Toulouse-Lautrec and captured vibrancy of Parisian nightlife

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by Shalina Chatlani, Zhihui Yu, and Jing Chen


In 1882, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec moved from Albi to Paris, where he became completely enthralled with the vibrancy and free-spirited nature of the city’s cafes, streets, cabarets, and nightlife. At the turn of the nineteenth century, Lautrec, like artists from all over world, went to also in part because the city had become the art center of the world. He arrived to one of Paris’s golden age, and his career “ coincided with two major developments in late nineteenth-century Paris: the birth of modern printmaking and the explosion of nightlife culture” (Colta,1996). He became fascinated with the modern printmaking industry, which French painters had begun to observe as early as the 1790s, when the chemical  principles of lithography were discovered and it was turned into fine art (Ittmann, P. 11). Lithography became one of the more popular mediums for most painters of any note. With the development of lithography technology, deluxe color printing projects entered the market. Lautrec took great advantage of this new medium to capture the beauty of the Parisian lifestyle, and he became the best poster artist of Paris. Lautrec tapped into the city’s character, where grand boulevards and palaces of commercial entertainment went hand in hand with the ‘zone’, a vast shanty town ringing the city that was occupied by workers and those living a more precarious life. (Edwards & Wood 2013,P29)  Immersed in the urban life, Lautrec spontaneously captured the nature of the city and the people in it.

Lautrec also managed to incorporate international influences into his lithographic posters, which succeeded in adding a unique flair to depictions of Parisian scenes. For example, in the late 1850s, Japanese woodcuts began to seep into European ports. The Japanese prints exerted considerable influence on Impressionist painters in France. The style and content of Lautrec’s posters were heavily influenced by these Japanese ukiyo-e prints. The ukiyo-e, that is, the ‘fleeting’ or ‘floating world’ they depicted, was eminently comparable to that which the Parisian avant-garde were striving to represent. Theatres, the street, nightlife, including places of sexual encounter, as well as music and dancing–these constituted what became known as the ‘floating world’ in Edo (Edwards & Wood 2013,P70). Lautrec tapped into this style and noted that the promotion of individual performers is very similar to the depictions of famous actors, actresses, and courtesans from the “floating world”of Edo-period in Japan(Colta,1996). His ability to capture some of the raw scenes of Paris at night and incorporate unique elements and influences is apparent throughout majority of his artwork, for instance at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C.

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For example, the poster above, La Troupe De Mlle Eglantine, was one of the pieces at the Phillips Collection. Lautrec’s identity as a post-impressionist painter can be seen through the bold brush strokes and vivid color composition. He, like on of the four main artists —Paul Gauguin, Georges Seurat, Vincent van Gogh, and Paul Cézanne —  tried to break free from the Impressionism movement in the late 1880s and provide for the observer a window into the heart and soul of the artist, rather than offer some sort of objective view on the world at large. This artwork above of the four most famous dancers in Paris’s Moulin Rouge cabaret is free rendering of what Lautrec saw and felt while he was observing the women, rather than some sort of literal window into the world. Like in the artwork of his contemporaries, he sought to capture the vibrancy and emotion of Parisian lifestyle through symbolic mixing of bold colors and abstract shapes, which could depict memories and real human interaction with the environment–not just a flat rendition of what the artist physically saw, but rather what the artist was feeling, observing, memorizing, and sensing.

In terms of his international focus-from what we can see from Lautrec’s work, most we can see from the exhibition are his posters, like we mentioned before, the style and content of Lautrec’s posters were heavily influenced by Japanese ukiyo-e prints, and we can see many of the characters and casts in his posters depicted Japanese women. Just like the one that impressed us a lot, Cover for L’Estampe Originale. From this Japanese woman he depicted in this poster, we can see how Lautrec’s work emphasized on the use of color. And beyond its promotion and printmaking functions, the man behind that women who working on the poster also caught our eyes. He was the one worked behind the scenes and had a purely technical role in print production. This poster emphasizes the importance of those figures who working behind the scenes by showing the expert printer Père Cotelle of Edouard Ancourt’s in his workshop with the Parisian cabaret star Jane Avril admiring the product of his effort.

His artwork fits in perfectly with the other work in the museum. We could see his transition and post-impressionist identity by comparing his work work with that of other artists throughout the collection. For example we saw Luncheon of the Boating Party by French impressionist Pierre-Auguste Renoir and some paintings of American Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko’s paintings in Rothko Room designed by Duncan Philips in 1960. “It’s like a painting about the most perfect meal that ever was—but you can’t tell what most of it was,” says Phillips Collection Chief Curator Eliza Rathbone.

Luncheon of the Boating Party, Renoir, seen at Phillips Collection

Luncheon of the Boating Party by Renoir, seen at Phillips Collection

Luncheon of the Boating Party depicts a group of friends hanging out and relaxing in a balcony, people in this painting are all in comforting and calming posts, while what impressed me most was the vividness and ethereality that comes from the painting which formed sharp contrast with these still lives portrayed in the painting. A sense of movement is realized through the actions and expression of the cast. Facial expressions of these main characters in the painting are so clear and lively. There is a great deal of light throughout the composition of Luncheon of the Boating Party. The main light source is the opening in the balcony and the beaming sunlight is reflected by the table cloth and the vests of the two men in the foreground. And from the glasses on the table as well, we can see how great the painter capture the momentary effects of changing light and color. Similarly Lautrec’s bold colors come through in his depictions of Parisian nightlife; however, like a true post-impressionist artist, he moves away from the standard shapes and observations within a painting like that of Renoir and instead utilizes abstract shapes and symbols to capture a sense of dynamism, not static existence in Parisian life. 

Mark Rothko, as an abstract expressionist and contemporary artist, represents a movement after Lautrec’s time, but another iteration of the post-impressionist style that he was apart of. Lautrec broke free from the chains of dull observation like his contemporaries, and the trend continued forth as artists like Rothko depicted, rather than just scenes, colors and shapes to evoke emotion.

Zhihui, for example, reacts to walking into a Rothko room, where the deep color patterns appealed to her sense of imagination:

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The intimate Rothko room holds four paintings by Mark Rothko, and reflects the artist’s preference for exhibiting his art “in a scale of normal living”. To be honest, I cannot appreciate and even cannot understand these pieces of art, and cannot figure out what exactly the artiest want to express. But when you took a deep breath and looked into these “non-sense” paintings, you felt peaceful and pleasure, you suddenly wanted to just simply sit there and enjoy the magical feelings these colors bring you. “My paintings’ surfaces are expansive and push outward in all directions, or their surfaces contract and rush inward in all directions. Between these two poles, you can find everything I want to say.” Colors can spark imagination, and purity can be represented as possibility.

Works Referenced:

Photo at top: http://kelseymontagueart.com/

Second photo: Lautrec Foundation

Third:http://images.metmuseum.org/

Others seen at Phillips Collection.

Steve Edwards and Paul Wood, eds. Art & Visual Culture, 1850-2010: Modernity to Globalization. London: Tate Publishing and The Open University, 2013

John Ittmann, Post-Impressionist Prints: Paris in the 1890s. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1997.

Colta Feller Ives and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Toulouse-Lautrec in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1996.

For background on post-impressionism: http://www.theartstory.org/movement-post-impressionism.htm.