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Montmartre on the Mall

National Gallery to Open Toulouse-Lautrec Exhibit

The can-canning girl in the dance hall is facing away from the viewer. Her flounces of petticoat covering what promise to be first-rate haunches as silhouetted spectators, and a foreboding top-hatted man in the foreground, look on.

That now-iconic image — created to advertise the nightly appearances at the Moulin Rouge of the titillating performer Louise Weber, known as “La Goulue” — was the post-impressionist artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s first stab at a publicity print. After some 3,000 copies of the lithograph were plastered around Paris in 1891, it also catapulted him to an almost overnight success.

In doing so, it demonstrates the centrality of the entertainment industry, both licit and illicit, to Toulouse-Lautrec’s art, said Richard Thomson, curator of “Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre,” a major exhibition on the artist and his milieu, which opens Sunday in the National Gallery of Art’s East Building.

La Goulue, after all, had something to sell, namely visual stimulation through the suggestion of sex. And Toulouse-Lautrec, in his way, was her promoter. In the process, he created great art: visually seductive concoctions that now colonize the walls of university students’ dorm rooms across the globe.

And who can blame them? Even a century later, the posters exude a cool, urbane hipness, a harmony of the intellectual and the louche that few artists ever captured with such pleasing spot-on exactitude.

The backdrop and inspiration for Toulouse-Lautrec’s success, and the supporting star of the exhibit, are the gaudy dance halls, cafés and whorehouses of fin-de-siècle Montmartre, a bohemian working-class neighborhood on Paris’ northern edge, where the bourgeoisie freely sampled the forbidden fruits of the demimonde.

Toulouse-Lautrec, whose name today is almost synonymous with the area, began frequenting Montmartre not long after permanently settling in Paris in 1881, during a time fraught with anxiety for France, which was still reeling from the pounding it took at the hands of the Germans during the Franco-Prussian War a decade earlier. The economy was in tatters, the birthrate low and venereal disease rampant. (Toulouse-Lautrec’s premature death at age 36 would, in part, be attributed to syphilis.) As an antidote to the general malaise, the Third Republic — the conservative regime — tried to impose moral order. Plenty of respectable Parisians were more interested in blowing off a little steam, however.

And the “entertainers” they found when they came to Montmartre were often Toulouse-Lautrec’s muses. (He called his obsessions with some of the performers his “furias.”) They were dancers such as La Goulue and Jane Avril, and singers such as the famously black-gloved Yvette Guilbert and Aristide Bruant — popular in their day, but now perhaps best known as the French names on Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters. They were also the women of the “maisons closes,” or brothels, and the prostitutes who trolled the dance halls and cafés looking for well-to-do clients. While Toulouse-Lautrec later published an album of lithographs depicting their daily life, none of the exhibit’s rather frank images of such sex workers, showing them in a range of situations from lesbian embraces to health inspections, was publicly displayed during his lifetime.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s relationship with Bruant — the bawdy singer who made his name at Le Chat Noir, a famous Parisian cabaret and frequent subject of artists — provides a good example of the symbiosis between Toulouse-Lautrec and the performers his works often celebrated.

When it came time for Bruant to move out of Montmartre’s hard-scrabble environs for a gig at a more refined locale on the Champs-Elysées, he turned to Toulouse-Lautrec to create an ad for his appearances that would convey the necessary dash of seaminess fitting of Montmartre. Never mind that Bruant was the product of a well-to-do upbringing. Both he and Toulouse-Lautrec had a product to push. Accordingly, Toulouse-Lautrec depicts a rather roguish Bruant — who is decked in a dark hat and red scarf, his signature costume, carrying a walking stick — in a limited palette of flat colors. Bruant appears to have just turned in from a murky street. In the doorway a shadowy figure hovers, adding an element of danger to the scene.

(In one of the exhibit’s more amusing works, a lithograph by Henri Gustave Jossot, a caricatured cast of political and entertainment celebrities, including Bruant and Guilbert, appear in an ad for Saupiguet Sardines. As they stuff their maws with the salty fish, the ultimate transformation has taken place: The promotees have become the promoters.)

While Toulouse-Lautrec marketed these performers through his stunning prints, he was also shaping his reputation as the foremost interpreter of café-concert and cabaret society.

In “At the Moulin Rouge,” a large painting from the mid-1890s, he places himself in the midst of a gathering of performers, including La Goulue and May Milton, another dancer, thus immortalizing his “street credentials.” These were his friends and associates, after all, and Toulouse-Lautrec appears entirely at home in the scene. Moreover, his technique accentuates a general air of bohemia. The paint streaks across the canvas in choppy slashes, the browns of the canvas peaking through in places. And a wash of eery green infuses parts of the painting, including Milton’s overly made-up face.

But it wasn’t just Toulouse-Lautrec who was plumbing Montmartre for artistic inspiration. One of the exhibit’s strong points (and simultaneous weaknesses because of the shear volume of the works — 11 rooms hold more than 240 pieces, including tickets, song sheets and sculpture, in addition to the seemingly endless posters and paintings — to be digested) is its significant inclusion of the work of other artists, ranging from Jules Chéret, “the father of the color poster,” to Pablo Picasso.

These artists’ styles may be different, but their impressions of Montmartre’s essential grittiness comes through again and again.

Her long skirt and parasol aside, Vincent van Gogh’s rendering of Agostina Segatori, a Montmartre café owner and former artists’ model, as she nurses a beer, invokes a modern-day punk rocker, replete with what could be a flaming orange mohawk and black leather jacket.

Meanwhile, Picasso, who came to Paris in 1900 and was a fan of Toulouse-Lautrec’s work, also turned his brush to capturing the Montmartre mood, though by the time he completed his famous chiaroscuro-like painting of a night at the dance hall, the Moulin de la Galette, the neighborhood was beginning to lose its luster.

The exhibit ends on an apparent light note, with a room of circus images. A grouping of these by Toulouse-Lautrec appears rather innocuous at first glance: just a series of humorous sketches of acrobats and clowns.

In their own way, however, these were also meant as advertisements, but this time for the artist himself. He painted them as a means of convincing his doctors he was healthy enough to be released from the clinic where he had been forcibly hospitalized for his out-of-control alcoholism. But like many of his publicity prints, there was an element of illusion to this work. No matter how well he promoted the idea of his recovery, the dissolute dream couldn’t last forever.

For just as the bacchic revelers depicted in Adolphe Léon Willette’s allegorical painting “Parce Domine,” which hung in Le Chat Noir and is one of the exhibit’s gems, tumble across a canvas under a skull-like moon and the windmills of Montmartre toward an uncertain future, there was a shelf-life to the saturnalia. By the mid-1890s, Montmartre’s excesses had reached the breaking point as central Paris began to co-opt many of its less extreme pleasures, and the allure of the working classes began to wear thin. By 1901, Toulouse-Lautrec himself succumbed: a victim of promiscuity and drink.

“Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre” runs from March 20 to June 12 in the National Gallery of Art’s East Building. For more information on the activities related to the exhibit, go to

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