Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) remains notorious for depicting the Parisian night scene of the late nineteenth century. More than a painter, he was a spectator of this microcosm, capable of capturing the atmosphere of the cabarets he frequented and portraying the celebrities that populated them. He was thus commissioned on several occasions to create advertising posters and developed the art of lithography.
Divan Japonais was one of those Parisian cabarets the artist frequented on a regular basis.
Edouard Fournier, director of Divan Japonais, commissioned Toulouse-Lautrec to design this lithograph in 1893 after the cabaret was redecorated. This work features three celebrities of the time : Jane Avril, a cancan dancer, is the woman in the foreground, Edouard Dujardin, a dandy writer, sits next to her, and Yvette Guilbert, another performer, is on stage in the background.
Creating a sense of dynamism to attract the eye of the viewer
Toulouse-Lautrec used several techniques in order to create a sense of dynamism. Yvette Guilbert’s head is not visible, half of Edouard Dujardin’s body is cut off the edge and Jane Avril’s fan is pointing to the left, towards something we cannot see. She seems to be also looking in that direction, and not at Yvette on the stage, which leaves us wondering was else is going on in front of her. Those bold cuts emphasize the fact that there is more going on there than the image shows us, and convey the impression of a buzzing atmosphere. We can conclude that there is not enough room on the poster to depict everything the artist sees, and so he had focus his attention on some elements, while making the conscious choice of leaving other ones out of the image.
The artist places the viewer among the audience, as if they were sitting right next to Jane, involving them in the scene. This is another conscious decision from Toulouse-Lautrec, which makes the viewer feel invited to join the place and watch the show.
The unrealistic use of perspective is a direct influence from Japanese prints, which were popular in late nineteenth-century Western art; it helps create a strong sense of dynamism. Everything from the floor of the stage, to the chair Jane is sitting on, looks somewhat unstable, and this impression is reinforced by the descending lines of the balconies. And while the neck of the double basses, as well as the arms raised at the center of the composition, should counterbalance those lines, they seem instead to emphasize again a sense of movement.
The dynamism of the scene convey the idea that the Divan Japonais is an exciting, entertaining cabaret.
A palette high in contrast
The choice of colors, with strong contrasting effects, is also influenced by Japanese art. The palette is limited to black, yellow, and lighter, neutral tints, as if there was no real color there but only shades and lights.
Toulouse-Lautrec emphasizes the stage with the use of yellow, which symbolizes the lights and therefore the lively atmosphere of the cabaret. It also helps bring attention to the presence of Yvette Guilbert, even though her head is cropped from the image.
Jane Avril seems to be the main character and subject of the scene, as she is prominently featured and dressed entirely in black, which makes her stand out, much like black makes Guilbert’s gloves stand out.
There is no other color used in this lithograph to distract the attention of the viewer. The silhouette of Edouard Dujardin attracts the eye long enough to notice that the place is also popular among the cultural elite, but Jane still captures the attention. The palette and its limited range of colors are enough to highlight the most prominent qualities of the cabaret: a lively atmosphere with engaging shows, and the presence of celebrities.
A limited use of typography
While it is an advertisement for the cabaret, its name is written at the very top of the composition, with some letters partially hidden by Jane’s hat. It only stands out because the letters were circled in black. The address is incomplete and handwritten in a way that’s almost not legible. As for the name of the director, it is written in a corner with colors that do not make it stand out.
Toulouse-Lautrec was less interested in typography and highlighting the text on this poster than he was in featuring the people and lively atmosphere that made the place attractive. He made the image speak for itself, there is no advertising slogan. He relied only on the composition and use of colors to promote Divan Japonais and advertise it as an inviting, entertaining place to be.