Few artists are as closely tied to a time and place as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the painter of the cabarets, cafes, brothels, and dance halls of Belle Époque Paris. An aristocrat in fragile health, Lautrec saw a bit of himself in the outcasts of the city’s bohemian red light district. This closeness is reflected equally in his intimate portraits of prostitutes and the posters he created for the leading performers of the day.
Lautrec arrived in Paris to study art at a time when Impressionism had taken the city by storm, and he abandoned the academic style of painting for the loose new movement. He became influenced by artists like Émile Bernard and Vincent Van Gogh, who took the style to new lengths as the Post-Impressionists, and began to develop a style entirely his own. Like many of his contemporaries, Lautrec looked to alternatives to the Western canon for inspiration, specifically the rich colors and reduced forms of Edo-era Japanese woodblock prints.
Where Lautrec’s style really came into its own is in the posters he created for his performer friends like the cabaret star Aristide Bruant. In his iconic Ambassadeurs (1892), the artist renders Bruant in the simplified shapes and fields of flat color inspired by the woodblock print style. In quieter works, like his lithographs of singer May Belfort and cabaret-goers at the famous Moulin Rouge, Lautrec captures the nightlife of his day with sketch-like immediacy. Together, these images form a time capsule of one of the most culturally rich moments in the history of Paris as seen from its very center.
Lautrec’s world and the style he created can currently be seen in the exhibition “The Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec: Prints and Posters,” which runs through March 2015, at the Museum of Modern Art. The first exhibition at the museum dedicated to the artist in three decades, it features more than 100 of the artist’s most famous works on paper.