A new print installation at the IMA explores Pont-Aven School artists’ interest in the cafés, cabarets, and dance halls of Paris, and their engagement with the most innovative portrayer of nightlife in fin-de-siècle Paris, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The prints reveal the attention that Pont-Aven School artists paid to the pleasures and entertainments of modern urban life as an alternative to the nostalgic, rural Breton themes for which they are generally known.
The Pont-Aven School formed around Paul Gauguin and Emile Bernard in the 1880s and 1890s in the French province of Brittany. The artists in this circle were attracted to the rugged landscape and the colorful traditions of the Breton people served as inspiration. While the Pont-Aven artists are mostly known for their Breton scenes, they also reveled in the intellectual and social life of Paris. They visited galleries, attended concerts and plays, and gathered in the cafés and cabarets frequented by other artists, writers, and philosophers.
Many of the avant-garde artists of Paris focused on the cafés and dance halls of Montmartre, the working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of the city that became the heart of a lively, bohemian, racy entertainment industry that lured thrill-seeking audiences. Cheap rents in the neighborhood attracted up-and-coming artists and performers to move there, and find their subjects there. Raucous Montmartre—with its unbridled, tawdry, garish, provocative energy—was both their lifestyle and their artistic subject.
Born into an aristocratic family, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec began to draw at an early age and after injuries and disease left him partially disabled and socially marginalized, he embarked on a career as an artist. He moved to Montmartre in 1886, where he concentrated on documenting the characters of bohemian Paris. In paintings, prints, and drawings, he excelled at capturing people in their working environment, and at capturing crowd scenes populated by highly individualized figures. His compositions strip individuals down to their most salient physical characteristics in a manner that is both sympathetic and dispassionate.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s bold poster designs secured lasting fame for an intriguing assortment of café-concert performers in Paris. In fact, the fame of the English dancer May Milton rests almost entirely on Toulouse-Lautrec’s poster. According to critics, Milton, known as the “English Miss,” was short on both talent and physical beauty. Rather than idealize her appearance, Toulouse-Lautrec highlights her unusual physical features as a means of creating a visual identity for the dancer, so that her strong jaw and high kicks are instantly recognizable.
The artists of the Pont-Aven School were influenced not only by Toulouse-Lautrec’s subject matter, but also by his style. Their Parisian prints share Toulouse-Lautrec’s caricature-like treatment of faces, swiftly sketched contour lines, flattened forms, and layering of light and dark forms in order to create a sense of space and depth.
Armand Séguin may have met Toulouse-Lautrec through their mutual friend and colleague Emile Bernard. However the artistic contact came about, Séguin’s café themes are indebted to Toulouse-Lautrec.
A distinct difference in style exists between Séguin’s prints of Paris themes and his Pont-Aven subjects (see Primavera and Evening or The Gleaner, among other examples in the IMA’s collection). Paul Gauguin had commented on this stylistic difference, criticizing that the Paris works were too much like posters or caricatures. In Séguin’s The Café, flat patterns silhouetted against each other create convoluted, twisting forms. The exuberant drawing style and caricatural features of the figures are reminiscent of works by Toulouse-Lautrec. The women who populate Séguin’s cafés are lightly flirtatious, but the looming dark forms and the sense of agitation created by the rhythmic lines render the atmosphere of the scenes vaguely sinister.
Printmakers in the Cafés of Paris is on view in the Jane H. Fortune Gallery through August.
 Paul Gauguin, “Préface,” Armand Seguin, Le Barc de Boutteville Gallery (exh. cat).), Paris, 1895, p. 10.