I recall in art school, there was a quality of line that I learned about – it could be tentative, confident, gestural, or contour – and used for outlining, sketching or shading. So much could be communicated through the way a pencil, bit of charcoal, or conté crayon was put to paper or stone. Another important skill, and talent, was about looking, observing: the arch of an eyebrow, the curl of a lip, the sparkle of an eye, the tilt of a chin.. the more one could observe, and capture on paper, the more the artist could convey to the viewer what it felt like to be there, in that moment.
The works throughout the exhibition In The Limelight: Toulouse-Lautrec Portraits from the Herakleidon Museum, now on view at the Bruce Museum, show the tremendous talent and the result of years of drawing from observation – both from the stage and through relationships – that Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec brought to his portraits, drawings and prints. He captured so adeptly, with wispy, feathery lines as well as bold shapes and gestures, the festive, dramatic and jovial atmosphere of the dance houses, or café-concerts that he frequented in Paris in the late 1800s.
Along with friends from our group last weekend, we admired and studied the various works from across the room, or from just a few inches away. Toulouse-Lautrec was able to capture the character that the performer projected to him so well, and it left me wondering about the difference between portrait and caricature, how much was the persona that they wanted to portray – or what was simply perceived and conveyed.
Regardless of what reality was, the glow of the stagelights, the expressive faces and gestures, the performers were illustrated so adeptly, with a facility that is rare. Between his grand, stylish posters and his delicate, whimsical sketches, it’s the kind of art that fascinates, and it made me want to learn more.
Thankfully there are opportunities to do that – through various lectures and films scheduled in the coming weeks, with more about Toulouse-Lautrec’s life and times. The exhibition will be on view through January 7, 2018. Learn more at brucemuseum.org.