Week 27: Wednesday, May 16, 2018
As we approach the end of the Nineteenth Cenutry in our thirty weeks of study of Modern France, there is no better example of the changing values and styles of French painting and culture than Toulouse-Lautrec. Oh of course we could study his very good friend Van Gogh, or their other friend Gauguin. But I think Toulouse-Lautrec more than his two contemporaries, embodies the rapidly changing quality of French cultural life at the end of the century. In one way, his personal tragedy is a kind of emblem of a larger sickness at the heart of the very lively European artistic scene in the 1890’s. More than anyone else, Toulouse-Lautrec was a recorder of the wild, drug-filled, sexual liberation that was Montmartre in the 1890’s. The Montmartre of Renoir was gone. And in the 1890’s the new cabarets like the Moulin Rouge ushered in a different kind of night time tourism, of international fame, and of a decayed social scene filled with human tragedies, washed up prostitutes, sexual disease, and lots of money. Toulouse-Lautrec made all this famous with his brilliant new lithographs that could be printed up overnight by the thousands and posted all over the city on the kiosks. Soon Toulouse-Lautrec was famous and the Moulin Rouge was famous and people were stealing the newly valuable posters from the walls of Paris as soon as they went up. Toulouse-Lautrec’s short unhappy life is one of the great stories of art of all time.