Archives For Belle Époque

The Belle Époque posters adorning the galleries of the Driehaus Museum right now shouldn’t, by all rights, exist. They are more than a century old, printed on flimsy paper, with inexpensive inks. Some were once even displayed outside, where the wind, rain, and sun of Paris in its various seasons beat down on them.

The fact that we can enjoy exhibitions like L’Affichomania today, in the 21st century, is thanks to the first devoted collectors who preserved the posters. These adorers of the color lithographic poster, which transformed the formerly drab French capital into a bright, colorful, open-air museum in the last half of the 19th century, were known as affichomaniaques—literally “poster maniacs.”

These collectors gave the color poster—first and foremost an advertising medium—a legitimate place in the realm of high art, upending time-honored French traditions and institutions that traditionally defined what high art could be. The popularity of poster collecting rose in the 1880s, and peaked with wild enthusiasm by 1891, when the term affichomanie, or “poster mania,” entered the parlance. The Parisian art world, epitomized by the exclusive annual Salon, had been a conservative bastion of proud ideals defining what art was, who could make it, and who it was for. Suddenly, however, art exploded all over the streets, as available to be seen and enjoyed by the working class as to the upper classes. It was a revolution.

Jean Béraud, Parisian Street Scene, ca. 1885. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Jean Béraud, Parisian Street Scene, ca. 1885. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Émile Mermet, La publicité dans las rues de Paris en 1880 (Advertising in the Streets of Paris in 1880). Fold-out lithographic illustration in La Publicité en France, Guide Manuel, 1880. New York State Public Library, Albany.

Émile Mermet, La publicité dans las rues de Paris en 1880 (Advertising in the Streets of Paris in 1880). Fold-out lithographic illustration in La Publicité en France, Guide Manuel, 1880. New York State Public Library, Albany.

In addition to redefining what could be classified as art, the poster collectors’ enthusiasm also had a profound influence on poster-making itself. Beginning with French lithographer Jules Chéret and his hand-drawn letters, the text had always been an essential and fascinating part of the poster’s design and advertising purpose. But soon, some artists began to produce limited-edition prints “without letters,” not for the street but for affichomaniaques to display in their private collections. Dealers like Edmond Sagot, Édouard Kleinmann, and Victor Prouté stocked their galleries with these special, rare posters, printed without letters and on expensive papers, especially to provide to a wealthier collecting set who didn’t want their images so closely associated with the consumer delights they promised.

However, the infinitely reproducible medium of lithography also allowed the galleries to provide prints of the original posters for just a few francs, so someone could have a real work of art for the same price as one would pay to go to a restaurant or cabaret for an evening. For a similar fee per publication, subscribers to new poster journals, such as Les Maîtres de l’affiche, La Plume, La Revue indépendante, and Le Courrier français, received small reproductions that were easy to display at home.

If you didn’t possess even these financial means, however, there were plenty of posters out on the street to be had. Some bribed the billposters so they could put get their hands on the newest prints before they were glued onto billboards, kiosks, shop windows, and Morris columns. Many more risked being caught and fined by police and surreptitiously peeled posters off the columns at night for free.

The affichomaniaques therefore came from all corners of society. Another aspect of the Belle Époque’s poster revolution is that the first time, you didn’t have to be wealthy to have your own art collection. “The gold frame is for the time forgotten, and all have their eyes on the lithographer’s stone,” wrote Londoner Charles Hiatt in 1895.

Jan Toorop, De prentenliefhebber (The Print Collector) (Dr. Aegidus Timmerman), 1900. Oil on canvas. The Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands.

Jan Toorop, De prentenliefhebber (The Print Collector) (Dr. Aegidus Timmerman), 1900. Oil on canvas. The Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands.

Jules Chéret, Ernest Maindron, cover illustration, Les Hommes d’Aujourd’hui 6, no. 299 [1887]. From the collection of Ruth E. Iskin, image from her book The Poster: Art, Advertising, Design, and Collecting, 1860s–1900s.

Jules Chéret, Ernest Maindron, cover illustration, Les Hommes d’Aujourd’hui 6, no. 299 [1887]. From the collection of Ruth E. Iskin, image from her book The Poster: Art, Advertising, Design, and Collecting, 1860s–1900s.

What was the appeal? Certainly one reason for this fierce popular interest is that the new poster took the somewhat mundane elements of a Parisians’ daily urban life—applying face powder, drinking an aperitif, using new technology like the Théâtrophone, and enjoying a bawdy dance at the Moulin Rouge—and elevated them to delightful, even glamorous, activities immortalized in a colorful work of art. This is something consumer advertising has honed to perfection today, but in the late 1800s, this was the first time one saw one’s own life take on a new shine through fantasy images of, say, the beautiful Sarah Bernhardt of Alphonse Mucha’s posters or one of Jules Chéret’s cherettes.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). Jane Avril, 1899. The Richard H. Driehaus Collection.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). Jane Avril, 1899. The Richard H. Driehaus Collection.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901).  Moulin Rouge: La Goulue, 1891. The Richard H. Driehaus Collection.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). Moulin Rouge: La Goulue, 1891. The Richard H. Driehaus Collection.

