The latest offering from the Montreal Museum of Fine arts, an intimate exhibition of the works of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), is like a postcard from the past, infused with cigar smoke and perfume. Showcasing the private Phillips Collection (Washington, DC), it contains almost all of the most famous of the French artist’s prints and posters.

Over one hundred works are on display, including proofs and sketches never before seen in public, and all in amazingly good condition. They cover close to the entire period of his lithographic production, from 1891 to 1900, all chosen precisely for their quality and colour.

Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa was born into an aristocratic family, but hardly with a silver spoon in his mouth. His parents were first cousins, and Toulouse-Lautrec was afflicted with a genetic disorder affecting his growth. Numerous fractures stunted his physical development, and he ended up with an adult-sized torso, while retaining his child-sized legs.

These facts, uncomfortably personal, are an intrinsic aspect of Toulouse-Lautrec’s personality, for rather than bemoan his fate, he found succour in creativity, becoming one of the best-known artists of the 19th century.

He also found a home in the colourful, and tolerant, world of the Parisian boheme, befriending actors, performers, prostitutes and dancers of some of the city’s iconic nightclubs and theatres. He brought his easels into brothels and painted all night, and unlike Degas – the other great painter of dancers, albeit of a different ilk – Toulouse-Lautrec was part of the family.

Famous actors and entertainers of the time are present in all his works, their names like a chapter from history: dancer Jane Avril; Irish-born singer May Belfort; composer, poet and publisher, once a café-concert singer, Aristide Bruant… the list is long.

But although he is mainly known for capturing the heart of Parisian nightlife during the Belle Époque, the cabarets and dance halls, places like the Chat Noir club, the Mirliton, and of course the famous Moulin Rouge, Toulouse-Lautrec was also a deeply socially engaged artist. His caricatures, like those of Goya, were overt social commentary; he took sides with the downtrodden and the dispossessed, and spoke out against injustice of all kind. It is no surprise that he was greatly influenced by perhaps the most famous social critic in French art history, Honoré Daumier (1808-1879).

The drawings and sketches in this exhibition are exquisite. They showcase Toulouse-Lautrec’s astounding draughtsmanship, marked by his fascination with Japanese art and block prints. Accompanied by lengthy wall texts, didactic without being overly so, this intimate showcasing, for those patient enough, reveals a plethora of narratives about both the artist and the time.

It also includes four works by two of the artist’s close associates: Théophile Alexandre Steinlen and Louis Anquetin. Steinlen is mostly known for his famous poster Tournée du Chat Noir, while in Anquetin’s case, it is his peculiar painting L’Intérieur de chez Bruant: Le Mirliton (Inside Bruant’s Mirliton), which is being exhibited for the first time. While the former is instantly recognizable, and superbly executed, the latter leaves a lot to be desired. Considered to be a preparatory copy abandoned by the artist, it is seen by many as a major rediscovery in terms of the art history of fin de siècle Paris.

Its saving grace is that it is entertaining. Guess the personages, guess the setting, solve the puzzle. Is that man with a cane Toulouse-Lautrec himself?

A brief distraction from the rest of the display, it’s like a flirty wink from a bygone era…

Toulouse-Lautrec illustrates The Belle Époque
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts 
June 18—October 30, 2016