Collecting guide: the posters of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Once regarded as masterpieces of modernism, Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters are now celebrated for heralding the birth of graphic design — illustrated with lots offered online at Christie’s
Celebrity worship isn’t a phenomenon of the 21st century alone. It has taken different forms in different times. Where today’s stars use social media to stay in the public eye, entertainers in the Parisian demi-monde of the late-19th century relied on the new medium of the poster.
The greatest and most sought-after designer of such posters was Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. He inhabited the bohemian district of Montmartre in northern Paris and was found most nights drinking — and sketching — at its racy musical haunts, such as the Moulin Rouge, the Chat Noir and the Mirliton.
He built close relationships with singers, dancers and impresarios and was renowned for honing in on one or two of their key physical characteristics. His posters would be plastered all over Paris, serving as publicity both for his subjects and the venues they performed in.
Lautrec designed 30 posters in total, every one of them a lithograph. Ironically, though they were intended to function solely in the short-term (by pulling crowds), they’ve ended up being some of the most famous images in the history of art.
They’re also coveted by collectors. In 2014, an example of Lautrec’s debut poster, Moulin Rouge — La Goulue fetched £314,500 at Christie’s in London, the highest price yet paid for a Lautrec poster at auction.
La Goulue, high kicks and swirling petticoats
Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa, to give him his full name, was born in 1864 in the town of Albi in south-west France. Descended from three lines of French aristocracy, he was wealthy enough that he didn’t need to work for a living.
Henri suffered from a rare bone disorder, however. As a teen, he broke both legs, in two separate accidents, which halted his growth and left him crippled for life. He’d grow no taller than four-and-a-half feet and was forced to walk everywhere with a cane.
In 1882 he moved to Paris to study painting, soon making friends with Vincent van Gogh, a fellow student in the atelier of Fernand Cormon. Lautrec was a gifted painter but had no time for the grand, academic pictures Cormon produced, preferring to depict the life being led around him.
He turned increasingly to printmaking — to lithography, to be precise — and in 1891 was invited by the owner of the Moulin Rouge to create his first lithograph poster. It depicts the venue’s star cancan dancer, La Goulue (‘The Glutton’), known as such for her habit of downing patrons’ drinks as she danced past their table.
Moulin Rouge – La Goulue manages to capture the full excitement of her performance: one of high kicks and swirling petticoats. The latter occupy the centre of the image, in an area left entirely unprinted, allowing the white paper to create a spot-lit effect.
‘The people’s Louvre’
Some 3,000 copies of that poster were pasted across the city overnight, to an overwhelming response. As the art critic Gustave Coquiot recalled in later life, ‘an unknown appeared who astounded us and disturbed us… The [images] were signed Lautrec, and the name quickly became popular… He made people uncomfortable, but they also shivered with pleasure’.
‘He made people uncomfortable, but they also shivered with pleasure’ — Gustave Coquiot
In 1881 France had passed new laws on the freedom of the press, which included relaxing regulations on the display of commercial materials in public spaces. There had also been a recent technological advance in the printing industry, enabling the mass production of colour lithographs.
These two factors resulted in a huge surge in printed posters about Paris. Many began referring to its streets as ‘the people’s Louvre’. Copies of Moulin Rouge – La Goulue were even carried by donkeys on sandwich boards.
The age’s first major poster artist was called Jules Chéret. Lautrec would soon go on to surpass him. Where the elder artist’s posters tended to be busy, elaborate and vibrantly colourful, Lautrec pared things right back. He gave passers-by a short, sharp shot of the cabaret experience.
He was aware that a poster’s raison d’être was to invite rapid regard and make an instant impact. Inspired by Japanese ukiyo-e prints, he adopted strong outlines, flat colours, simplified forms, tight cropping and oblique angles.
A fine example is Aristide Bruant dans son cabaret. Bruant was a singer, notorious for the vulgar, at times quite pointed, numbers he sang about his bourgeois clientele. Lautrec captured him from behind, in a haughty over-the-shoulder pose, with a scowl on his face. The flowing black cape, red scarf and raffish hat add to the sense of insouciance. There’s nothing in the way of background.
Fine-art prints and crachis
It’s important to point out that Lautrec’s lithographic practice wasn’t restricted just to posters. Though they’re less famous, he made scores of fine-art prints too, such as La Clownesse assise (Mademoiselle CHA-U-KA-O).
Where the posters were made in large numbers and intended to appeal (as adverts) to a mass audience, the fine-art prints were created in small editions, on more refined paper, for an elite group of connoisseurs.
Both saw the artist experiment with innovative techniques — most notably crachis, the splatter of lithographic ink, visible in the bonnet and puffed sleeves of the singer, May Belfort, in a poster from 1895.
Both also reveal Lautrec’s superb draughtsmanship — with the posters, broadly speaking, tending to be more boldly drawn and the fine-art prints more delicately drawn.
Lautrec’s posters were never meant to be collectable, but swiftly became so. Members of the public started pulling posters down from hoardings and taking them home. In 1893, the art critic Félix Fénéon even published a set of instructions on the most effective way to remove them.
Picasso was also a fan. In his Blue Period painting from 1901, The Blue Room, a Lautrec poster of the English dancer, May Milton, is depicted hanging on the back wall.
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The Frenchman’s posters soon become regarded as masterpieces of modernism — and, as such, collector’s items among the middle and upper classes. Fast-forward to the 21st century, and they’re celebrated for heralding the birth of graphic design as we now know it today.
What’s the market like today?
Toulouse-Lautrec’s career was short. After years of excessive alcohol consumption, he died of a stroke, aged 36, in 1901. He had made posters for just a decade.
At auction, examples of Moulin Rouge — La Goulue do best: they’ve fetched the three highest prices for Lautrec posters.
Next most coveted are examples of 1899’s Jane Avril, depicting the eponymous dancer in a long black dress decorated with a snake motif. (Top price for one of these is $173,000/£102,500.)
Then come examples of Jane Avril au Jardin de Paris, in which the same subject is seen on stage, framed by the impossibly curvy neck of a musician’s double-bass. (Top price: $92,000.)
A fairly decent rule of thumb is that the more recognisable the image, the higher the value. Lautrec’s posters, after all, exist today chiefly in reproductions — whether still in poster form, on the walls of French cafés and restaurants; or in very different form, on fridge magnets, greetings cards, coasters etc.
In the 120-plus years since they first appeared, most of Lautrec’s posters have been lost. In the case of those that survive, condition is another major influence on pricing.
‘The paper Lautrec used was quite flimsy,’ says Claire Durborow, a Christie’s specialist in prints. ‘It was close in nature to newsprint and, as such, has had the tendency to darken over time, as well as crack and split’.
In many instances, the posters come down to us today on a linen support — these have been added, Durborow says, ‘to preserve the integrity of such large pieces of paper’.
It’s also worth noting that Lautrec made his posters in different editions — which varied according to how much text he’d added. The posters made in the smallest editions (often those with no text at all) tend to fetch the highest prices because of their rarity. In the sale of the Collection of A. Jerrold Perenchio, one is struck by the unusual sight of an Aristide Bruant dans son cabaret poster without the singer’s name on it.
A final factor in helping ensure a high price is that the work is still in its original size. In a bid to be noticed, posters were designed large. The dealers who subsequently took possession of them, however, often took to trimming, in order to make them more manageable.
Take Moulin Rouge — La Goulue. Surviving copies that include the top banner, featuring the venue’s name written three times in red, are extremely rare — and all the more valuable as a result. Its inclusion on the example sold at Christie’s in 2014 partly explains why that work broke Lautrec’s auction record.