During his brief artistic career, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec captured the lively and often sordid atmosphere of Montmartre’s late 19th-century dance halls, cabarets, and theaters. Recording the performances he viewed and the establishments he visited on a nightly basis, he functioned as artist and narrator: his paintings, drawings, prints, and posters expose the complexities of the quickly changing age in which he lived. Between 1890 and 1900, Paris saw tremendous growth in its nightlife scene, with nearly 300 café-concerts serving women and men who drank, smoked, and fraternized in ways previously unpermitted to them in public. In such prominent clubs as the Moulin Rouge and less reputable institutions like the Moulin de la Galette, aristocrats often rubbed shoulders with the working class. It was within these establishments that Lautrec found the subjects he would voraciously document over the next decade.
Despite descending from three lines of aristocracy, Lautrec derived artistic inspiration from the people he lived among in Montmartre’s working-class neighborhood, including prostitutes, singers, and fellow artists. In La Goulue at the Moulin Rouge (1891–92), he depicts Louise Weber, a cancan dancer nicknamed, “The Glutton,” linking arms with two women at the Moulin Rouge. In her confident gaze, Lautrec captures the unabashed brazenness of female performers in modern café life. In other paintings, he portrayed tired prostitutes queuing for mandated health checks. Together, these works amount to a snapshot of the dramatically shifting gender and class relations in Paris at the turn of the century.
Lautrec chronicled his era largely through printmaking—something few other artists had attempted to do in this medium. From 1891 until his death in 1901, he produced nearly 350 lithographic posters, editioned portfolios, and illustrations for journals and theater programs recounting life in Belle Époque Paris. The rise of color lithography in 1891 ushered in a new form of printmaking, and Lautrec found great success in this medium. This process allowed him to print large posters in color, including Divan Japonais, and he soon began experimenting with fresh applications, among them crachis, a technique that creates a splatter effect. In a letter to his mother, he remarked, “I have just invented a new process that can bring me quite a bit of money. Only I have to do it all myself….My experiments are going awfully well.” (Source: MoMA)