The posters and lithographs of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Long regarded as masterpieces of Modernism and brilliant evocations of bohemian Paris, Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters and lithographs are now equally celebrated for heralding the birth of graphic design. Illustrated with works offered at Christie’s

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Couverture de L’Estampe originale, 1893

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), Couverture de L’Estampe originale, 1893. Lithograph in colours. Sheet: 580 x 835 mm. Sold for $18,750 on 16 April 2021 at Christie’s in New York

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, artistes in the Parisian demi-monde of the late 19th century relied on a new medium: the lithograph.

The greatest and most sought-after designer of such works 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 homing in on one or two of their key physical characteristics in his portraits of them. His lithographic posters would be plastered all over Paris, serving as publicity both for his subjects and for the venues in which they performed.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, La Gitane, 1899. Lithograph in colours. A very rare impression of the artist’s last poster. Sheet: 971 x 649 mm. Sold for $456,000 on 1 May 2007 at Christie’s in New York

Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa

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 not to have to work for a living.

He 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 with a disability for life. He would grow no taller than four-and-a-half feet and had 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 kind of grand, academic pictures that Cormon produced, preferring to depict the life being led around him.

Crachis and caricature

Lautrec chronicled his era in printmaking — something very few artists had ever attempted. The rise of colour lithography at the turn of the century ushered in a new art form, with which Lautrec found great success. From 1891 until his death in 1901, he produced nearly 350 lithographs, including posters and illustrations for journals and theatre programmes, recounting life in Belle Epoque Paris.

The posters were made in large numbers and intended to appeal (as advertisements) to a mass audience, whereas the artist’s fine-art prints were created in small editions, on more refined paper, for an elite group of connoisseurs.

As developments in lithography permitted larger prints, varied colours and nuanced textures, Lautrec’s works began to showcase new technical effects — including some that he invented himself.

His most notable innovation was crachis, a technique that creates a spatter effect. In a letter to his mother, he remarked, ‘I have just invented a new process that can bring me quite a bit of money. Only I have to do it all myself… My experiments are going awfully well.’

La grande loge (below) is a remarkable example of Lautrec’s crachis. The delicate range of tones produced by the technique meant that only a small number of impressions of this particular subject could be made. Lautrec scholar Götz Adriani ranks it ‘among the finest works Toulouse-Lautrec ever produced’.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), La grande loge, 1897. Lithograph in colours. Sheet: 510 x 397 mm. Estimate: £200,000-300,000. Offered in Prints and Multiples, 13-27 September 2023 at Christie’s Online

Lautrec was known for populating his images of Parisian night life with his friends and acquaintances, including performers Jane Avril, Marcelle Lender, May Belfort, May Milton and Yvette Guilbert. Focusing on a few key physical characteristics, Lautrec became known for reducing his subjects to their very essence.

Lautrec’s skilled draftsmanship, free of embellishment, enabled him to express the finest nuances of emotion, mood and movement with relatively few lines. This approach to figures proved to be the perfect aesthetic to compliment to the extravagant ‘café-concert’ nightlife that was thriving in Paris at the time.

As fascinated as Lautrec was by the thrill of Parisian nightlife, what set him apart from his contemporaries was his ability to empathise with his famous subjects and depict their human vulnerabilities off-stage.

This quality is exemplified in his celebrated series of lithographs Elles (below), which documents the lives of the women working in a maison close, or brothel. Lautrec’s depictions are sympathetic and unintrusive — despite the subjects’ varying states of undress — as he explores the complexities of their lives rather than choosing to eroticise or sensationalise their profession.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), Elles, 1896. A rare complete set of 12 lithographs, including the cover and frontispiece. Images & sheets: 521 x 400 mm (and similar). Estimate: £450,000-650,000. Offered in Masterpieces from the Collection of Sam Josefowitz: A Lifetime of Discovery and Scholarship on 13 October 2023 at Christie’s in London

No fewer than 326 ‘café-concerts’ existed in the city at the time, and Lautrec’s images of these venues served as subtle advertisements. By placing the viewer at the edge of the café or dance floor, Lautrec invites us to become spectators within the scene — a voyeuristic approach that was well suited to his target audience: wealthy Parisians who were enticed by the prospect of mixing with the demi-monde.

‘The people’s Louvre’

In 1891, Lautrec was invited by the owner of the Moulin Rouge to create his first lithographic poster, building upon the artist’s use of lithography as a fine-art medium. It depicts the venue’s star can-can dancer, Louise Weber, known as La Goulue (‘The Glutton’) because of her habit of downing patrons’ drinks as she danced past their table.

Moulin Rouge — La Goulue (below) 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 spotlit effect.

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 rules on the display of commercial materials in public spaces. There had also been a technological advance in the printing industry, enabling the mass production of colour lithographs.

These two factors resulted in a huge surge in printed posters around 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.

Today, they are also coveted by collectors. In 2014, Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge — La Goulue  fetched £314,500 at Christie’s in London, the highest price yet paid for a Lautrec poster at auction.

A pioneer of graphic design

The era’s first major poster artist was called Jules Chéret. Lautrec would soon 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.

Toulouse-Lautrec was aware that a poster’s raison d’être was to invite rapid regard and make an instant impact.

A fine example is Aristide Bruant, dans son cabaret (below). 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.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), Aristide Bruant, dans son cabaret, 1893. Lithograph in colours. Sheet: 1372 x 943 mm. Sold for $88,200 on 22 April 2022 at Christie’s in New York

Lautrec designed 30 posters in total, every one of them a lithograph. Ironically, although they were intended to function solely in the short-term (by pulling in the crowds), they have ended up being some of the most famous images in the history of art.

While they were never meant to be collectable, they swiftly became so. Members of the public started tearing posters down from hoardings and taking them home. In 1893, the art critic and anarchist Félix Fénéon even published a set of instructions on the most effective way to remove them.

Lautrec’s posters soon came to be regarded as masterpieces of Modernism — and, as such, collectors’ 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 know it today.

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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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. Indeed, his foray into lithography lasted only 10 years.

His lithographs capture a specific time in history, depicting the people and places of the Belle Epoque. While one rule of thumb might be that the more recognisable the image, the higher the value, there are many important details to consider when examining a Lautrec print.

A rare state, small edition, the presence of a signature, numbering or stamps all contribute to the pricing of lithographs. Be sure to keep an eye out for the addition or removal of text, changes in colours and other small alterations. 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 Murray Macaulay, head of Prints & Multiples at Christie’s in London. ‘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 — added, Macaulay says, ‘to preserve the integrity of such large pieces of paper’.

This historical context is important to bear in mind when evaluating the condition of Lautrec’s surviving posters.

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