This post comes to us from Ronald Abbe, Museum Docent.
Toulouse Lautrec has come to the New Britain Museum of American Art. Is he an alien presence or a comfortable fit? The answer is obvious when one views the connections between his art and the work that emulates it elsewhere in the Museum.
Lautrec was an innovator. He tried to find a way to capture a moment in the most dramatic way possible. His cropped compositions make his scenes seem to be glimpsed in passing. The asymmetry of his arrangements and the daring exaggeration of figures and faces make his scenes come alive. These effects were startling in the late l9th century but so were photography and the new printing process of lithography. Quickly, the public found his poster lithographs exciting, and soon there was a craving in Paris for all things new.
The influence of Lautrec is all around the NBMAA. The first pictures we see as we walk through the Low Illustration Gallery are indebted to Lautrec. On our right we immediately come to Rico Tomasso’s Melee, Frank Schoonover’s Runaway Horses and Dean Cornwell’s Parisian Scene all painted decades after Lautrec’s death but all unthinkable without his example.The American illustrators in our gallery enthusiastically expanded on Lautrec’s discoveries. Schoonover, in particular, paints horses that are straining to break out of the picture plane. The exaggerated perspective and haphazard angles of their heads are Lautrec on steroids, as well as the slashing brushstrokes and seemingly careless outlines. All three artists use asymmetry, cropping, and overlapping for similar dramatic effects.
Further into the Low Illustration Gallery, there are two paintings which, from a distance, could be mistaken for a Lautrec. John La Gatta’s Two Distraught Ladies and Joe De Mers, Rules Kept From Her Husband have Lautrec’s simplified color with an emphasis on red and especially black. The theme of women captured in intimate moments can be traced back to Lautrec (as well as Manet and Degas who also mined that territory).
Lautrec’s specific influence on American illustration is important, but there are echoes of his themes and style in other galleries. Everett Shinn’s French Vaudeville was painted in 1937 and is possibly a direct homage to Lautrec. A dancer is viewed from the vantage point of the orchestra pit. We have seen this scene before in Lautrec’s poster of Jane Avril lifting her leg above the pit, with a bass player’s hand serving as a balancing shape in the lower right. Shinn is fascinated by the same lighting effects that Lautrec often used. Lautrec’s lithograph of Marie Louise Marsy is a good example of arc lighting which, because it emanates from below the stage, utterly transforms the face. These are not the faces of people one encounters during the day. These are the faces of Lautrec’s demi-monde, made up of people who come out at night. Lips are prominent in this light while the eyes become mysterious.
It might not be too much of a stretch to find Lautrec in the themes and composition of Thomas Hart Benton’s mural The Arts in America. Benton was as fascinated as Lautrec with night life and its denizens. We see some of the same singers and dancers. In fact, Benton’s dancers show more flesh and his night club encompasses more action. Benton as well as Lautrec loved caricature. Where Lautrec did biting caricatures of specific performers, Benton did caricatures of iconic figures. Although the victims of these exaggerations might be annoyed, both artists left no doubt about their vision of the world.
Can you think of other paintings in the collection that have a Lautrec influence? A walk through the Museum after viewing the show could be enjoyable in this respect.