Toulouse-Lautrec’s Posters

Art at the mercy of capitalism. Or capitalism in the hands of art. Whichever came first, the Belle Époque brought with it the beginning of a new genre: poster art, and with it, a new generation of artists who came to Paris in search of their fortune.

At the end of the 19th century, after the second Industrial Revolution, Paris had become the epicenter of the world. Euphoria reigned in the atmosphere and hundreds of businessmen came to the City of Light looking for ways to sell their innovative products. In this prosperous and increasingly capitalist society, it was necessary to find new methods that would make it possible to convince the population that they needed all of these products. In this context, Jules Chéret, the man who is considered the father of poster design, appeared.

Despite his humble origins, Jules Chéret managed to make a name for himself in the art world thanks to his posters. Chéret was also the inventor of a large-scale color printing system, very useful for producing billboards. However, new advantageous competitors soon appeared that would snatch part of his fame and whose names would transcend the passage of time. The one and only Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was one of them.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was a painter and poster artist born in Albi, France, on November 24th, 1864. Coming from an aristocratic family, from a very young age he was characterized by very fragile health, a product of the inbreeding that manifested in his family. At the age of ten, he began to suffer from a disease that affected his bones, and, when he was fifteen, he fractured both femurs, so he never grew more than 1.52 m.

From his earliest childhood he felt a passion for painting, so in 1881 he decided to move to the city of Paris to pursue his dream. There, he was a student of Léon Bonnat and later, of Fernarnd Cormon. In the latter's studio he met Vincent Van Gogh and they forged a friendship that would last for years. In 1884, Toulouse-Lautrec moved to the Montmartre district, where he would live with other artists of the stature of Degas, for whom he always felt great admiration.

Despite the fact that the predominant artistic trend at that time was Impressionism, Toulouse-Lautrec never felt an interest in the landscape, preferring to paint more closed and decadent environments that allowed him to express himself in a more subjective way. His physical condition was a reason for rejection from the high society, so the Montmartre night allowed him to go unnoticed in a bohemian and extravagant atmosphere. His fascination with nightlife became the most recurrent motif in his work.

Toulouse-Lautrec came to Moulin Rouge in search of a libertine environment away from social conventions. His physical complexes led him to a suffering which he only managed to alleviate during his visits to the famous cabaret. This climate of artistic freedom guided him to create some of his best works, which allowed him to make a name for himself in French society at the time. His journey began when Charles Zidler, owner of the Moulin Rouge, commissioned him to create a poster to promote the show. This poster, which featured “La Goulue”, the most famous cabaret star, became an icon of the Belle Époque and, of course, the city of Paris.

The nightlife venues of the Montmartre district were his greatest source of inspiration. Together with his innate talent and his great capacity for observation, he managed to masterfully portray the essence of the Parisian night, using resources from Japanese art and creating a unitary whole between the image and the words. However, the artist's interest in posters came relatively late, and there are barely thirty works framed at this stage. Through his Affiches, the French artist was able to capture the most personal aspects of each figure he represented: it was not for nothing that he always said that he was a great observer. Departing from the norms established by the Art Nouveau of the time, Toulouse-Lautrec managed to innovate and create his own language capable of communicating and attracting the public.

His simple lines and a palette of contrasted colors made up a corpus of just 32 posters that, almost two centuries later, are still taken as a reference in the Advertising and Graphic Design sector, and, of course, travel the world in the form of exhibitions.

Berta U.

November 5, 2021

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