"Job," Alphonse Mucha, 1896.

Alphonse Mucha, Job, 1896.

Théâtrophone, 1890.

Jules Chéret, Théâtrophone, 1890.

Though many embraced the astounding prevalence of these bright and colorful advertising images, others balked at what they viewed as a gaudy and unavoidable display. “This is what distinguishes the poster,” wrote French author Maurice Talmeyr in 1896, “that it does not propose its ideas more or less persuasively, but it imposes itself on me. I read a book if I want to do so; I go to see a painting if I feel like it; I do not buy my newspaper despite myself. But the poster? I see it, even if I do not want to see it. … I am obliged to breathe it and to have its force enter my blood!”

Pierre Bonnard, L’Estampe et l’Affiche, 1897. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. In this poster, which was commissioned from Bonnard by publisher André Mellerio to advertise the publication by the same name, the elderly woman personifies the older, traditional black-and-white poster peering suspiciously at the wild-haired bohemian youth representing the new color poster.

Pierre Bonnard, L’Estampe et l’Affiche, 1897. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. In this poster, which was commissioned from Bonnard by publisher André Mellerio to advertise the publication by the same name, the elderly woman personifies the older, traditional black-and-white poster peering suspiciously at the wild-haired bohemian youth representing the new color poster.

Whether one loved or hated them, however, the sheer power of these posters and the devoted passion of the collectors behind them was certainly not debated. Come and enjoy the exhibition L’Affichomania, a testament to the “poster maniacs” who preserved the ephemera of Paris’s golden age, before it closes on January 7.

 

Resources
The Poster: Art, Advertising, Design, and Collecting, 1860s–1900s by Ruth E. Iskin. Dartmouth College Press, 2014.
Posters of Paris: Toulouse-Lautrec & His Contemporaries by Mary Weaver Chapin. Milwaukee Art Museum / Delmonico Books, 2012.
To see the works of Henri de Toulouse-Laturec and his contemporaries on view now at the Driehaus Museum, visit the L’Affichomania: The Passion for French Posters exhibition site

There is perhaps no other artist as closely associated with Paris’s ‘Beautiful Age,’ the Belle Époque, than Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. His art of the late 19th century captured the colorful whirlwind of a raucous, modernizing city, from raunchy cabaret promotions to provocative brothel scenes. He was drawn to the avant-garde performers and prostitutes at very edge of society; an outsider himself, his own experiences informed his subjects.

 

The Outsider Aristocrat

Lautrec was born Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa, a descendent of one of the oldest and most prestigious French families, on an estate in Albi in southern France. He was his parents’ first child and came from generations of counts and viscounts, but would nonetheless live the life of an outcast as a dwarf. Between the ages of 13 and 14, he broke each of his legs in turn. Neither fully healed and the legs ceased growing, presumably because of a genetic disorder caused by inbreeding in his aristocratic family—his parents were first cousins. Lautrec therefore grew into adulthood with the foreshortened legs of a child below a normal-sized torso. He stood at 4 feet, 8 inches tall, and used a cane to walk with difficulty for the rest of his life.

Photograph of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec at approximately age 3.

Photograph of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec at approximately age 3.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in 1894, at the age of 30.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in 1894, at the age of 30.

Mocked for his physical appearance and prevented from participating in the sports and outdoors activities appropriate for a boy of his background and which he longed to do, Lautrec coped using alcohol. He drank copious amounts, especially the alarmingly potent absinthe. He even hollowed out his walking cane in order to fill it with liquor and always have a drink close by. Highly intelligent and always bitterly aware of how a normal, pleasurable, successful life in society remained out of his grasp due to his deformity, he developed a stinging wit. “I will always be a thoroughbred hitched up to a rubbish cart,” he said.

He also escaped into the world of Parisian brothels, where he surrounded himself with prostitutes. Although known for his louche behavior, he didn’t spend time with these women for sexual pleasure alone. He found a kind of camaraderie in their common status as outsiders. Lautrec was drawn to these women and even adopted them as a kind of family. Fellow painter Édouard Vuillard commented,

 

“Lautrec was too proud to submit to his lot, as a physical freak, an aristocrat cut off from his kind by his grotesque appearance. He found an affinity between his own condition and the moral penury of the prostitute.”

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec wearing the feathered hat and boa of Jane Avril (daughter of a courtesan, Moulin Rouge dancer, and close friend), ca. 1892.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec photographed wearing the feathered hat and boa of Jane Avril (daughter of a courtesan, Moulin Rouge dancer, and close friend), ca. 1892.

