MA Study Trip to New York City: High Fashion in Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s La Revue Blanche

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, La Revue Blanche, 1895, Lithograph, MoMA.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, La Revue Blanche, 1895, Lithograph, MoMA.

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Detail of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, La Revue Blanche, 1895, Lithograph, MoMA.

Our MA New York City study trip fortunately coincided with ‘The Paris of Toulouse-Lautrec: Prints and Posters’ exhibition currently on view at the MoMA. As the name suggests, an amalgam of images capturing bustling fin-de-siècle Parisian culture through Lautrec’s lens are arranged thematically for visitors to enjoy. From nightlife culture in dance halls and pubs, to female performers and prostitutes, the exhibition highlights Lautrec’s diverse portfolio. Lautrec’s representations of subjects and venues that fall short of respectability signal his repudiation of his aristocratic roots and the snobbery that characterized high-class culture. Plagued with a genetically generated illness that resulted in severely stunted growth and reliance on a cane to walk, Lautrec’s abnormal appearance perhaps contributed to his artistic affinity to more obscure subjects such as bohemians, prostitutes and criminals.

While the exhibition underscores the democratic nature of Lautrec’s art, a perusal of several of his posters led me to think otherwise. In particular, his images of women in lavish dress connote an air of exclusivity. For example, La Revue Blanche is a poster that features a woman wearing an ornate dress paired with ample accessories. Her long-sleeved dress is decorated with a sea of orange polka dots that stand out from the garment’s deep midnight blue hue. Its exaggerated puffed sleeves culminate at the woman’s elbows, becoming tight around her forearms and wrists. Matching light grey fur pieces wrap around her left hand and envelop her neck and shoulders. The fur accessories are embellished with red designs that are sea-creature-like in shape. Intricate swirls of dark and light green feathers dramatically emanate from the round hat that secures a translucent, but dotted, veil covering her ivory complexion. The variety of colours, embellishments, textures and volumes of the woman’s dress convey an opulent sense of style, diluting the sense of ‘everyday’ and ‘ordinary’ characterizing Lautrec’s oeuvre. The woman’s stern facial features further create a barrier between her and viewers. Her pursed lips and slightly furrowed eyebrows form a surly and unwelcoming expression.

In addition to the woman’s elevated fashion, the poster’s stylistic affinity to high fashion illustrations contributed to my perception of its prestige. Despite the historical time difference, I detected several parallels between La Revue Blanche and early 20th century illustrations featured in high-class magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. The isolated woman positioned against a blank backdrop, seemingly unaware of onlookers in the midst of walking or moving, is a standard compositional framework of high fashion illustrations. Moreover, the inaccurate rendering of details and imprecise brushwork are stylistic trademarks of illustrations that convey a sense of dynamism and capture a passing moment. The uneven application of jagged dots on the woman’s dress, the patchy colour gradations and undelineated contours in Lautrec’s poster reflect this loose style.

Despite the chronological implausibility of Lautrec’s connection to early 20th century high fashion illustrations, the woman’s dress and features still convey an air of sophistication and elegance that belies the bohemian thrust of his art.