Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec - "Aristide Bruant"

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, (France 1864 – 1901),
Aristide Bruant dans son cabaret
(1893), 8-7/8″
x 12″, 4-color lithograph.

I found this delightful little lithograph while browsing around the bottom floor in one of our favorite haunts – King Richards Antique Mall in Whittier, California, hanging by a nail on a solitary old ceiling support post in the middle of the most glorious pile of rusty 1950’s appliances you’ve ever seen.

At first glance the image was unmistakably Lautrec, “Just more wallpaper,” I thought. I noticed some foxing along the sun bleached margins which often indicates aging (and poor care) and prompted me to take a closer look. I recalled that Lautrec was commissioned by that great singer and comedian of the 19th century to create these works and that they were the best of friends. I wasn’t sure where in time this one fell, but there are many online resources available I could access to pin it down. It was mounted under glass in a thin black wooden frame with a stamp on the verso revealing its origin. I had lived in Europe for a couple of years but I had never been to Tunbridge Wells, England (although it is twinned with Weisbaden, Germany, which is where I worked.)

I also wasn’t sure about the sizing since many of Lautrec’s posters were comprised of two large sheets and this was the size of a standard sheet of paper, but the mystery was irresistible so I payed my ten bucks and took it home. This is often the case with the art in my life. If there’s something that grabs me, either emotionally, spiritually or even physically, I’ll take a chance on it whether it was done by a listed artist or not. Part of the enjoyment of collecting original art is the hunt for background information about the artist, comprehending the meaning or the implications of the work and the pleasure of discovery. Very few things in life seem quite as rewarding.

Lautrec, born on November 24th, 1864, was the firstborn child of Comte Alphonse and Comtesse Adele de Toulouse-Lautrec, an aristocratic family from the Midi-Pyrenees region of France. As was the custom, the Comte and Comtesse were cousins, and inbreeding is believed to be the cause of Lautrec’s disfiguration1. He was a painter, printmaker, draftsman and illustrator who immersed himself in the decadent and theatrical life of the Parisian Cabaret where he met Aristide Bruant (1851-1925), who began performing at cafes and developed a singing and comedy act. Dressed in a red shirt, black velvet jacket, high boots and a long red scarf, Bruant soon became the star of the Montmartre Quarter of Paris.

An alcoholic for most of his life, Lautrec was later placed in a sanatorium and died just a few months before his 37th birthday.

Bruant had commissioned Lautrec to create four posters. The above work is his third and originally measured 52-3/8″ x 38-1/4″ across two sheets of paper in four colors (the text was added by another hand after the artist’s design.) The artist’s signature and monogram are on the lower left, which is exactly the same as in my smaller work.

Looking very closely at the lithograph (through the glass) I could just make out four crosswise folds. That could indicate (I hoped) it was originally a handbill produced by the artist for distributing around Paris on foot, and had been folded and placed in someone’s pocket (I know, a long stretch, but an intriguing one). It may also be a Mourlot lithograph such as the Calder piece I own, but I wouldn’t know that unless I took a peek at the back for the publisher’s stamp.

I hate undoing anything that seems to be doing fine without my intervention, but curiosity was biting hard. I really wanted to know if it had an original pedigree or if it was just another wall hanger. Either way I’ll still enjoy the image, but there’s that aesthetic thing again. Besides, it didn’t cost that much and the return in value and appreciation if it is an original would be a great surprise. It would also be wise to change out the old backing for newer archival materials to ensure longevity.

I started by carefully peeling off some old, dried-up masking tape and brown paper backing revealing 14 very rusty metal wedges holding the cardboard backer together. I removed the wedges, pulled out the backing and found…nothing. The lithograph had indeed been folded but there were no marks or stamps on verso. The substrate feels like poster paper and is in pretty good shape with some foxing. I replaced the backing with archival material and buttoned it up.

So, it remains a mystery until I find the time to research Lautrec’s poster work and verify the different sizes that were produced during his lifetime, and perhaps delve a little further into 19th century lithograph technology to understand and appreciate more what Lautrec had contributed to the media. In the meantime, I’ll enjoy this little gem and the history of the men behind it.

Mike-
  1. Lautrec had broken both legs as a child and they failed to grow. His body grew to normal proportions but he stood only 5′1″ tall.

2 comments:

  1. Cool collection Mike. I am certainly impressed by this piece of art. Seems like I have entered a royal cabin. What do you feel?

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  2. "Aristide Bruant", amazing stuff. The expression on the face appear to be real. The attire is also quite colorful. The artist have really made a good use of the color.

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