Art Insights: Leisure and Excess at The Phillips Collection

by Sterling Lucas

Toulouse-Lautrec illustrates the Belle Époque

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, The Simpson Chain, 1896. Brush, crayon, and spatter lithograph, printed in three colors. Key stone printed in blue, color stones in red and yellow on wove paper, 32 5?8 × 47 1/4 in Private Collection.

A collection of nearly 100 works by prolific printmaker Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec are on view at The Phillips Collection, marking the first time many of these works have been exhibited in the United States. The comprehensive show is The Phillips Collection’s first solo exhibition dedicated to Toulouse-Lautrec in almost 80 years and presents an unparalleled insight into the life and work of the French artist. Fans of Toulouse-Lautrec will be pleased to see his most famous works on view in addition to many unknown works that are being exhibited for the first time. The collection includes drawings, prints and lithographs created between 1891-1899 in Montmartre, France. These works were greatly admired by friends of Toulouse-Lautrec including Vincent Van Gogh and George Seurat. Also included in the exhibition are iconic posters by Toulouse-Lautrec’s contemporaries, most notably Theophile Alexandre Steinlen’s Tournee du Chat Noir.

Right: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Moulin Rouge, La Goulue,1891. Brush and spatter lithograph, printed in black on two sheets ofwove paper. Trial proof, 65 3/4 × 46 7?16 in. Private collection

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Moulin Rouge, La Goulue,1891. Brush and spatter lithograph, printed in four colors. Key stone printed in black, color stones in yellow,red, and blue on three sheets ofwove paper, 75 3?16 × 46 1?6 in. Private collection

The star of the show is the work that propelled Toulouse-Lautrec to fame, Moulin Rouge, La Goulue, 1891 (pictured). The Phillips presents the work alongside the original black and white print. The comparison is striking and alludes to the complicated printmaking process Toulouse-Lautrec pioneered.

Curator Renée Maurer  commented on the importance of the poster: “A commission for the cabaret Moulin Rouge, the poster is considered a technical achievement in terms of its scale, composition and color. It is the first poster to focus on a star attraction, dancer La Goulue (The Glutton) who delighted audiences with her provocative cancan. Upon its premiere in some 3,000 impressions, it stunned the public throughout Paris. It embraced the times, and critics described it as real art for the masses.”

As one walks around the third floor gallery one is transported back to Belle Époque, France. The characters jump off the walls and demand to be recognized. French for Beautiful Era, the Belle Époque refers to the period of leisure and excess in western Europe during the latter part of the 19th century. The true magic of the exhibition is the insight into the lives of the subjects Toulouse-Lautrec portrays. Famous for befriending cabaret dancers such as Jane Avril and La Goulue, Toulouse-Lautrec encapsulates their essence in his timeless posters. What elevates the exhibition to a blockbuster is the new research Curator Renée Maurer offers to the visitor. Ten of Toulouse-Lautrec’s most famous muses have been immortalized, their biographies told on extended plaques and additional exhibition materials. Perhaps no artist captured the energy of modern Paris better than Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The collection on view at The Phillips Collection represents the height of his personal life and career. The Phillips Collection will have a series of programming running concurrently with the exhibition including screenings of Moulin Rouge and a Montmartre themed Phillips after 5 on March 2.  The exhibition runs through April 30.


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