Paris in one of its gayest and most exciting guises, the Paris of Montmartre in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, is echoed in three posters of Aristide Bruant by Toulouse-Lautrec which have recently been put on display. As posters they are superb examples of art that it too often indifferently practiced. As a key to unlock a colorful period of the past they are magic. Aristide Bruant aux Ambassadeurs; Aristide Bruant à l'Eldorado; Aristide Bruant dans son Cabaret.
Probably no two people were ever better suited to be associated in a venture than Lautrec and Bruant. Both were absorbed by the poor, the unfortunate, the degraded wrecks who passed ceaselessly before their eyes; Bruant sympathetically, because he had his own struggles and had associated intimately with such human derelicts in the lowest dives of Paris; Lautrec with the objective interest of a scientist. In his paintings Lautrec depicted them with the passionless realism that distinguishes some of the tales of Flaubert. Bruant, partly from temperament and partly from experience, portrayed them emotionally in his melancholy songs.Lautrec and Bruant met each other about 1885, when the latter had just opened his cabaret Le Mirliton. This event was a milestone in a career that had begun by chance when Bruant had been persuaded one night to sing some of his songs in a tenth-rate café. At that time he was a railway clerk, but as his name became known and he progressed from café to better café singing his tragic ballads, he gave up his job and gave all his time to writing and singing his songs. He finally chanced his own cabaret, Le Mirliton, and for one bitter evening it appeared that he had lost. On the opening night only three customers turned up. Bruant, who had not only put all his ready cash into the venture but had borrowed as well, was in a nervous and apprehensive frame of mind. As the evening wore on and he became hoarse from singing without response form his tiny audience, his anger and disappointment mounted. Suddenly he turned on the hapless three in a black rage, reviling them bitterly in the argot of the underworld. They were enchanted, thinking it part of the act, and cheered him lustily. The next night they returned with their friends, and Bruant repeated his performance of the night before. It was in immediate hit, and from that time his cabaret was one of the most popular and famous in Montmartre. His technique of berating and ridiculing his clients, later practiced by Texas Guinan in this country, was a spectacular success.Le Mirliton was Lautrec's favorite cabaret and its colorful proprietor one of his intimate friends. The posters illustrated here were three of four made for Bruant on special occasions. All feature the singer's favorite and invariable costume: a black velvet jacket and trousers; a large-brimmed black hat; a scarlet scarf and a long black cape.The first poster was made for Bruant's engagement at the Ambassadeurs in 1892; the second for his appearance at l'Eldorado in the same year. The design of the two is practically identical except that the figures are reversed as if seen in a mirror. The third poster, Bruant dans son Cabaret,
done in 1893, is entirely different in conception. In making it Lautrec used only four flat colors on the yellow ground of the paper. In this instance Bruant is seen from the back with his face in profile and the composition is striking in its simplicity.The bold design of these posters is characteristic of Lautrec's poster style, which owes much to the Japanese prints so extravagantly admired by the artist. He was perhaps the first to make a fine art of posters, and to twentieth-century observers who remember the period they represent these examples will have a special appeal.Referenced Works of Art
- Bruant a l'Eldorado. Poster by Toulouse-Lautrec.
- Bruant aux Ambassadeurs. Poster by Toulouse-Lautrec.
- Bruant dans son Cabaret. Poster by Toulouse-Lautrec.