The fin de sià¨cle artist who captured Paris’ cabarets and dance halls is drawing crowds to a new exhibition at Washington, D.C.’s National Gallery of Art

The scene Lautrec stepped into was in the working-class district known as Montmartre, notorious for its thieves and brothels as well as its hangouts for avant-garde artists and literary anarchists. In 1884 Lautrec was a 20-year-old student in the atelier of the painter Fernand Cormon. At the time, the French art world was divided between academic painters like Cormon, who exhibited their work at the Salon des Artistes of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, and the upstart Impressionists and other radicals, who showed their paintings at the new Salon des Indépendants.

The radicals had been attacking official French culture for a generation, ever since poet Charles Baudelaire urged painters to depict modern life and painter Gustave Courbet declared that “art must be dragged through the gutter.” Lautrec’s teacher, Cormon, painted large tableaux of the Stone Age, but he knew his students were drawn to the street life beyond his atelier, and he tolerated their forays into the “gutter.” Soon enough, Lautrec was painting by day and carousing by night, sketch pad in hand. Within a decade he would be famous for his spectacular posters of the Moulin Rouge and other Parisian dance halls. More than a century later, his black-stockinged, high-kicking dancers with their layered petticoats and plumed hats remain among the most popular and striking images of modern art.

With an aristocratic pedigree, Lautrec lived off his family’s diminishing feudal income from land in the Languedoc region of southern France. He was 4 feet 11 inches tall, having been born with a disorder—most likely from family inbreeding— that gave him a normal torso but shortened legs. He quipped that he could get falling-down drunk without harm, being so close to the floor.

Witty and gregarious, Lautrec liked to be the center of attention. But his heavy drinking and often outrageous behavior caused one close friend, fellow artist François Gauzi, to comment, “Lautrec is seen only as a midget . . . a drunken, vice-ridden court jester whose friends are pimps and girls from brothels.” His reputation was hardly redeemed by his friendships with such other social outcasts as Vincent van Gogh and the anarchist writer Felix Fénéon, who had bombed a café in Paris. But Lautrec chose his society with an eye on posterity, and posterity has returned the favor. His life was romanticized in John Huston’s 1952 film Moulin Rouge, with José Ferrer as Lautrec, and laid bare in Julia Frey’s 1994 biography, Toulouse Lautrec: A Life. His world and his wild palette were evoked again in Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film, also titled Moulin Rouge.His art is currently on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in the exhibition “Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre,” which runs through June 12. The exhibition drew more than 9,000 visitors on opening day, March 20—the gallery’s largest first-day attendance in 20 years. Co-organized by the Art Institute of Chicago, where it will be on view July 16 to October 10, the show, sponsored by Time Warner, brings together more than 250 works by Lautrec and his contemporaries.

Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Montfa was born on November 24, 1864, in the provincial town of Albi in southwestern France. His father, Alphonse, le Comte de Toulouse-Lautrec, and mother, Adèle Tapié de Céleyran, were first cousins and descendants of one of the oldest and most prestigious families in France. Alphonse, a passionate hunter and flamboyant eccentric (he once showed up in a tutu for lunch at his parents’ chateau), was a notorious womanizer, who had little time for his wife or son. But Lautrec, an only child (a younger brother died in infancy), was doted on by his devoutly religious mother, and he would remain dependent on her—and resentful of her—for the rest of his brief life. As an adult living in Paris, he often dined with her before heading off for a night of drunken revelry. Among friends he called her “my poor sainted mother,” but when she told him that she’d heard he had been dining with a woman of some elegance, he rebuked the “stupid mistake,” assuring her that “the girl in question is nothing but a tart.”

Lautrec’s father and uncle were talented amateur painters who preferred art that portrayed the animals they hunted and the horses they rode. After some early training in sporting art and a brief, unhappy stint with a master of high-society portraits, the Lautrec who entered Cormon’s atelier showed little sign of originality or greatness. At most, a series of sketches he made for a story by a young friend displayed an eye for telling detail. “I have tried to draw realistically and not ideally,” Lautrec wrote the friend. “It may be a defect, for I have no mercy on warts, and I like to adorn them with stray hairs, to make them bigger than life and shiny.”

As Lautrec became part of the Montmartre scene, he began to be influenced by Impressionism.Atelier students, in fact, often rubbed elbows with the Impressionists and other avant-garde artists at local cafés. Degas, Pissarro, Manet and Cézanne, for example, could be found drinking and arguing at establishments like Le Rat Mort (The Dead Rat) or Le Chat Noir (The Black Cat). But making a mark in a world of such original painters was no easy prospect. Lautrec greatly admired the work of his neighbor Degas, but the elder artist took only passing notice of him, saying some of Lautrec’s studies of women in a brothel “stank of syphilis.”

