Lautrec: Parisian paradox

"Marcelle Lender Dancing the Bolero in 'Chilpéric'" (1895-1896) by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Oil on canvas.

National Gallery of Art, Washington.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: His name is synonymous with Montmartre, the dodgy, working-class district in Paris whose clowns and crooks, playboys and prostitutes, cabarets, cafes and brothels he turned into the greatest show on earth in the late 19th century.

As CBS News Correspondent Morley Safer notes on CBS News Sunday Morning, the images he produced are the subject of Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre, an extravaganza of more than 250 paintings, drawings, posters and prints, including works by his pals Vincent Van Gogh, Edgar Degas and Pablo Picasso, all on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington before moving on to the Chicago Art Institute.

"He personified that image of France, certainly of Paris and certainly of Montmartre, of something being seriously naughty," Safer suggested to Richard Thompson, professor of fine art at the University of Edinburgh, and guest curator of the exhibition.

"Yes, he did," Thompson confirmed. "But of course, Lautrec came out of a culture which was developing that idea about Paris and hence, in this exposition, the whole idea of having Lautrec (along with) Montmartre, because the exhibition is about a great artist, but it's also about the milieu in which he thrived."

That milieu, in that time, was known as the "Belle Epoque": the "Beautiful Era," Safer says.

"He was, I guess, the most popular French artist ever, no?" Safer asked Thompson.

"He's got a tremendous identity, a real stamp to his work. Yes," came the response, '"particularly through the posters. But his paintings, also, are very remarkable."

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born as that era was beginning, in 1864, in Albi, in the south of France, to an aristocratic family. His parents were cousins, which may have been the cause of his abnormally weak bones, which stunted his growth. He was about five feet tall and walked with great difficulty. Painting was his greatest joy.

In 1872, he moved to Paris.

By 1891, at the age of 27, he was already a sensation with his poster of dancer Louise Weber, known as "La Goulue," or "The Greedy One." Three thousand copies were plastered around Paris; many were torn down by souvenir hunters.

"La Goulue dancing," Thompson remarked to Safer, "(was) a form of the can-can, which was rather lascivious, and that kind of dote-like energy is very apparent in the way she's posed."

And her partner, Safer observed, looks like an India rubber man.

"Valentin le Desosse, Boneless Valentin," Thompson pointed out.

Perched on a hill in Paris, Montmartre had a rich soup of types: laborers, struggling actors, and superstars, the Paris gentry, and thrill-seeking tourists. It was also a magnet for musicians, poets and pimps, writers and artists.

"Here you have this man who comes from a rural, aristocratic family, and hangs out with pimps and whores and show people, the low life of Paris," Safer commented. "What was the appeal for him?"

"I think," Thompson surmised, "to say he hung out with them is perhaps not quite right. ...Lautrec's a great observer. ...He enjoyed very much looking at how people operated, how they interrelated. He was fascinated by faces and facial expressions."

Faces such as that of artist Suzanne Valadon; the champagne merchant and photographer Maurice Guibert, with his mistress; and a young woman at the Rat Mort, the dead rat, just about the seediest hangout in Montmartre.

"Who is she?" Safer wondered.

"We think she's a woman called Lucy Jourdain," Thompson responded, "who was quite a high-class tart.

"And dangerous to know, I would say," Thompson laughed.

"She looks dodgy," Safer noticed.

"She looks dodgy," Thompson agreed. "The man (on the right in the painting) may be the Australian painter Charles Conder, who was a friend of Lautrec's, but he's cut out by the frame. ...She's the one who's important. He comes and goes. He just provides the money and the meals and the jewelry."

The impressionists reveled in France's sun-kissed landscape, says Safer. Lautrec preferred the night, indoors, in the dance halls and cabarets: the "Chat Noir" - the black cat, the Moulin de la Galette, and his favorite haunt, the Moulin Rouge, opened in 1889 by Charles Zidler and Joseph Oller.

"They put in a lot of different acts," noted Thompson, "a dance hall, a stage for comedians and singers. They had electric light and gas light. And it was highly promoted...but it's also where prostitutes operated, so there was an illicit trade going on in the same place."

It provided the backdrop, Safer says, for one of his most enigmatic works.

"You have, in the center," Thompson observed, "the table (at) which are seated middleclass men, friends of Lautrec, prosperous individuals' and women they've picked up. Very heavily made up. Rather tawdry. Rather vulgar...(along with a) woman extraordinarily made up, who seems to burst out of the picture space into our space."

The stars of the day, singers and dancers, were Montmartre's greatest attraction and Lautrec's favorite subject.

They included, Safer says, some of the most familiar posters that continue to be reproduced and reproduced right into the 21st century.

"It's an absolutely archetypal poster image," Thompson says. "What it does is have impact and information. It's to sell a product."

The product being Aristide Bruant, perhaps the most famous performer in Montmartre, a gruff singer and songwriter who performed at the Chat Noir, a combined Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen of his day, Safer explained.

"(Bruant) sang songs in working class slang about working class life, often criminal life, about the pimps and the muggers and so on," Thompson said to Safer. "(But) Bruant also knew how to dress himself in a way that was instantly recognizable. Trousers tucked into his boots. Big, broad-brimmed black hat. Scarlet scarf. That's Bruant."

There were others, Safer notes: Marcelle Lender, May Milton, May Belfort, Yette Guilbert.

"She emerged," Thompson says, "as a café concert performer around 1890. ...She had incredibly elastic, rubbery features, and would turn her face into all sorts of different shapes and sizes. And Lautrec could capture that marvelously. ...She wore long, black gloves to show how thin her arms were. ...When Lautrec did an album of lithographs of her performing, the cover is just her black gloves, which would become her trademark."

Of all his celebrity subjects, Lautrec was closest to the dancer Jane Avril, Safer says.

"(In a poster Lautrec) did of her...she's in the middle of doing her can-can dance and the expression of the legs is dynamic," Thompson remarks. "And in portraits he did of her, particularly a wonderful portrait of her leaving the Moulin Rouge, she looks very tragic and introverted. So she was a rather fragile personality who fascinated him."

From performers on-stage to more private performances, Lautrec was fascinated by the women of the maisons closes - the brothels, producing at least 50 paintings capturing the grimmest of lives.

Thompson described an image "of the medical inspection that these women had to undergo every few days, often not very hygienic inspections, which actually spread disease. ...a very humiliating experience."

And producing "pretty beaten up-looking faces," Safer noted.

In 1899, Lautrec was confined against his will to a clinic in Paris for alcoholism, a disease that plagued him much of his life. Determined to prove his sanity, he produced from memory a series of sinister-looking drawings of the circus.

"(One image) of two performers riding bareback has horses which have a nightmare character," Thompson observed, "so there's a sense of Lautrec being really haunted by his demons as he does these great late drawings."

Those works would be among his last.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec died on Sept. 9, 1901, two months shy of his 37th birthday.

But in that short life, Safer summarized, the little man was a giant of talent. He captured the spirit of an age, all of the glitz and glamour of the Belle Epoque and all of the sleaze and sorrow that lived its shadow.