If you ever find yourself stopped on a street corner admiring the poster for a DIY house show pasted to a telephone pole, thank Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the 19th-century Parisian artist who turned poster-making into a legitimate art form. Through April, you can see the original posters that made notorious Parisian nightclubs like the Moulin Rouge famous, in The Phillips Collection’s latest exhibition, “Toulouse-Lautrec Illustrates the Belle Epoque.”
Born to an aristocratic family in the small town of Albi in southern France, Toulouse-Lautrec was beset by health problems, including a genetic condition that led to dwarfism.
“He grew up very privileged, but he was the son of first cousins,” curator Renee Maurer says. “To overcome his health issues, he took up drawing.”
When Toulouse-Lautrec moved to Paris in 1882 to study art, he met Vincent van Gogh, who became a good friend and introduced him to fellow bohemian artists and the burgeoning nightlife of the Montmartre district, where they would gather in local nightclubs — like the Moulin Rouge and the Chat Noir — to drink and watch legendarily risque dancers and singers.
“Montmartre embraced the bohemian spirit,” Maurer says of the time period that later became known as the Belle Epoque (literally, “beautiful era”). “It was the heart of a burgeoning entertainment industry and had an atmosphere of irreverence.”
Toulouse-Lautrec created many of the lithograph posters that advertised the various venues and performers, which were pasted all around town as advertisements. “Toulouse-Lautrec saw that lithography was an impact medium that appealed to the masses,” Maurer says. “And he created a myth by associating himself with local celebrities.”
‘Ambassadeurs, Aristide Bruant,’ 1892
Les Ambassadeurs, one of the venues frequented by bohemian artists, was much more refined than its bawdy counterparts in Montmartre. And even though the poster Toulouse-Lautrec created for the club wasn’t risque like his other works, the manager still didn’t like it — he didn’t care for the style. Aristide Bruant, the featured singer who had commissioned the work, said he would not perform if it were rejected. Ultimately, the manager caved, the poster was pasted all over the city and Bruant’s concert was a huge success.
‘May Belfort,’ 1895
While many Montmartre cabaret performers were outwardly suggestive, Irish singer May Belfort took a subtler, but equally raunchy, path. She often dressed like a little girl for the stage, singing in a baby voice while holding a black cat in her arms — to match her black hair (get it?). Toulouse-Lautrec liked Belfort so much that he made several prints of her after this one (which Belfort commissioned) at his own expense.
‘The Simpson Chain,’ 1896
Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters advertised more than just cabarets. He created this poster to promote a new kind of bicycle chain, the Simpson Chain. His poster shows a competitive cyclist using the chain to win his race. In real life, the chain turned out to be a complete flop. This was the golden age of bicycles, when biking became a phenomenon that touched artists and writers as well as the general population.
‘Moulin Rouge, La Goulue,’ 1891
This 6-foot-tall poster was the result of Toulouse-Lautrec’s first experiments with lithography. He created it for the opening of the Moulin Rouge, and it launched the artist into instant stardom. The dancer in the print is La Goulue (“The Glutton”), one of the most notorious dancers in Montmartre. “La Goulue was known for wearing decolletage down to her navel, kicking men’s hats off their heads, going on occasion without undergarments, and taking beverages off tables and drinking them while performing,” curator Renee Maurer says. “Her excessive lifestyle eventually got her kicked out of the Moulin Rouge.”
Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW; Sat. through April 30, $12.