Bohemian atmosphere was artist’s forte

Toulouse-Lautrec show captures heady Parisian times

COURTESY OF THE MUSEUM OF FINE ARTS Above: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s “At the Café La Mie.’’ Below: Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen’s poster “Yvette Guilbert - At the Ambassadeurs Café-Concert.’’
Above: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s “At the Café La Mie.’’ Below: Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen’s poster “Yvette Guilbert - At the Ambassadeurs Café-Concert.’’ (Courtesy of The Museum of Fine Arts)
By Cate McQuaid
Globe Correspondent / November 27, 2009

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Paris, the 1890s. Electricity had just lighted up the Paris World’s Fair. The Eiffel Tower was brand new. And in the artists’ neighborhood of Montmartre, dancers kicked up their heels at the Moulin Rouge and other clubs, prostitutes made a good living, and absinthe, the heady, anise-flavored spirit, was the drink of choice.

It was Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s moment. “Café and Cabaret: Toulouse-Lautrec’s Paris’’ at the Museum of Fine Arts ably demonstrates that, gathering prints and one painting by the artist along with works by several of his contemporaries. Curators Clifford Ackley and Helen Burnham have assembled a lively, too small exhibit of less than 40 works, mostly drawn from the museum’s collection. This subject cries out for an immersive experience; instead, we can’t do much more than wade in. Still, there are plenty of images to capture the eye and the imagination.

Several factors conspired to bring Toulouse-Lautrec to the fore. Born into aristocracy, he was said to be less than 5 feet tall, with stunted legs that never healed properly after fractures, perhaps because of a congenital condition. A major talent, he was wildly industrious. But his rise was also occasioned by advances in color lithography techniques that changed the face of posters, which up until then had been text-heavy. Painters suddenly took on commercial print projects, and their work papered the city.

Parisians were giddily infatuated with all things Japanese, and the clean lines and flat colors of Japanese woodblock prints - perfect for eye-catching posters - influenced Toulouse-Lautrec. You can see it in his poster “Aristide Bruant in his Cabaret,’’ a bold evocation of a nightclub star and owner of the cabaret Le Mirliton. Bruant, in a black cape, red scarf, and raffish black hat, was a regular subject of the artist. Toulouse-Lautrec portrays him from the rear, a vantage point Degas popularized.

This lithograph, a rare proof printed before Toulouse-Lautrec added lettering or background, shows off the artist’s long, fluid contours and his talent for capturing facial expressions and character with a few deft lines; Bruant has the appearance of devilish satisfaction. In a smaller print, “Aristide Bruant’’ from the portfolio “Le Café Concert,’’ he appears to have soured. It’s a small gray lithograph in which Toulouse-Lautrec takes advantage of theatrical lighting to flood the performer’s face with an almost ghastly, flattening glare.

Lithography offered the artists a wonderful range of textures, and in Toulouse-Lautrec’s case, tones. Most artists practiced a four-color process, with one primary color per printing stone, and one stone for black. To get another hue, they would superimpose one color atop another. Toulouse-Lautrec used more stones, so every color had its own. It was an exacting procedure but it resulted in crisp, vivid coloration.

In “The Englishman at the Moulin Rouge,’’ in which the artist’s friend William Tom Warrener consorts with two dancers, the green dress of the woman in the foreground sports an airy, ink-splattered texture, and the other dancer has a delicate breath of red around her eyes. Maybe she was out late carousing. Warrener, in contrast, is strangely all red-brown, shadowy beside the light of his companions.

Montmartre’s celebrity culture was thick with self-promotion, and Toulouse-Lautrec had a particular hand at caricature, creating iconic pictures of performers eager to craft images of themselves. Look at “May Milton,’’ a poster of the dancer doing a kick in a simple white dress, revealing a mere glimpse of color and sinewy pattern on the lining of her skirt - a salacious insinuation about what delight lies beneath her ruffles. He exaggerates her features, elongating her face and accentuating her snub nose, so she’s unmistakable.

Singer Yvette Guilbert makes a cameo in Toulouse-Lautrec’s “Divan Japonais,’’ a poster for a club whose name translates as “Japanese Sofa.’’ These posters were almost the “Entertainment Tonight’’ of their day. Here, dancer Jane Avril hobnobs with writer and dandy Édouard Dujardin in the audience as Guilbert, identifiable in her signature black gloves, appears on the distant stage, her head cut off by the frame. You can see all of her nearby in Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen’s less stylized poster “Yvette Guilbert - At the Ambassadeurs Café-Concert.’’ Steinlen, also an adept caricaturist, lacked Toulouse-Lautrec’s strong, fluid lines.

A young Pablo Picasso had a brief dalliance with Lautrec’s style. In a small, slight Picasso painting from 1900 here, “Stuffed Shirts (Les Plastrons),’’ a Guilbert-type performer appears in concert before the titular audience. And Pierre Bonnard’s calligraphic black-on-white lithographs startle with their economy. He made “Riders at the Circus’’ and “Quadrille’’ as part of the series “Familiar Little Scenes,’’ an album of sheet music.

Portraying dancers, ordinary people at their leisure pursuits, and even the grungier side of life started with the Impressionists and had become de rigueur by the 1890s. A couple of dissolute characters slouch at a table in Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting “At the Café La Mie.’’ The title borrows from 19th-century slang for a client who ducks out on a prostitute without paying. Toulouse-Lautrec made the painting on cheap, laminated paperboard, and the paint application is deliberately rough, both of which add to the aura of degradation.

For good or bad, Montmartre was Toulouse-Lautrec’s element. He thrived professionally in the bohemian atmosphere, and declined personally. Plagued by pain and disfigurement, he found his place in the creative, sometimes outrageous community of artists, performers, streetwalkers, and cabaret patrons. He died in 1901, at the age of 36, of alcoholism and syphilis.

CAFÉ AND CABARET: Toulouse-Lautrec’s Paris

At: Museum of Fine Arts, through Aug. 8. 617-267-9300,

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