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For the first time out of Europe, Toulouse-Lautrec & his world begins its U.S. tour in New Britain
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, La Troupe de Mademoiselle Eglantine, color lithograph, 1896, 617 x 804 mm, © Herakleidon Museum, Athens Greece.
NEW BRITAIN, CONN.- The New Britain Museum of American Art presents Toulouse-Lautrec & His World, January 12 through May 12, 2013 in the Museum’s McKernan Gallery. The Toulouse-Lautrec collection is housed at the Herakleidon Museum in Athens Greece and has traveled outside of Europe for the first time.

Toulouse-Lautrec & His World features one of the most fascinating artists and personalities of the Belle Époque (Beautiful Era) in France, which lasted from the late 19th century through World War I. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), considered one of the greatest painters of the Post-Impressionist period, is best known for depicting scenes from cabarets, theaters, dance halls and brothels. These were experiences that he himself lived when he moved to the north district of Montmartre in Paris in 1885. He wanted to show life as it is, not as it should be, but this objectivity was not without empathy or humor. His interest lay in portraying people, not only those he met during his nights on the town, but also his friends and the working-class citizens of Paris.

In 1891, Toulouse-Lautrec produced a color poster for the Moulin Rouge nightclub that brought him instant fame. He also illustrated theater programs, book covers, menus, and other ephemera. In spite of frequent late nights of carousing and alcohol abuse, he was a hard-working artist. When he passed away in 1901 at the young age of thirty-six, his oeuvre consisted of 537 paintings, 334 lithographs and etchings, four monotypes, 30 posters, and many preliminary sketches.

During his lifetime, lithography was considered just an advertising tool or a way of making an artist’s work better known to the greater public. Because of his impeccable printing techniques and innovative modernist style, Toulouse-Lautrec helped elevate the medium of lithography to the realm of high art. One of Lautrec’s innovations was to avoid photographic realism in the depiction of his subject, but to focus instead on the essential aspects of a person or his attire, extracting these unique elements and combining them to create an immediately recognizable image. Another innovation was his way of indicating depth in his works. Inspired by Japanese ukiyo-e prints, he used cut-off angles, flat color, unconnected planes, and a composition that was off-center, placing the main subject more than half way up the image. Toulouse-Lautrec himself never made a distinction between commercial and fine art and displayed posters alongside oil paintings in exhibitions in France and across Europe.

At the center of this exhibition is a rare collection of approximately 150 works on paper by Toulouse-Lautrec. This includes 12 of his iconic posters as well as 35 of his sketches, which were often the draft ideas for the posters themselves. The posters are incredibly rare and fragile because as temporary advertisements for a particular show they were not printed on quality paper. Many of the works are accompanied by appropriate passages from French literature, photographs, and other objects, in order to better capture the social atmosphere of the time.

Complementing the display of Toulouse-Lautrec’s graphic works are four bronzes by Edgar Degas (1834-1917) from the collection of Melinda and Paul Sullivan of West Hartford. Lautrec and Degas were introduced through Lautrec’s cousin, musician Desiré Dihau. Although the two were not close friends, Degas provided encouragement to the younger artist and proved influential in his choice of subject matter, jagged outline, dramatic use of foreshortening, cropped composition and the psychology of how he approached his subjects. Degas’ Horse with Jockey, Woman in Tub, Rearing Horse, and Horse Clearing Gate will be shown alongside Lautrec’s watercolors, drawings and lithographs depicting similar themes to acknowledge the give and take of ideas and influences that contribute to the formation of an artist’s style, even as signature and iconic as that of Toulouse-Lautrec.

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