Lautrec picked the painting of another neighbor, Renoir, to redo in his own fashion. The subject was the Moulin de la Galette, a dance hall at the top of Montmartre’s hill, where shopgirls and laborers showed off their finery and fancy footwork (and pimps and prostitutes lurked in the shadows). Renoir had painted the scene in dazzling Impressionist light, brushing away the Moulin de la Galette’s grimmer realities. For his more realistic Galette (below), Lautrec made sketches at the hall, then painted the final canvas in his studio. It was immediately reproduced as an illustration in Le Courrier français, a popular Paris newspaper, and exhibited at the 1889 Salon des Indépendants. Théo van Gogh, an art dealer, wrote to his brother Vincent about the show: “There are some Lautrecs, which are very powerful in effect, among other things, a Ball at the Moulin de la Galette, which is very good.”

Three years earlier Vincent had briefly studied beside Lautrec in Cormon’s atelier and the two had become friends. Vincent invited Lautrec to take part in an exhibition of new artists in a working-class restaurant in Paris in 1887. On Lautrec’s advice,Vincent left Paris for Arles shortly after, and Théo soon became Lautrec’s first art dealer. (The three, in fact, lunched together in Paris just three weeks before Vincent fatally shot himself in 1890.)

In a letter to Théo from Arles, Vincent had compared one of his own portraits to a Lautrec portrait of a woman in thick white face powder for the stage. The Lautrec (Poudre de Riz, or Rice Powder), he suggested, “would appear even more distinguished by the mutual contrast and . . . my picture would gain by the odd juxtaposition, because that sun-steeped, sunburned quality, tan and air-swept, would show up still more effectively beside all that face powder and elegance.”

By 1888, Lautrec’s works had begun to sell, and when the dazzling new Moulin Rouge dance hall opened in Montmartre the following year, one of his circus paintings graced the entrance hall. Because only the more adventurous of bourgeois Parisians would risk a night out in the sordid precincts of Montmartre, the Moulin Rouge was set on the affluent edge of the district to attract a broader public. In 1891 the owner again turned to Lautrec, commissioning him to create a poster promoting the cabaret.

The big attraction at the Moulin Rouge was a strawberryblonde dancer named Louise Weber, better known as “La Goulue” (the Glutton). Aformer laundress and part-time prostitute, she had first won note at the Moulin de la Galette dancing the chahut (slang for chaos), an erotic cancan. She claimed to have modeled for Renoir, and was otherwise noted for kicking the top hats off men’s heads as she danced. One patron described her as “a strange girl, with a vampire’s face, the profile of a bird of prey, a tortured mouth, and metallic eyes.” Lautrec had painted her before, and he made her the focus of his poster’s design. More than six feet high and half as wide, the poster (right) showed La Goulue onstage with a leg in the air; a male dancer in the foreground gawks at her revealing petticoats. Everything about it was visually radical—its scandalous image, strong flat forms borrowed from Japanese prints, black silhouettes drawn from the shadow plays in vogue at Le Chat Noir, bold lettering, and graphic inventions of Lautrec’s own devising. He used the yellow globes of electric stage lights— new in Paris—for instance, to make vivid patterns across the poster, a touch of abstract art no one had seen before.

The poster was made by color lithography—a process in which the image is drawn on a limestone plate that is then inked and printed. Lautrec had to learn the method from the printer as he worked. Because of its size, the poster had to be divided and printed from three stones, then assembled from the separate strips of paper. In late 1891, some 3,000 copies of it appeared on walls around Paris. Parisians were used to the rococo designs of posters by artist Jules Chéret, but Lautrec’s image was something altogether new. “I still remember the shock I had when I first saw the Moulin Rouge poster . . . carried along the avenue de l’Opéra on a kind of small cart,” one Parisian remembered. “And I was so enchanted that I walked alongside it on the pavement.”

Other Lautrec posters and prints followed, helping to define Paris in the 1890s, a decade known as the Belle Epoque. The swagger of the singer-songwriter Aristide Bruant, with his black cape, broad hat and red scarf; the black-stockinged dancer Jane Avril, with her swirl of orange skirt and pale face punctuated by open red lips; the trademark long black gloves and puckered mouth of cabaret performer Yvette Guilbert— Lautrec captured the essence of these stars, and his images fixed them in the firmament of the Paris night.

