This Toulouse-Lautrec Exhibition Will Change the Way You Look at Social Media

At a new show of the artist’s work at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, you’ll see why he was far ahead of his time.

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Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

If smartphones had existed in the 1890s, there is no doubt that Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec would have been a capital-I Influencer. His Instagram posts chronicling the Parisian nightlife scene would have garnered thousands of likes; he’d have attracted enough followers to fill the Louvre a hundred times over.

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Jane Avril, 1893.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1932. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

The lack of modern technology, however, was no detriment to him—in fact, we are all still enjoying the fruits of his labor some 120 years later, as his posters and paintings of larger-than-life French personalities are still beloved today. Starting on April 7, you can see almost 200 of his works, many rarely seen in public, in at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

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The Englishman at the Moulin Rouge, 1892.
Bequest of W. G. Russell Allen. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Even if you think you don’t know Toulouse-Lautrec’s work, you’ve surely seen it. He may stand just outside the frame of Post-Impressionism’s Mount Rushmore—Van Gogh, Cézanne, Gauguin, Seurat—but his style is instantly recognizable, even to the casual, untrained observer. And while Van Gogh chose to paint Starry Night, Toulouse-Lautrec focused on a different kind of star at night, like the actor and artist Sarah Bernhardt, nightclub impresario Aristide Bruant, and Moulin Rouge dancer Jane Avril—the Beyoncés and Kardashians of the time.

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Moulin Rouge: La Goulue, 1891.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1932. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

“Many of us think of star culture or celebrity culture as being a 21st-century phenomenon—the images of stars are all around us,” says Helen Burnham, the Pamela and Peter Voss curator of prints and drawings at MFA. “But this was true in the late 19th century as well.”

 
Aristide Bruant in His Cabaret, 1893.
Otis Norcross Fund. Photograph © Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

In “Stars of Paris,” Toulouse-Lautrec’s prints, posters, and lithographs—along with some early never-before-shown drawings—will be on view alongside the work of his contemporaries like Pierre Bonnard and Mary Cassatt, to broaden the lens through which his oeuvre can be appreciated. Period films and music, including Offenbach’s iconic “Galop Infernal” (more commonly known as the “Can-Can”), are seen and heard throughout the exhibition, giving an even fuller sense of the historical context and creating an immersive experience of a night on the town in 1890s Montmartre. All told, it will show how Toulouse-Lautrec truly put the fun in fin-de-siecle.

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Jane Avril, 1899.
Albert H. Wiggin Collection. Boston Public Library. Courtesy, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

“Toulouse-Lautrec and the Stars of Paris,” April 7–August 4, 2019. .

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