IN the last years of the 19th century, Montmartre, a poor Paris neighborhood high on a hill, burst into a frenzy of popular song and dance, creative art and decadent high jinks -- a frenzy with wonderful imagery that still lingers in our minds. We owe most of those images to the works of the diminutive and doomed artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Toulouse-Lautrec was a painter and lithographer of extraordinary appeal. Museum-goers and buyers of reproductions love his paintings, prints and posters of cancan dancers and caustic singers and depressed prostitutes and bourgeois men on the prowl.
This is demonstrated once again by the crowds that now stream into the National Gallery of Art for its extensive exhibition “Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre.” More than 9,000 people showed up March 20 for the opening -- the largest opening-day crowd at the museum in 20 years of record-keeping. The exhibition, which closes in Washington on June 12, will go to the Art Institute of Chicago (July 16 through October 10) for its second and final stop.
The show is not a simple retrospective. The curator, art historian Richard Thomson of the University of Edinburgh, has put the work of Toulouse-Lautrec in context by exploring the commercial phenomenon of Montmartre entertainment and its attraction for many other artists as well. While the show displays 140 works by Toulouse-Lautrec, it also includes more than 100 by 50 other artists. This arrangement makes clear, for example, that Toulouse-Lautrec looked to the works of Edgar Degas for inspiration, and that other artists -- such as Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen, who drew posters for Le Chat Noir cabaret -- could create icons as striking as those of Toulouse-Lautrec.