Style & Role of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec's Posters

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  • 0:00 Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
  • 0:52 Style of…
  • 2:20 Social Role of Posters
  • 4:28 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In this lesson, you will explore the posters of 19th-century French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and discover what these meant to both the world of art and the world of advertising. Then, test your understanding with a brief quiz.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Paris in the 19th century was an exciting place. But don't just take my word for it - ask Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, a famous painter and printmaker, whose images captured the fascinating world of Parisian nightlife. Granted, several artists of this time period painted scenes of Paris bars and clubs, so what makes Toulouse-Lautrec so special? Well, for one, we're not going to look at his paintings. We're looking at his posters. Yeah - posters.

The world of advertising was once very different than it is now, and Toulouse-Lautrec was amongst the first to really bring true artistic skill to the world of printed posters. In some ways, I guess you could call him the poster boy of art! Get it? 'Cause he did posters? Well, here's his art.

Style of Toulouse-Lautrec's Posters

Toulouse-Lautrec popularized the lithograph
Lithograph poster

Okay, here's a poster of Toulouse-Lautrec's. You've probably seen images in this style; Toulouse-Lautrec set off a major trend with these prints. This is a lithograph, a specific type of print made with a flat plate, etched with a water-repelling substance that attracts ink. This process had to be repeated for various colors. This poster, for example, is a 4-color print, with red, black, yellow and green inks being used and then the natural white of the paper.

Stylistically, Toulouse-Lautrec's prints have a similar feel. They rely on only a few colors and feel very flat without any real attempt to produce shading or depth. There is an almost minimalist sense to his prints. In fact, Toulouse-Lautrec was known for using the white of the paper more than most printmakers. Yet, there is an undeniable appeal to these prints. The compositions are simply artistic in the presentation of figures and the use of space.

And let's not pretend that part of the appeal doesn't come from the subjects: scenes of Parisian nightlife - bars, dance halls, clubs. Considering the subjects, Toulouse-Lautrec's preference for flat compositions makes sense; this is hardly the stuff that many artists would devote to oil and canvas. Nightlife is popular culture, in contrast to the high-minded, civilized nature of professional painting. So, Toulouse-Lautrec used a popular medium: posters, and developed a more folksy style.

Social Role of Posters


Now, while these are fascinating works of art, let's not forget what their original purpose was. These are posters, designed to advertise certain nightclubs, bars or cafes. Take this print - a poster advertising the café called Divan Japonais. In the image, a famous entertainer and a well-known author sit together watching a performance at the café. Now, the average person would not have seen this print like this.

Posters on display in art gallery

They would have seen it like this.

Poster glued to brick wall

And don't forget, the great thing about prints is that are reproducible, so really the average 19th-century Parisian would see this.

Multiple posters on wall

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