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Toulouse-Lautrec and His Demimonde Draw a Crowd

By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 23, 2005; Page C03

More than 9,000 viewers attended Sunday's public opening of "Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre" at the National Gallery of Art, which is apparently a record. "Our memories are long," said Deborah Ziska, the museum's chief press officer, and "no one here recalls another East Building opening attracting such big crowds."

Museum guards with clickers stationed at the entrance to the 10-room exhibition -- a kind of tour of Paris night life in the late 1800s -- counted 9,230 visitors. That easily surpasses the 6,190 who attended the opening of "Treasure Houses of Britain" in 1985 and the 3,340 who came for the first day of "Johannes Vermeer" in 1995.

The West Building's attendance record was set in 1963 when an average of 19,205 visitors a day saw Leonardo da Vinci's "Mona Lisa."

Because the Montmartre show is new, word of mouth wasn't responsible for the large turnout. Other factors were at play.

Though Sunday started out cloudy, the weather was not cold and spring was in the air. In short, it was an ideal day for going out. The opening also coincided with spring break, and the 19th-century pictures drew a fair number of students.

It's a fairly sexy show. Many of its pictures depict the prostitutes employed in the brothels of Montmartre. For drugs it offers absinthe, a concoction made from wormwood, which though now illegal in most countries was easily available in the nightclubs of the district. The cancan may seem tame now, but in the 1880s it was wild, new and hot.

And art-loving Americans, especially in Washington, have for many years been fans of 19th-century French painting. One reason may be that Paris art is fast; it seems to invite glimpses. Also, it's familiar. Of the 50 painters in the gallery's display, many of the strongest (Vincent van Gogh, Edgar Degas, Edouard Manet, Pablo Picasso) have already been encountered here in permanent collections and changing exhibitions. Washington's museums are particularly rich in paintings of the period. The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Kreeger Museum and Phillips Collection have lent objects to this context-setting, swirling, proto-modern show.

The show also has a star. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) lived fast and died young. Less than five feet tall and painfully deformed, he was unmistakable (Hollywood's Jose Ferrer played him in the movies by walking on his knees). He would have understood the exhibition's pull: He was a specialist at publicity. Of the more than 250 objects in the show, 140 are his pictures.

"Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre" closes June 12; passes are not required for admission.

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