In the cabaret class lines blurred. Members of higher classes wiggled into Montmartre to witness the raucous neighbourhood. They’d take part in the debauchery at a cabaret for a night. And then return to their own respectable homes.
Parisians could let their hair down at the cabarets in Montmartre. Upper-class Parisians dipped their toes into these freeing waters. Whether it was seeing sexy Can-Can dancers or raucous songs. Cabarets daringly made fun of bourgeoisie institutions. And they ate it up.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec desired to become a part of the sordid Montmartre nightlife. He could afford highbrow and costly neighbourhoods. After all, he came from a long line of counts that traced their ancestry all the back to Charlemagne. But he longed for a different life.
His urge to go to the lively Montmartre frightened his parents. His father pleaded with him and offered to pay for a swanky studio near the Arc de Triomphe. But Toulouse-Lautrec was not interested. Sultry brothels and smoky cabarets appealed to him more than rich estates.
He soon became one of the most popular patrons of Le Chat Noir and other cabarets. Toulouse-Lautrec is a high-profile example of the upper-classes fascination and attraction to the lower classes. He saw the dancers, outrageous entertainers, prostitutes, and down-and-out as more alive. Toulouse-Lautrec shrugged his shoulders at peoples money and standing. People who didn’t put on airs and were themselves fascinated him more – regardless of their class.
His vibrant paintings and advertisements capture this excitement with bright colours. Outrageous performers and illusions of movement and laughter capture the atmosphere. Perhaps better than any of his contemporaries.
He did not attempt to hide people’s flaws in his paintings. Or beautify women, like so many other artists. He portrayed his subjects, often actresses and prostitutes, with their flaws. Maybe Toulouse-Lautrec embraced others and Montmartre due to his own perceived flaws. He had an adult torso but not fully-developed legs.
Either way, he helped popularize and advertise seedy Montmartre. Almost ironically the posters live on today but the entertainers have been forgotten.
One of his most striking pieces is of Aristide Bruant.
Today Bruant is most famously known from the Toulouse-Lautrec advertisement. He dons a rakish black hat, cape, and a red scarf. Bruant first sang at Le Chat Noir but did not move to the new location in 1885.
Le Chat Noir grew and attracted more of the upper classes. Aristide Bruants rougher style became a bit much for them. Rodolphe Salis’s broader and well-clad clientele thought he was crass. Salis snubbed him.
In response to Salis’ snub, he established his own cabaret, Le Mirliton. Meaning the ‘reed pipe’ on doggerel in French. He observed the working-class, prostitutes, pimps, and criminals and recorded their argot. Then he incorporated their speech into rude and caustic songs.
One of his chansons, “A Grenelle”, is a ballad about an older prostitute, worn-out by soldiers. The last lines of cautionary song warn listeners: “This all proves that if you’re goin’ t’ be a whore, Set up your quarters at the Chaussé-d’Antin And don’t seek your clientele In Grenelle.” Oof.
The monologues he performed were heavily researched and formalized. Yet they came across as casual dialogues with the audience. Bruant picked up the down and under classes vernacular and intertwined it into his acts. They were confrontational and harsh.
Bruant attacked the audience during his songs and monologues. He brooded and barked at them from the stage. Walk in the door of his cabaret and expect to be insulted. God forbid someone left during a performance. He would abruptly stop mid-song and yell them out the door. And he ordered the audience to jeer as well. Many bourgeoisie went to Le Mirliton to be taunted by the half-serious Bruant.
Bruant knew of the upper-classes fascination with the lower. They loved cheap thrills and he used it to his advantage. He flipped the switch and made the audience the other. But, he considered his audience foolish. They couldn’t understand the content of his songs. Nor had they ever gone hungry like most of his subjects.
Lisa Appignanesi states Bruant and Toulouse-Lautrec advertised, “drinking and dancing, raucous music, sex for sale – available in a setting of anonymity and overt official acquiescence.”
At Le Chat Noir it was local artists’ works, not those of the academic painters, framed and placed all over the walls. Upper-class interest again is shown by the mass appeal of Toulouse-Lautrec and others posters. Historically oil paintings and sculpture were the most well-regarded mediums. Of course, they were also the most expensive.
Lithographs, mass-produced posters, and bright pieces of down-and-out subjects were groundbreaking. Toulouse-Lautrec and his contemporaries (Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard, and Theophile-Alexandre Steinlen) helped bring these images into the mainstream for everyone to enjoy.
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Appignanesi, Lisa. The Cabaret. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004.
Boyer, Patricia. Artists and the Avant-Garde Theater in Paris 1887-1900. National Gallery of Art. 1998.
Heller, Reinhold. Toulouse-Lautrec: The Soul of Montmartre. Munich: Prestel, 1997.
Maubert, Franck. Toulouse-Lautrec in Paris. New York: Assouline Publishing, 2004.