated the territory. No one else caught the bitterness and joy of Montmartre so well. No one else devoted so much of his life to one subject. He died in 1901, two months short of his 37th birthday, after almost two decades of depicting Montmartre.

Aristocratic, artistic

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born Nov. 24, 1864, in his elegant family home in the town of Albi in southwestern France. His aristocratic parents, Count Alphonse de Toulouse-Lautrec and the Countess Adele, were first cousins, and the inbreeding may have been the cause of a rare bone disease in their only child. He broke one leg at 13, the other a year later, and neither grew again. As an adult, he stood 4 feet 11 and walked with painful difficulty.

His parents were both amateur artists who encouraged his early talent at drawing. They allowed him to follow the normal course of a budding artist in those days: studying at an artist’s workshop in Paris. Toulouse-Lautrec arrived in Paris in 1882 at age 17. When the first workshop closed a few months later, he and several other pupils moved to a second, on Montmartre. In 1884 he rented an apartment in Montmartre to be closer to his classes; he remained in the neighborhood after he completed studies and embarked on a professional career.

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Montmartre was stirring when Toulouse-Lautrec arrived. As a working-class neighborhood with low rents, it had long attracted artists. Now students were moving there from the Latin Quarter on the other side of the Seine. In 1881, Rodolphe Salis, a promoter with young intellectual friends and a good sense of anti-establishment fashions, opened Le Chat Noir (the Black Cat) on Montmartre. The cabaret attracted poets, composers, artists and students, and these customers soon doubled as Le Chat Noir’s entertainers. They read their own poetry, sang their own songs and created paintings for the walls. Salis augmented all this with avant-garde plays and with “shadow theater” (stories acted out on a white screen by the silhouettes of flat figures lighted from behind).

A good many clients from the Parisian upper classes soon came to see what was going on. They were attracted by the mood of decadence and the area’s air of irreverence. Other cabarets opened in Montmartre, and so did new dance halls, where customers could watch a show or dance themselves. Some entertainers became celebrities, and they attracted even more customers from the rest of Paris. Montmartre soon had a booming entertainment industry.

Toulouse-Lautrec took part in the excitement with gusto and sketched it voraciously. Many of his paintings are steeped in naturalism, showing life around him warts and all. In “Moulin de la Galette” (1889), for example, he painted the two worlds that inhabited one of the new dance halls. While working-class couples dance happily in the background of the canvas, four figures dominate the foreground -- three coldly indifferent prostitutes and their pimp scouring the scene for potential clients.

In 1891, a friend, the artist Pierre Bonnard, persuaded Toulouse-Lautrec to try his hand at creating posters through lithography -- the process of making many copies from a stone on which a picture has been drawn with a special crayon. The owner of the Moulin Rouge, an upscale dance hall with several salons, commissioned him to design a poster that would advertise both the hall and its star cancan dancer, Louise Weber, better known as La Goulue (the Glutton). When workmen pasted 3,000 copies throughout the city one morning, the new poster and its creator became Paris sensations.

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The poster, using red, yellow and black inks, displays some of Toulouse-Lautrec’s most familiar images of Montmartre. Silhouettes of well-to-do patrons in high hats and fancy bonnets stream across the background. The poster’s centerpiece is La Goulue, kicking higher and showing more than most cancan dancers. Her face is handsome and serene, and her upswept blond hair remains in place despite her twirling leg and petticoats. In the foreground, a shadowy, sinister man is dancing and pointing suggestively at La Goulue; he is the dancer known as Valentin le Desosse (Valentin the Boneless). The poster advertises dancing every night with a masked ball on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Toulouse-Lautrec would draw La Goulue often. “Whenever I see my backside in your paintings,” she once told him, “I find it beautiful.”

Toulouse-Lautrec’s second poster celebrated the singer Aristide Bruant, who entertained middle-class customers with songs in Parisian slang about the city’s downtrodden. He sang, for example, about a prostitute writing to her lover from the prison hospital that was treating her for syphilis. Bruant liked to insult his rich customers, a technique that whetted their appetite for more insults and songs. When Bruant, who owned a cabaret on Montmartre, was hired in 1892 to sing at a large nightclub in downtown Paris, he asked Toulouse-Lautrec to design a poster for the performances.

The poster showed a scowling Bruant with his trademark red scarf wrapped around his neck. A figure dressed like a lower-class worker lurks in the darkness of a corner. Since that kind of menace had no place in his nightclub, the owner tried to reject the poster, but Bruant insisted that he use it. It has become one of Toulouse-Lautrec’s best-known works.

Ambiguous messages

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Toulouse-LAUTREC’S drawings of people could come close to caricature, and it is difficult to tell sometimes whether he is glorifying a scene or satirizing it. That kind of ambiguity is reflected in the imposing canvas “At the Moulin Rouge” (painted between 1892 and 1895). Toulouse-Lautrec put his friends, his favorite entertainers and himself into this depiction of a typical night at the Moulin Rouge.

The mask-like face of British singer May Milton, bathed in green light, is so large in the foreground that it infuses the scene with an eerie quality. Five friends of Toulouse-Lautrec, including the red-bearded Symbolist writer Edouard Dujardin, are seated around a table, but they do not seem to be relating to each other. La Goulue is adjusting her hair in the mirrored wall in the back, while the dancer Jane Avril stands by. (Avril, a critic once wrote, dances with “an air of depraved virginity.”) Toulouse-Lautrec is walking in the background flanked by his lanky cousin, a medical student, who seems a foot and a half taller.

In the exhibition catalog, Mary Weaver Chapin of the Milwaukee Art Museum describes the painting as “a valediction of [Toulouse-Lautrec’s] life as the court artist to the superstars of Montmartre.” In the same book, Thomson, the curator, writes that “all is artifice in this quintessential image of decadence.” He insists that the painting portrays “the ersatz sociability based on display, lust and money.” The views of Chapin and Thomson are not contradictory. Toulouse-Lautrec could exult in Montmartre while exposing it.

Although Montmartre remains a tourist attraction to this day, its great era as the entertainment center of Paris sputtered out by the end of the 19th century. Salis, the owner of Le Chat Noir, died in 1897. His tombstone reads, “God created the world, Napoleon the Legion of Honor and I, Montmartre.” But Montmartre seemed to die with him. Toulouse-Lautrec, suffering from syphilis, alcoholism and bouts of seeming madness, was dying as well.

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In 1899, his parents hospitalized him against his will in a clinic for the mentally disturbed. His friends wrote articles in the press decrying the internment. Intent on showing improvement to his doctors, he began a series of drawings of scenes that he remembered from his visits to the Circus Fernando on Montmartre. These remarkable sketches of bareback riders and clowns and animal trainers and acrobats helped persuade the clinic to release him in a few months. But he resumed drinking soon afterward and had little time for drawing and painting. Living at his mother’s estate, the Chateau de Malrome in Langon near Bordeaux, he suffered a stroke and died in his mother’s arms on Sept. 9, 1901.


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