Art lovers are in for a treat this summer with the June 2 opening of "Toulouse-Lautrec and His World," through Sept. 1 at the Allentown Art Museum of the Lehigh Valley.
At the preview party, 6 - 8 p.m. June 1, there will be themed hors d'oeuvres by Karen Hunter Catering, live music, cash bar and strolling women French-cabaret style. According to a museum press release, "can-canning is encouraged." (Reservations: 610-432-4333, ext. 129). There are more events, lectures and programs keyed to the exhibition.
Allentown Art Museum Chief Curator Diane P. Fisher has been immersed in the exhibition, which occupies the Scheller and Rodale galleries.
"It's going to take up both of our large galleries. So, that's very exciting," Fisher says.
The museum is one of the first venues outside of Europe, and the closest to Philadelphia and New York, to host the exhibition, on loan from the collection of the Herakleidon Museum, Athens, Greece.
Paul Firos, director of the Herakleidon, which he founded in 2004, gave a May 19 talk at the museum, second stop for the exhibition on its United States tour, after debuting at the New Britain Museum of American Art, New Britain, Conn.
The exhibition includes about 150 original Toulouse-Lautrec works on paper, which are owned by Firos. Some are accompanied by relevant passages from French literature, photographs, and other objects to give a sense of the Belle Époque (Beautiful Era) in France, roughly the late 19th century through World War I.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864 - 1901) lived in Paris during what is described as a "colorful time of cabarets and cafés." He portrayed its singers, actors and other characters in his posters, lithographs and drawings.
"Toulouse-Lautrec didn't have a very long career," says Fisher. He is mostly known for his work from 1890s.
Fisher and her staff installed the exhibition at the museum.
"It's an excellent collection that really views the full depth of the graphic work of Toulouse-Lautrec," says Fisher.
The exhibition includes nine large posters that were originally hung in Paris.
Lautrec, categorized as a Post-Impressionist, was influenced by the French Impressionist movement and incorporated the sensibilities of Monet and Renoir in his own work.
"Toulouse-Lautrec was trained classically as a painter," Fisher points out. "But, really, the graphic arts were his medium, and he brought them to a new level in terms of graphic design and advertising. He has an economy of line, influenced by Japanese prints. He really captured the essence of Paris in the Belle Epoch."
In a lithograph, every color has a separate stone that needs to be aligned. "That's technically very challenging," Fisher says.
"Toulouse-Lautrec would keep 100 of the posters for his own collection before the text was included. And those are the most valuable and rare.
"The printer would put on the text. That was also designed by Lautrec. Those posters would be pasted all over Paris, and the people would quickly take them.
"At the time, posters were not considered art. But Toulouse-Lautrec knew they were. People just loved them. He became an overnight success when he published his first poster," says Fisher.
That was in 1891. The poster was for the Moulin Rouge, a nightclub.
"This was the era of joie de vivre, the Belle Époque. The pursuit of pleasure was paramount. Toulouse-Lautrec was in the Montmartre section. That's where a lot of actors lived. He didn't differentiate between poor people and rich people. He was very wealthy. He was born to a line of aristocrats in the south of France," Fisher explains.
"His mother always gave him money. His father loved horses and wanted him to follow in his footsteps. Lautrec was born with a genetic bone condition and he fractured both legs as a teen-ager. So, his legs stopped growing and his torso grew normally. He needed a cane to walk. He only grew to about five feet tall. He could not live the lifestyle his father envisioned."
Toulouse-Lautrec portrayed the life he could not fully live, but could observe.
"He captured the essence of movement," Fisher points out. "In part, the unusual angles are from Japanese prints and also the artist Edgar Degas." Photographic images also influenced Lautrec, according to Fisher.
"He had no use for landscape. He only wanted people," she notes.
Lautrec's infirmity, short stature and others' impressions of him also informed his art.
"He's always looking at the underside of society. He has a quote about ugliness," Fisher says. "'Ugliness everywhere and always has its enchanting side. It is fascinating to discover it where no one else had noticed it before.'"