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Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec Monfa (1864-1901), better known simply as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, was exactly the kind of person your mother might have warned you to steer clear of: an inbred, aristocratic drunk who frequented cabarets and brothels and died, at age 36, of complications from alcoholism and syphilis.
No doubt your mom would remain unimpressed that he invented the cocktail known in his native France as the tremblement de terre, or earthquake, an imposing concoction that is half absinthe, half cognac.
And never mind that he was one of the most prolific and accomplished artists of his time, cranking out 700-plus canvases, 275 watercolors, and more than 5,000 drawings, along with a smattering of works in other media such as ceramics and stained glass, all during a career that lasted less than two decades. Your mother would focus on the fact that his parents were first cousins and his grandmothers were sisters. How else to explain his strange physical deformities — the torso of a man atop the legs of a child — not to mention his mental problems?
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Unfortunately, none of Toulouse-Lautrec's paintings, many of which are shockingly good, are included in the Coral Springs Museum's current exhibition, which focuses instead on a sample of the artist's 363 prints and posters. Still, the show goes a long way toward vindicating the decadent little Frenchman by emphasizing his virtuosity.
It helps that the exhibit includes a generous selection of works by Toulouse-Lautrec's contemporaries, including Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Edouard Manet (1832-1883), Pierre Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), and James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), to name just the best known. The big names are backed up by a supporting cast that features some long-forgotten figures from the milieu Toulouse-Lautrec so scandalously inhabited — an art world in which poster design was a profession both popular and respectable.
Some of Toulouse-Lautrec's posters are among the most famous works of their type in art history. Who has not run across his renderings of such performers as Jane Avril at the Jardin de Paris and La Goulue at the Moulin Rouge? Both are included here, along with the similarly familiar Divan Japonais ("Japanese Couch"). Reproductions of these are popular even today.
But it's the work of his lesser-known contemporaries that really gives us a clearer appreciation for the breadth and depth of poster art. Jules Chéret, Gustave Fraipont, Eugène Grasset, Lucien Lefevre, Alphonse Mucha, Vaclav Oliva, Francisque Poulbot, Georges Antoine Rochegrosse, Théophile Alexandre Steinlen — these exotic names might not mean much to us today, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, their splashy, colorful posters for operas and operettas, theatrical productions and nightclub revues, even flower shows, could be found all over Paris.
There were even influential art publications that presented smaller, limited-edition versions of some of the top posters of the day. From 1895 through 1900, for example, Les Maîtres de l'Affiche ("The Masters of the Poster") reproduced 256 prints, each 11 inches by 15 inches, that were distributed in groups of four, along with bonus lithographs created specifically for the series. More than 90 artists, including Toulouse-Lautrec, participated, and a representative sampling of the suite is included here.
Another selection focuses on color lithographs from L'Estampe Moderne, which was more of a mass publication. It ran for just 24 months, from May 1897 through April 1899, and also included four prints per issue along with a bonus print.
As pleasing as all this eye candy is, however, the works that really stand out are those of Toulouse-Lautrec's A-list contemporaries, which are grouped in several side galleries. American impressionist Cassatt, for instance, is represented by a pencil drawing and a handful of dry points, a very specialized form of printmaking that makes possible the wispy, ephemeral effects the artist was after. The fragile images seem on the verge of vanishing before our eyes.
There's also a suite of soft-ground etchings by Degas (from a series called La Famille Cardinal) and a trio of Manet etchings, to remind us that both artists were more than first-rate painters. A dozen Renoir lithographs and etchings in another alcove similarly redefine what we might think of as a Renoir.
The highlights of the exhibition, for me, are in the section devoted to Cassatt and cantankerous American expatriate Whistler. In sharp contrast to Cassatt's serene domestic scenes, Whistler takes us outdoors for such bracing works as The Tiny Pool, an etching from around 1879; the atmospheric Old Battersea Bridge, a lithograph from around the same time; and Seymour Standing Under a Tree, a circa 1859 work that combines etching and drypoint. Like Toulouse-Lautrec, Whistler suffered from a surfeit of personality that threatened to overshadow his work.
This sprawling retrospective, with its thick, weirdly digressive handout, provides significant insight into the featured artists and their contributions to modern art. Posters and graphics may not tell the whole story — we'd need some of the paintings for that — but they supply some of its liveliest, most entertaining chapters.