The Influential Legacy of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

The late 19th century heralded a new age in advertising, and Henri de Tououse-Lautrec took centre stage. But who was he, what did he achieve, and why are his posters still so popular today? Let’s dive in.

The nature of advertising today has transformed significantly. From TV ads to posts from social media influencers, there’s almost no limit to the mediums that can be leveraged for advertising. But when the world of advertising began, it was drastically different. With no internet or TV, advertising primarily took place in the form of posters.

The late 19th century heralded a new age in advertising, and Henri de Tououse-Lautrec took centre stage. But who was he, what did he achieve, and why are his posters still so popular today? Let’s dive in.

Henri in Paris

Born in 1864 in Toulouse, Henri was a remarkable painter, printmaker and caricaturist, eventually making his mark in Paris. Operating in the vibrant bohemian neighbourhood of Montmartre, he built relationships with the artists, dancers, and performers who would tread the boards of famous establishments such as the Moulin Rouge, Chat Noir, and the Mirliton.

During his time there, Henri created posters designed to draw crowds into these establishments, commissioned to advertise their biggest shows across the whole of Paris. In doing this, he was able to capture the unique facets of Parisian nightlife in a way that had never been done before.


His Most Iconic Posters

Throughout his career, Henri only created around 30 lithograph posters, but they remain so iconic even to this very day. Taking inspiration from Impressionist artist Edgar Degas and using the strong outlines, flat colours and simplified forms characteristic of ukiyo-e Japanese styles, his posters were an instant hit.

In them, he illustrated scenes of Paris nightlife abundant with late night bars and bustling cafes, capturing the bohemian decadence of the era. Some of his most famous posters include:

Moulin Rouge: La Goulue

In December 1891, 3000 copies of the Moulin Rouge: La Goulue were plastered across the city of Paris, depicting two artistes who regularly performed at the cabaret.

This poster was an instant success, turning Henri into an overnight success and cementing him as one of the greatest print designers of all time.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec - Moulin Rouge, La Goulue, poster for the Dance Hall Le Moulin Rouge

Ambassadeurs: Aristide Bruant dans son Cabaret

Created in 1892, Ambassadeurs: Aristide Bruant dans son Cabaret uses bold, flat colours to depict the popular Parisian cabaret singer Aristide Bruant.

At the time, the Ambassadeurs club was one of the largest cafe concerts, and when Bruant was asked to perform there, he commissioned Henri to make a poster advertising the show after the success of his initial posters.

While Bruant regarded the poster as a masterpiece, the manager of the club was horrified by it and initially refused to pay Henri. Bruant issued the manager with an ultimatum, and refused to perform if he did not pay for the poster. They conceded, and the poster went on to be a huge hit within the city, drawing in crowds for the show and becoming one of Henri’s most famous works to date.

Ambassadeurs Aristide Bruant in his cabaret

Jane Avril, Jardin de Paris (1893)

Cabaret performer Jane Avril was a lifelong friend of Henri’s who appeared in many of his posters. In 1893, she commissioned him for a poster advertising her performance at the Jardin de Paris, a cafe-concert owned by the proprietor of the Moulin Rouge.

In it, Jane is seen giving her signature cancan move with her leg kicking towards an unseen musician playing the double bass. Henri employs a skewed perspective with severe cropping and flattened forms which juxtapose the beautiful and grotesque - contrasting the beauty of Jane’s dress with the hairy knuckles of the musician.

As one of Henri’s contemporaries, artist Paul Leclerq recognised his infatuation with Jane through his posters, stating:

“In the midst of the crowd, there was a stir, and a line of people started to form: Jane Avril was dancing, twirling, gracefully, lightly, a little madly; pale, skinny, thoroughbred, she twirled and reversed, weightless, fed on flowers; Lautrec was shouting out his admiration.”

Jane Avril au Jardin de Paris

Henri’s works were never initially intended for artistic collection, and it’s unlikely that he would have predicted the status they hold today as masterpieces. Not only have his advertisements gone on to hold such significance, but it is widely considered that they paved the way for modern graphic design as we now know it.

Keep an eye out for our latest blog posts to discover more influential and groundbreaking artists.

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