Collecting guide: the posters and lithographs of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Once regarded as masterpieces of modernism, Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters and lithographs are now celebrated for heralding the birth of graphic design
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 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 honing in on one or two of their key physical characteristics. His lithographic posters would be plastered all over Paris, serving as publicity both for his subjects and the venues they performed in.
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 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 with a disability 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.
Crachis and Caricature
Lautrec chronicled the era he lived through in printmaking — something very few artists had attempted to do at the time. 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, posters and illustrations for journals and theatre programmes recounting life in Belle Époque Paris.
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.
As new innovations in lithography permitted larger prints, varied colours and nuanced textures, Lautrec’s works began to showcase exceptional technical effects — including some techniques that he invented himself.
His most notable 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 is a remarkable example of Lautrec’s crachis. The delicate range of tones produced by his splatter technique allowed only a small number of impressions of this particular subject to be made. Lautrec scholar Götz Adriani ranks it ‘among the finest works Toulouse-Lautrec ever produced’.
Lautrec was known for populating his images of Parisian night life with his friends and acquaintances, including performers Marcelle Lender, May Belfort, May Milton and Yvette Guilbert. Honing in on one or two key physical characteristics, Lautrec became known for reducing his subjects to their very essence.
Freeing himself from embellishments, Lautrec’s skilled draftsmanship 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, his ability to empathise with his famous subjects and depict their human vulnerabilities off-stage set him apart from his contemporaries.
While no fewer than 326 ‘café-concerts’ existed in the city at the time, Lautrec’s images of these popular venues served as subtle advertisements. By placing his viewers 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: the wealthy Parisians who were enticed by prospect of mixing with the demi-monde.
‘The people’s Louvre’
In 1891 the Toulouse-Lautrec was invited by the owner of the Moulin Rouge to create his first lithographic poster, further building upon the artist’s involvement with lithography as a fine art medium. 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.
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.
They’re 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 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.
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. 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.
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.
While they were never meant to be collectable, they 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.
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.
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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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 ten years.
The subjects of Lautrec’s lithographs capture a specific time in history, depicting the people and places of the Belle Époque. While one rule of thumb might be that the more recognisable the image, the higher the value, there are many important details to keep in mind 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 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’.
This historical context is important to bear in mind when evaluating the condition of Lautrec’s posters as they have come down to us to observe and to collect today.