Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901), the quintessential chronicler of the Parisian district of Montmartre, created some of the most memorable images of the exciting new culture of late nineteenth-century France. After moving to Paris in 1872, Lautrec immersed himself in the culture of the district, painting and drawing by day and dwelling in the cafés and cabarets by night. Working in several ateliers, where he became friendly with other young artists enthralled by the district, Lautrec honed his artistic skills. He soon gained recognition in Montmartre, and when his first poster was pasted on walls all over Paris, he became nearly as famous as the advertised celebrity. Lautrec remained prolific, experimental, and original for the next decade, until his death in 1901 at age thirty-six.
Early life and works
Lautrec was commissioned to create a poster advertising the Moulin Rouge. The artist’s first foray into the art of lithography was a resounding success: one evening in December 1891, three thousand copies of Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge: La Goulue were pasted on the walls around Paris, prompting an outpouring of popular and critical acclaim and turning the young artist into an overnight sensation. Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge poster was far more daring than the comparatively subdued poster by Chéret. The dance hall’s name is repeated three times in an eye-catching design that then draws the viewer’s eye down to the central motif: La Goulue. Born Louise Weber (1870–1929), La Goulue (the greedy one) was a young dancer who turned the cancan into a risqué dance with high kicks and loud shrieks. Seen here with her dance partner Valentin le Désossé (Valentin the Boneless), the provocative La Goulue attracts a sizable audience, rendered by Lautrec in silhouette form. The unusual use of silhouette was influenced by the flat designs of Japanese art then popular among the avant-garde and also by the Chat Noir’s shadow theater productions, in which zinc cutouts were back-lit and their shadows then projected upon a puppet-theaterlike stage. Innovative designs based on silhouettes were perfectly suited for the bold, graphic style of posters and other works of the era.
In addition to providing the subject for Lautrec’s most famous poster, the Moulin Rouge provided the backdrop for some of Lautrec’s most highly regarded paintings, including At the Moulin Rouge.
Critics and the general public alike were struck by the poster’s modern sensibility; it includes bold colors, a variety of lettering styles, and innovative use of silhouettes.