Writers and artists have always been drawn to Paris, and if they’re not fantasizing about Hemingway and his crew in the 1920s, they’re lost in dreams of the Belle Époque, that era at the end of the 19th century filled with can-can dancers, decadence and absinthe.
No one captured the goings-on in those twisty, dirty streets better than Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. He documented the debauchery with flair. Using advancements in printmaking technology, his enormous posters promoted the dance halls and bars he frequented – and depicted their patrons and stars along the way.
The Phillips Collection has gathered nearly 100 examples of these lithographs, produced over a 20-year-period, into an exhibition that brings the era vibrantly to life. Toulouse-Lautrec Illustrates the Belle Époque is on view through April 30.
What’s most striking about these works is their sense of immediacy. It’s humbling to be confronted with a piece of paper more than 120 years old that looks as if it were printed yesterday. The exhibition texts offer a clear description of the lithographic process and present several excellent examples of the same image at different stages of production.
The viewer can’t help but admire the artist’s mastery of line and his sense of perspective (flattened and overflowing the picture plane). He then employed various methods to add glowing color in golden yellows, deep reds and large expanses of blue.
But the crowds at Moulin Rouge and Le Chat Noir were more than bohemian; they were gritty. Toulouse-Lautrec was a privileged descendent of aristocrats with money to spare and a chip on his shoulder. He suffered from physical disabilities brought on by too much inbreeding in the family, as well as alcoholism.
His talent for capturing moments of lechery, specifically the male gaze directed at women, came with great experience. He frequented prostitutes and befriended them, often staying with them over long periods of time. They allowed him to paint them, often in sexually intimate situations with one another that would have been beyond scandalous at the time (these images are not in the show; the exhibition focuses on lithography).
On March 16 at 6:30 p.m., Cristen Conger, author of Unladylike: A Field Guide to Smashing the Patriarchy and Claiming Your Space, will lead a conversation about representations of female celebrity, power and the public gaze in relation to these images. Curator talks on March 30 and April 13 offer further insight into the artist’s work and his time. And the Phillips After 5 on April 6 is bound to be fun.
The women in Toulouse-Lautrec’s lithographs are either glamorous with dainty features and a feathered hat or crude, overly made up and leering. He was kind to some and brutal to others. The Phillips has cleaned up his image for this show and presents the prints as delightful party scenes with a bent toward caricature. But beyond the footlights, the creepy, brilliant artist was often up to no good.
Adult admission to the Phillips is $12. Learn more at www.phillipscollection.org.
The Phillips Collection: 1600 21st St. NW, DC; 202-387-2151; www.phillipscollection.org