Lautrec and Impressionism

Paris was transformed from a medieval capital into a city of wide boulevards, grand buildings and stately gardens in the second half of the nineteenth century. The landscapes and cityscapes of Paris became an important subject for the Impressionists – artists such as Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Mary Cassatt and Camille Pissarro.

As an art student, Lautrec saw the seventh exhibition of Impressionist artists in 1882 and was taken with their new ideas of ‘unfinished’ canvases and use of pure colour. Lautrec began to try out their ideas, adopting modern subject matter, a lighter palette and feathery brushstrokes. While he did attempt to work outdoors, Lautrec also poked fun at this phenomenon of en plein air, noting during inclement weather:

The country is so raw and chilly that it would be absolutely impossible to install a nude model on the grass.

The principal distinction between the work of the Impressionists and Lautrec’s art was the pivotal role of the figure. Where the Impressionists set out to capture the changing appearance of the outdoors, for Lautrec this held no appeal.

Only the figure exists, landscape is and should only be an accessory: the pure landscape painter is just crude. The landscape should only be used to better understand the character of the figure.

Lautrec avoided the depiction of momentary visual sensations and solidified his compositions with the inclusion of the figure.

Image detail: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec La Goulue entering the Moulin Rouge [La Goulue entrant au Moulin Rouge] 1892
The Museum of Modern Art, New York Gift of Mrs David M. Levy