Fin-de-siècle Paris was known as the city of pleasure, famed for its cabarets and dance halls. In an era that embraced the cult of the individual, venue managers increasingly saw the advantage of promoting star acts, causing singers, dancers and actors to seek opportunities for personal promotion. Many turned to the new medium of the poster and its most talented interpreter, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. His strikingly innovative designs turned artistes such as Aristide Bruant, Jane Avril and Yvette Guilbert into household names, heralding the birth of celebrity culture as we know it and making a star of their creator in the process.
Toulouse-Lautrec was drawn to the bohemian milieu of Montmartre as a means of escaping his stifling home environment, where his stunted legs, the result of a rare bone disease, had frequently made him feel like an outsider. Among artists and performers he finally found acceptance and threw himself into the decadent nightlife with great enthusiasm. He became a regular at many of the leading nightspots where he would sit and avidly sketch the acts. Noted for his kind-heartedness, loyalty and charm he also “gained a reputation quite early for someone who drank anything,” says Hannah Brocklehurst, curator of Pin-ups: Toulouse-Lautrec and the Art of Celebrity at the Scottish National Gallery.
His arrival in Paris coincided with one of the most exciting periods in the history of Western printmaking. Jules Cherét, ‘the father of the poster,’ had revolutionised the medium’s use of colour by bringing the first large lithographic printing presses to Paris. Avant-garde artists had swiftly embraced the new technology, sparking a printmaking and collecting boom.
At the same time, a relaxing of laws restricting the posting of publicity materials allowed a new breed of entrepreneurial venue manager to adapt the new artistic form as a means of advertising, turning the streets of Paris into a veritable art gallery.
Friends in high places
Lautrec’s big break came in 1891 when Charles Zidler, manager of the legendary Moulin Rouge, asked him to design a poster. Cherét himself had created the first poster for the venue two years earlier. His playful design with its bright colours and pretty, Rococo-inspired women was certainly eye-catching but gave no indication of the individuality of the performers.
Lautrec gave the Moulin Rouge’s most famous dancers centre stage, portraying them in pared-down, flattened forms and bold black outlines inspired by Japanese prints. The muddy, acidic palette perfectly encapsulated the combination of decadence and delight that could be found within the venue.
“It is more than certain that I owe him the fame I enjoyed dating from his first poster of me” – Jane Avril
His intimate knowledge of the performers enabled Lautrec to capture their essence in a few brief strokes. La Goulue (the glutton), a nickname derived from her habit of quickly downing customers’ drinks, is shown swirling her skirts in the middle of the can-can while her partner Valentin le Désossé (the boneless) dominates the foreground performing one of his sinuous trademark moves.
“When the streets are lined with posters, an individual poster really has to stand out,” says Brocklehurst. And Toulouse-Lautrec’s stunningly innovative image certainly did that. There had simply been nothing like it before. “The contemporary accounts of people seeing it in the street were that it had a sort of uncomfortableness about it. It was so strange but people seemed to like that,” Brocklehurst adds.
Three thousand copies of the poster were pasted across Paris, causing an instant sensation and turning Toulouse-Lautrec into a star virtually overnight.
He broke new ground once again in his poster for Le Divan Japonais, a short-lived venue noted for its Oriental decor. The primary focus is on the figures of the dancer Jane Avril and the music critic Édouard Dujardin seated in the audience, immediately suggesting that this is the place to be seen.
In a daring innovation he crops the head of the figure on stage, knowing that the long black gloves would identify her as the singer Yvette Guilbert, a neat trick which not only acknowledged the power of her trademark but also the public’s ability to recognise it.
“Part of the appeal of these nightclubs and performers was their quirkiness,” says Brocklehurst. “They weren’t generic types. They all had their own personality and their own trademarks and people liked that. He grasped that concept.”
Soon after, Avril commissioned her first poster from Toulouse-Lautrec. One of the biggest stars of the era and an icon of Montmartre, she intuitively recognised the potential for poster-driven fame, and assiduously built her personal brand around it. “It is more than certain that I owe him the fame I enjoyed dating from his first poster of me,” she later wrote.
Avril became a close personal friend, even acting as hostess at the artist’s famed dinner parties. He was a fine cook and hospitable host and certainly enjoyed socialising with the celebrities of the day. He undoubtedly realised that the stardust that rubbed off on him was highly beneficial in terms of career and self promotion but also genuinely felt that these were his people.
The invention of celebrity
And they certainly felt an affinity with him. Yvette Guilbert appeared in Toulouse-Lautrec’s work more than any other performer, gracing song sheets, individual collector’s prints and two books of lithographs. The first of these caused a sensation as there was no precedent for producing an artist’s book dedicated to a single artist. The album was produced in a limited edition of 100, signed by both Guilbert and Toulouse-Lautrec, making it one of the earliest examples of celebrity memorabilia.
But perhaps her loyalty to his unique depictions of her went a little too far. La Vie Parisienne complained in October 1894 that she was becoming “more and more like an impression of a poster, with hair that is too yellow, lips that are too red, gloves that are too black, a belt that is too green”.
The singer and poet Aristide Bruant was another performer “described as walking round like a living poster,” says Brocklehurst. His trademark outfit of soft black hat, cape and red scarf flung dramatically over his shoulder was certainly one that cried out to be reproduced. But the image that has become one of Toulouse-Lautrec’s most iconic almost didn’t appear. The management of Les Ambassadeurs disliked the poster, considering it too unorthodox, and Bruant had to threaten not to perform in order to force them to change their mind. Having won his hand Bruant then had the poster plastered across Paris causing one journalist to exclaim “who will deliver us from this image of Aristide Bruant? You can’t take a step without finding yourself face to face with it,” proving early on that there is such a thing as too much publicity.
Noted for his kind-heartedness, loyalty and charm he also “gained a reputation quite early for someone who drank anything”
Lautrec continued to produce innovative work but his debauched lifestyle, particularly his love of absinthe, eventually started to take its toll, and in 1897 he began showing signs of alcoholism. A bout of delirium saw him institutionalised and in the summer of 1901 his mother brought him home to her estate where he suffered a stroke and died. He was only 36.
Tragically, while helping to invent celebrity culture, Lautrec was also to become one of its earliest casualties. However, thanks to his extraordinary talent, the images of those he helped to promote have become emblematic of an era enabling their fame to live on while so many who followed in their wake have been forgotten.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday