NEW YORK – On 2 May, Sotheby’s will offer a unique trial proof printed in black on white paper of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s iconic poster Moulin Rouge – La Goulue as part of an eclectic group of 23 rare Lautrecs with estimates starting as low as $6,000–8,000. The group includes a satirical menu for a dinner party, a Christmas card executed for cabaret singer May Milton, a humorous calling card, five lithographs, six posters and nine trial proofs of the artist’s most famous posters. Over the next two weeks, this blog will highlight more from this exciting group. 

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, a disfigured, diminutive alcoholic of aristocratic descent living on the fringes of acceptable society, was a fixture of fin de siècle Montmartre nightlife. Montmartre, situated outside Paris’s city limits, was subject to neither the city’s tax regime nor decency laws and quickly became a popular neighborhood for starving artists, a trendy drinking area, Paris’s red-light district and generally a center of lascivious, indecent behavior.  

Lautrec frequented his favorite club Moulin Rouge daily and was on a first-name basis with its performers, proprietor and regulars, as well as the prostitutes who frequented the club looking for business. Situated at the base of Montmartre abutting a middle-class neighborhood, middle-class patrons went to Moulin Rouge to mix with Montmartre’s intellectuals and gawk at the lower classes. Today, we’d probably most equate this group with hipsters, like Dalí here.

This Salvador Dalí reincarnate may live on the Lower East side of Manhattan or in Brooklyn's Park Slope.

Louise Weber, the club’s main attraction, acquired the nickname La Goulue (The Glutton) for her voracious appetite for drink and the verve with which she attacked Montmartre’s nightlife. She gained fame throughout Paris for her scandalous rendition of the quadrille naturaliste, a version of the can-can in which she would kick her skirt over her head while wearing transparent bloomers, if any at all.

Lautrec focuses on the center of attention, La Goulue’s bottom, as she danced. Lautrec freezes the moment the club’s clientele hoped for, when La Goulue kicks her skirt over her head. In the foreground, the silhouette of her dancing partner, Valentin le Désossé, a banker by day, and the dancehall’s modern electric lights obscure our view and force us to peer through the crowd at the object of the viewer’s desire. We are at eye level with le Désossé, implying that we are part of the ring spectators.  

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Moulin Rouge – La Goulue, the only known impression printed in black, offered for sale at Sotheby’s New York on 1 May. Estimate $200,000–250,000.

The finished poster measured nearly 6½ by 4 feet (approximately 2 by 1.2 metres). Its enormous size and the combination of multiple viewpoints aggressively flattens the picture plane, a visually striking departure from previous poster designs that would have surely caught the attention of the passerby, and presses the figure towards viewer, an ingenious device to involve the viewer in the scene and to force him to form a connection to the image and, by extension, la Moulin Rouge. Not only is it truly amazing that Lautrec executed such a complex image in his first attempt at the medium, but also that he clearly understood the fundamentals of effective advertising.