The Sympathetic Artist

Lautrec learned to draw as a child while bedridden with various illnesses. He favored horses as a subject; his father kept a full stable of them in Albi. In 1882, Lautrec moved to Paris at the age of 18 to study art in the studios of Léon Bonnat and Fernand Cormon. At Cormon’s he met other young members of the avant-garde, including Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh and French writer and painter Émile Bernard. Lautrec settled in Montmartre, and became a legendary fixture of the bohemian neighborhood over the next 20 years.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). A Woman and a Man on Horseback, 1879-81. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). A Woman and a Man on Horseback, 1879-81. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). At the Moulin Rouge, 1892/95. The Art Institute of Chicago.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). At the Moulin Rouge, 1892/95. The Art Institute of Chicago.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901).  Moulin Rouge: La Goulue, 1891. The Richard H. Driehaus Collection.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). Moulin Rouge: La Goulue, 1891. The Richard H. Driehaus Collection.

Although Lautrec was an outsider in society and at the fringe of the Paris art world among the avant-garde, he would meet with wide acclaim and financial success through his posters, prints, and illustrations for journals and magazines. His first poster for the Moulin Rouge, The Dance at the Moulin Rouge featuring the striking, bawdy can-can dance of La Goulue (“The Glutton”), catapulted him to overnight success. This and the many so-called commercial works to follow inspired his contemporaries to view posters as fine art; arguably, Lautrec’s greatest masterpieces were advertisements for the famous Moulin Rouge and other eager clients in the entertainment business.

Lautrec didn’t merely observe Paris’s hot spots for the sake of his work. His art and life were inseparable, and he was a celebrated customer at the very brothels and cabarets whose prostitutes and performers he immortalized in his art. The Moulin Rouge even reserved a special front-row seat for him in the nightclub in addition to displaying his paintings. Lautrec formed close relationships with some of Paris’s greatest actresses, singers, and dancers; they were his muses, and, in return, he their publicist. Performers whose careers were supported by his exuberant posters and occasional portraits include American dancer Loië Fuller, French dancer and close friend Jane Avril, and French diseuse Yvette Guilbert. Paul Leclercq, a friend of Lautrec’s, described a typical scene at the Moulin Rouge that captures the spirit of Belle Époque Paris and the harmony between Lautrec’s personal life and work:

“In the midst of the crowd, there was a stir, and a line of people started to form: Jane Avril was dancing, twirling, gracefully, lightly, a little madly; pale, skinny, thoroughbred, she twirled and reversed, weightless, fed on flowers; Lautrec was shouting out his admiration.”

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). Jane Avril, 1899. The Richard H. Driehaus Collection.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). Jane Avril, 1899. The Richard H. Driehaus Collection.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). Jane Avril, 1893. The Richard H. Driehaus Collection.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). Jane Avril, 1893. The Richard H. Driehaus Collection.

 

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). Miss Loïe Fuller, 1893. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). Miss Loïe Fuller, 1893. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Lautrec was a master lithographer, tossing away artistic convention for his own vision and making exceptional use of all the latest innovations in color, texture, and printing. And like many artists of his generation, he drew heavy influence from the Japanese prints that were entering Paris for the first time at the end of the 19th century. He borrowed techniques like outlined areas of flat color, shifts in perspective, cropped compositions, and unusual angles.

One of Lautrec’s most notable achievements is his Elles series. Through these 50 paintings, Lautrec lifted the curtain on the intimate inner lives of the prostitutes he knew. The paintings depict the women in moments of solitude and repose. They aren’t romantic, floating feminine types; nor are they laughing, flirting, bawdy prostitute types; rather, they are real flesh-and-blood individuals. Through these paintings, the viewer enters an introspective, private moment that makes the women seem breathtakingly human.

Much of Lautrec’s work, and the Elles series in particular, reveal an artist who understood, even favored, the people who were consigned to the fringes of society. He showed deep sympathy for them, capturing qualities that they held in common with the rest of humanity, rather than emphasizing what set them apart as outsiders.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). Elles (portfolio cover), 1896. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). Elles (portfolio cover), 1896. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). The Sofa, ca. 1894-96. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). The Sofa, ca. 1894-96. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). Woman Before a Mirror, 1897. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901). Woman Before a Mirror, 1897. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Unfortunately, Lautrec led a lifestyle that far outstripped his body’s ability to cope. He boldly declared at the age of 24, “I expect to burn myself out by the time I’m forty.” He died earlier than his prediction—at the age of 36 in 1901, from the combined effects of alcoholism and syphilis. He left behind a body of work that included 737 canvases, 275 watercolors, 363 prints and posters, 5,084 drawings, ceramics and stained glass work, and an uncounted number of lost works. These, and the spirit of Belle Époque Paris they immortalize, are his legacy which resounds today.

 

 

Resources
“Henry de Toulouse-Lautrec.” The Art Story: Modern Art Insight
“Henry de Toulouse-Lautrec,” by Cora Michael, Department of Drawings and Prints, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, May 2010. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/laut/hd_laut.htm
“Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge.” Exhibition June – September 2011, The Courtauld Gallery, London. http://courtauld.ac.uk/gallery/what-on/exhibitions-displays/archive/toulouse-lautrec-and-jane-avril-beyond-the-moulin-rouge
Toulouse Lautrec in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, by Colta Feller Ives. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1996.