Bohemian Portrait the Art Institute of Chicago Captures the Cultureand Celebrity of 19th-Century Montmartre as Seen by Toulouse-Lautrec

By Vitello, Barbara | Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL), July 15, 2005 | Go to article overview
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Bohemian Portrait the Art Institute of Chicago Captures the Cultureand Celebrity of 19th-Century Montmartre as Seen by Toulouse-Lautrec


Vitello, Barbara, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)


Byline: Barbara Vitello Daily Herald Staff Writer

"Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre"

Where: Art Institute of Chicago, 111 S. Michigan Ave., Chicago

When: Saturday through Oct. 10

Hours: 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday to Wednesday and Friday; 10:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Admission: Timed, dated tickets required. Advance purchase recommended. $15 Monday to Thursday; $18 Friday to Sunday, includes museum admission

Information: (312) 930-4040

Invigorating, unconventional, raucous, decadent and impossible to ignore.

Those words describe the Parisian arrondissement of Montmartre at the end of the 19th century.

They also describe post-Impressionist painter Henri de Toulouse- Lautrec, who captured the spirit of an age embodied by that city on the hill.

A bawdy Bohemian district, Montmartre attracted artists and entertainers, members of the working class and bourgeois Parisians who mingled with boozers, prostitutes, pimps and thieves within the confines of its celebrated cabarets and dance halls, brothels and circuses.

Within this intoxicating, brilliantly seedy milieu Toulouse- Lautrec found inspiration.

A rich, detailed, thoroughly enjoyable new exhibition, "Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre," opening Saturday at the Art Institute of Chicago, examines the enclave and its impact on the artist and his contemporaries.

More than 250 paintings, posters, prints, drawings, sculpture and other ephemera make up the exhibition featuring works by Toulouse-Lautrec predecessors Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas and peers Louis Anquetin, Emile Bernard, poster artist Jules Cheret, illustrator Henri-Gabriel Ibels, Vincent van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and painter/lithographer Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen among others.

"Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre" serves not as a retrospective, but as a slice of the aesthetic, cultural and social life in France at the end of the 19th century, said co-curator Gloria Groom, of the exhibition co-organized by the Art Institute and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

"The exhibition has so many twists and turns," said Groom. "I hope people go into every room and come out with a slightly different part of the story and a slightly different feel for him."

Born in 1864 to a wealthy but fading aristocratic family, Toulouse-Lautrec broke each of his legs as a teenager. Those injuries, coupled with a genetic bone disorder, stunted his growth. As a result, he stood only 4 1/2 feet tall and had difficulty walking, which prevented him from participating in most physical activities.

He turned to art instead. He sketched as a child and started formal training in Paris during his late teens. Eventually, he gravitated to the artists' quarter known as Montmartre where his bold, naturalism suited the deliciously decadent environs and its inhabitants.

Like their Impressionist forebears, Toulouse and other post- Impressionists adopted a vivid palette and distinctive brushwork, while embracing subjects from everyday life. Unlike the Impressionists, however, they infused them with greater emotional and psychological depth. The section of the exhibition devoted to Montmartre places and people reflects what Groom describes as Toulouse-Lautrec's "innate sense of character."

In paintings like the painfully candid "A la Mie," suggesting an alcohol-fueled affair, and "The Laundress," a simple but evocative work about unfulfilled aspirations, he hints at a backstory that begs explanation.

"He gets into the inner psychology (of the subject) in a way that other artists didn't," said Groom. Not every artist manages to intrigue viewers that way.

The exhibition also reveals Toulouse-Lautrec as master of reportage and chronicler of an era who "combines a journalist's eye for detail with a painterly sensibility," said Groom.

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