The late nineteenth century was a transitional period for stage lighting. Gaslight and limelight had been used for most of the century but carried the risk of fire, as well as unpleasant odors and heat. Electric light, made possible by Thomas Edison’s invention of a practical electric lamp in 1879, offered a solution. First introduced on a Paris stage in 1882, the new lighting gradually replaced gaslight and limelight. While electric light provided a safer alternative, the rudimentary technology had not yet improved the harsh and often unflattering illumination of its predecessors, which exaggerated an aged performers’ facial characteristics.
Montmartre in the late nineteenth century witnessed the rise of the modern celebrity. Fueled by the booming entertainment industry and aided by the development of the publicity poster, performers at dance halls, cafés, and cabarets became stars. Of all the performers of Montmartre, perhaps the most famous was Aristide Bruant. The gruff singer and songwriter performed at the Chat Noir, where he sang declamatory songs of working-class misfortunes and hurled insults at his increasingly bourgeois audience who relished his affronts, reveling in the “authentic” working-class experience. When the Chat Noir moved to larger quarters in 1885, Bruant took over the lease of the original location and renamed it the Mirliton (trashy verse). Eventually he became so popular that he was invited to perform at the Ambassadeurs, a café located in central Paris. Bruant commissioned Lautrec to create a poster advertising his appearance at the Ambassadeurs. The artist responded to the invitation with a monumental five-color lithograph printed on two sheets of paper. Designing a poster as bold as its subject, Lautrec distilled the figure of Bruant to his most recognizable features: his signature hat, red scarf, and black cloak, as well as his imposing posture and defiant gaze. Bruant was so taken by Lautrec’s design—“Am I that grand?” he is said to have remarked—that he went on to commission four additional posters from the young artist, all variations of the original.
In addition to Bruant and La Goulue, performers such as Marcelle Lender, Jane Avril, Yvette Guilbert, Loïe Fuller, May Milton, and May Belfort were popular subjects for Lautrec and his contemporaries. Lautrec periodically developed intense fixations with a single celebrity, whom he would watch obsessively for a period ranging from a single season to several years. The dancer Marcelle Lender first captivated the artist’s attention in 1893, when he began to attend theater regularly, and again two years later, when she appeared in the farcical operetta “Chilpéric.” Lautrec attended her “Chilpéric” performances some twenty times, creating numerous drawings and lithographs. In his painting Marcelle Lender Dancing the Bolero in “Chilpéric” (1895–1896), recognized as one of the most significant of his career for its handling of color and conveyance of energy, the artist depicts Lender center stage dancing the bolero. She thrusts her dark-stockinged leg forward and reveals the bright pink layers of her dress, echoing the black-and pink flowers of her headdress.
While Lautrec never developed a close relationship with Lender (who remarked, “The frightful man! . . . he indeed loves me. . . . But the painting, you can have it.”), he became close friends with many other performers. Lautrec worked collaboratively with the cabaret singer Yvette Guilbert, producing numerous works in which he caricatured her by exaggerating her lanky figure and facial features, and elongating her trademark black gloves. Of all his celebrity subjects, Lautrec was perhaps closest with Jane Avril, whom he depicted in her public persona as a daring and provocative dancer and as a private, introverted woman.
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