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Shining a Light on Toulouse-Lautrec and His Celebrated Subjects

By Arthur Stampleman

“In the Limelight: Toulouse-Lautrec Portraits from the Herakleidon Museum” is the featured new exhibit at the Bruce Museum, occupying both the Love and Arcade galleries. On view are some 120 works on paper on loan from the collection of Paul and Anna-Belinda Firos housed in the Herakleidon Museum, which they founded in Athens, Greece.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) was born into an aristocratic French family. As a child, his family fully expected him to follow his father’s example and pursue aristocratic pastimes. But at age 10, Lautrec began suffering severe medical problems in his legs, partly hereditary, which caused his bones to grow abnormally and his height as an adult was under 5 feet. As a bedridden child, Lautrec turned his attention to art, and the rest is history.

He began his career as a painter, but his mature work is dominated by lithography, which is the focus of the exhibit at the Bruce. There are also drawings, etchings, publications, and one watercolor. “In the Limelight” showcases the artist’s portraits of dancers, singers, and other performers who became the icons of the Parisian nightlife in the late 19th century.

Lautrec wanted to show life as it is, not as it should be, but his objectivity was not without empathy or humor. His interest lay in portraying people, not only those he met during his nights on the town, but also his friends and the working-class citizens of Paris.

While many of his contemporaries created idealized pictures of celebrities, Toulouse-Lautrec presented a different perspective, focusing on the darker side of celebrity culture, highlighting the unflattering effects of stage lights, and depicting performers’ faces from the pit, revealing many of them grimacing.

“As a longtime friend of many of the celebrities he depicted, Lautrec was uniquely able to appreciate the hollowing effects of celebrity,” notes exhibition curator Mia Laufer. Lautrec created many of his lithographic projects and posters in collaboration with friends to promote their books, music, or performances.

The first three rooms in the Bruce exhibit include posters and drawings of some of the most famous Parisians Toulouse-Lautrec depicted:

  • Desire Dihau played the bassoon in the Paris Opéra orchestra and wrote songs for cabarets and cafés-concerts. Here viewers see caricatures, portraits, and the actual printmaker’s limestone plate for one of the lithographs displayed. Some notes and a video on the lithography process are available nearby.
  • Jane Avril was celebrated for her explosive and erratic can-can dancing. A poster shows her in the midst of a high kick framed by a musician cast in shadow and gives the illusion of the viewer situated in the orchestra.
  • Singer Yvette Guilbert was best known to Lautrec lovers for her long black gloves and a simple dress with a deep neckline highlighting her willowy figure. Lautrec collaborated on a luxury print portfolio dedicating her that is on view.
  • Aristide Bruant owned a Montmartre cabaret, Le Mirliton, and used Lautrec’s art to decorate and promote it. Lautrec helped Bruant establish a trademark costume: a large felt hat, corduroy pants, a hunting coat, and a red scarf.

The exhibit continues with Le Café-Concert, a limited-edition luxury print portfolio of lithographs on fine vellum paper. Other galleries display images of other figures, friends, family, politicians, and horses.

The exhibit runs through January 7. The Bruce Museum is located at 1 Museum Drive in Greenwich. Hours are 10 to 5 Tuesday to Sunday. Special public programming to complement this exhibition includes a lecture and film series. For more information, call 203-869-0376 or visit www.brucemuseum.org.

Captions



Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Eldorado, Aristide Bruant dans son cabaret, 1892
Color lithograph

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Study of Y. Guilbert (I) Linger, Longer, Loo, 1894
Ink drawing


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Babylone d’Allemagne (German Babylon)
Color lithograph

All images courtesy of The Bruce Museum. Copyright Herakleidon Museum, Athens, Greece.


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