His posters became so popular, in fact, that some Parisians were known to follow the workmen hanging them, so they could peel them off walls before the glue dried. “Who will deliver us from the likeness of Aristide Bruant?” the newspaper La Vie parisienne lamented. “You can’t go anywhere without finding yourself face to face with him.”

By the late 1890s, Lautrec had exhibited his work on the European continent, in England and in the United States, designed theater sets, and added new techniques to the art of lithography. But the “Beautiful Epoch” was not all about the beautiful, and Lautrec was also a part of its darker side. His liaisons in the brothel world, for instance, were not all artistic. It was his boast that he preferred unadorned sex to love. “Ah, love! Love!” he proclaimed to Yvette Guilbert. “You can sing about it in any key you want . . . but hold your nose, my dear, hold your nose! Now if you sang about desire, we would understand each other . . . but love! . . . There is no such thing.” Guilbert called him “My little monster.”

An artists’ model named Suzanne Valadon, a talented painter herself and the woman Lautrec described to his mother as “nothing but a tart,” came as close as anyone to capturing his heart, according to Lautrec biographer Julia Frey. By some accounts, they were lovers for several stormy years. But if there was little romance in Lautrec’s life, there were many friends, prominent among them Jane Avril, who was nicknamed La Mélinite after a type of explosive. ABritish art student, William Rothenstein, who hung out with the crowd at the Moulin Rouge, described her as “a wild, Botticelli-like creature, perverse but intelligent, whose madness for dancing induced her to join this strange company.” Just as Avril inspired some of Lautrec’s most striking posters—the last one he produced depicts her with a snake coiled around her skirts—she is also rendered in some of his most tender portraits. Avril saw Lautrec in his best light, condoning even his relationships with prostitutes. “They were his friends as well as his models,” she later wrote. “In his presence they were just women, and he treated them as equals.”

In both his way of life and choice of friends, Lautrec profoundly offended his aristocratic family. His father partly disinherited him, and an uncle burned several of his paintings. Only his mother stayed close to him as long as she could bear to—near the end of his life, she fled Paris to be away from him—and continued to support him from a distance.

In Lautrec’s generation, French anarchism could turn violent. Abomb was tossed into the legislature in 1893, and French president Sadi Carnot was assassinated the next year. But in Montmartre, anarchy was being translated from acts of terror into radical art. Lautrec contributed illustrations to several literary journals of an anarchist bent, and was friends with members of a group called the Incoherents, whose ideas foreshadowed the art of Dada and Surrealism. Their first show, held in a private apartment, included a portrait of a postman with his worn-out shoe protruding from the canvas; later shows featured an all red canvas titled Tomato Harvest by Apoplectic Cardinals on the Shore of the Red Sea and a doctored Mona Lisa smoking a pipe—30 years before Marcel Duchamp’s famous Mona Lisa with a goatee.

While Lautrec didn’t produce political or absurdist art, his unconventional realism, embrace of commercial art, eye for celebrity and increasingly abstract graphic designs positioned him among the most modern of artists. He was making a place for himself that is much closer to Picasso than to Degas. Indeed, when Picasso arrived in Paris, in 1900, he sketched a Lautrec poster into one of his own paintings. Even now Lautrec remains modern: in his prints of celebrities he can be seen as the Andy Warhol of his era, his La Goulue and Jane Avril prefiguring Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe.

Lautrec, however, seemed driven to squander his glory by drinking himself into the grave. At the height of his success there were nights when he disappeared, eventually dragging himself back through the gutter as if taking Courbet’s prescription quite literally. In one macabre episode, he discovered Victorine Meurent, who had posed naked for Manet’s daring 1863 painting Olympia, living in abject poverty in a top-floor apartment down a Montmartre alley. She was now an old, wrinkled, balding woman. Lautrec called on her often, and took his friends along, presenting her with gifts of chocolate and flowers— as if courting death itself.

Toward the end, hallucinations and paranoia, induced by alcoholism and syphilis, overwhelmed him. On one occasion when he was visiting friends in the country, they heard a shot from his room, and found him sitting on his bed with a pistol, armed against “attacking” spiders. Eventually he was locked up in an asylum, where, like his friend Van Gogh, he continued to work; in a burst of artistic energy, he produced a brilliant series of circus drawings from memory to convince his doctors he was sane. After 11 weeks, he was released, but he was soon drinking again. He spent his last days in his mother’s garden, where he had often painted her, and died in her arms in 1901, shortly before his 37th birthday. In Paris, his spirit lived on. Picasso was making his own sketches of the singer Yvette Guilbert, and he had asked Jane Avril to reminisce about her friend Lautrec. Like him, Picasso was painting scenes of the brothel and the circus, and he was living in Montmartre.

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