High Kicks & Low Life: Toulouse-Lautrec prints

A British Museum tour

Poster of a woman dressed in black

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), 'Divan Japonais', 1893. Colour lithograph in black, orange, yellow and olive green ink. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

14 May to 8 August 2010

This exhibition has closed

This exquisite exhibition of around 50 prints by the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), shows the glamour and style of 19th century Parisian theatre and studies of daily life.

Described by a contemporary critic as 'the quintessential chronicler of Paris', the work of Toulouse-Lautrec immediately evokes the decadent atmosphere of fin-de siècle Paris. Through his prolific output of posters, theatre programmes and special edition prints, Lautrec effortlessly managed to combine the excitement of the cabaret with the poignant, shadowy private lives of prostitutes and their clients.

Divided into two sections, 'Public Passions' and 'Private Passions', this exhibition presents a selection from the British Museum's fine holdings of Toulouse-Lautrec's graphic work. 'Public Passions' presents striking images of the can-can dancer Louise Weber, known as La Goulue ('The Glutton') and 'Private Passions' shows how Lautrec portrayed the extremely private life of prostitutes with great sensitivity.

Biography - Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901)

Born into a wealthy, aristocratic family in 1864, Toulouse-Lautrec's full name was Henri-Marie-Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec Montfa. He was only 4ft 11ins (1.5 metres) tall because of a genetic disorder and to two accidents in which he broke both his legs. Artistically gifted, he lived in Paris from 1884 until his death from alcohol abuse in 1901.

After studying with two French Academy artists Toulouse-Lautrec developed his own unique style. He frequented a district called Montmartre famous for its bars, cafés and music-halls, drawing whatever he saw. In the process he created a celebrated record of the people who lived and worked there. Lautrec eagerly embraced the lifestyle of a young bohemian artist of the Belle Epoque. By day he would haunt the galleries and museums and by night he frequented the dancehalls, the Moulin Rouge being his favourite and which he immortalized countless times in his work.

Cultivating a wide network of publishers and printmakers, Toulouse-Lautrec held several exhibitions in Paris and London. His works, particularly his prints and posters, remain extremely popular. They seem to capture a specific moment in late nineteenth-century Paris, colourful, energetic and creative yet also anxious with an atmosphere of underlying danger and uncertainty as Europe looked nervously towards the next century.

Although Lautrec's last years were plagued by alcoholic excess, this remarkable artist has left behind a body of work full of insight, wit and above all astonishing technical and artistic virtuosity.


'May Belfort', 1895

Colour lithograph

 Poster with image of a woman in red holding a cat

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), 'May Belfort', 1895. Colour lithograph in red, olive green and yellow ink. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

The Irish singer May Belfort worked in London music halls before arriving in Paris in January 1895. Her slightly disturbing and thinly-veiled erotic act was performed wearing the dress of a little girl with large puffed sleeves and an enormous bonnet. Often she clutched a cat which referred to her most famous song, 'Daddy wouldn't buy me a bow-wow'.

One of Lautrec's most striking prints, this image of May Belfort was also used (with added lettering) for her show at the 'Petit Casino' in Paris. She had specifically asked Lautrec to make a poster for her performance.

'Divan Japonais', 1893

Crayon, brush and spatter lithograph 

Poster of a woman dressed in black

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), 'Divan Japonais', 1893. Colour lithograph in black, orange, yellow and olive green ink. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Divan Japonais was the name of a newly launched café-concert run by Edouard Fournier whose name also appears on this poster. 

The dancer Jane Avril (1868 -1943) who appears in many of Lautrec's prints dominates the image in a striking black dress and hat, with the music critic Edouard Dujardin sitting beside her. 
The tops of the two double-basses rise above the orchestra pit.

On stage a back view of the figure of Yvette Guilbert (1867-1944) is glimpsed, identifiable only by the black gloves she usually wore. Guilbert also appears in several prints in this exhibition.

'Elles: Femme en corset - Conquète de passage', 1896

(Elles: Woman in a corset - Passing Conquest)

Colour crayon, brush and spatter lithograph 

Print of a woman putting on a corset

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), 'Femme en corset - Conquète de passage', 1896. Colour crayon, brush and spatter lithograph. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Lautrec captures the purely financial liaison between the prostitute and client perfectly. The print is unusual in the 'Elles' series in portraying a man with a prostitute.

Despite their association, the figures appear alienated from each other; the woman active, the man a passive presence. An erotic print is shown on the wall as shown in the 'Elle' prints, 'Elles: Femme au Tub-Le Tub' ( 'Elles: Woman in a tub' ) and 'Elles: Femme qui se lave-La Toilette' ('Elles: Woman washing'). 

That women of a certain class could be seen as both commodities and corrupters of society was a view prevalent in late nineteenth-century Paris.

Bequeathed by Campbell Dodgson.

 'High Kicks & Low Life: Toulouse-Lautrec prints' is a British Museum tour, supported through the generosity of the Dorset Foundation.

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