Loïe Fuller by Toulouse-Lautrec: The Spectacle of Life

Friday, June 3rd 2022

La Gazette Drouot, Caroline Legrand

American Loïe Fuller was one of the muses of late 19th-century Paris. The dancer and her whirling veil come to life in a rare depiction of Fuller by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

In the front row, ideally placed, we attend the show of Loïe Fuller (1862-1928) who was all the rage during the year 1892 at the Folies Bergère. Seen from behind, the American dancer’s silhouette stands out in a few brushstrokes: the result of quick, precise gestures from which life naturally springs. Arms raised, she flourishes a veil—the chief accessory in her famous serpentine dance—, spinning it above her head in a circular movement, seemingly mirrored by the red outline of the dance floor. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, who was also completely enchanted by Loïe Fuller, painted her only three times, in 1892 and 1893. In addition to this work, he produced an oil on tracing paper Au music-hall: la Loïe Fuller (In the Music Hall: Loïe Fuller), which once belonged to the Wildenstein Collection, and an oil on cardboard, La Loïe Fuller aux Folies Bergère, now in the Musée d’Albi. In 1893, the artist produced a poster based on this work, published in an edition of 60 by André Marty, in which the dancer’s silhouette is transformed into a colored torch with a striking economy of means and extraordinarily powerful expression. Toulouse-Lautrec went so far as to apply gold powder to each freshly printed proof—a process inspired by the work of the Japanese ukiyo-e artist Utamaro. He had created one of his most modern posters. Unfortunately, Loïe Fuller decided to turn to other artists for her future promotion. Though they did not get along, the dancer and the painter shared the same originality that made them prominent in the art scene at the turn of the 20th century. Deeply rooted in their times, they contributed to this period of change and progress in both economic and social terms. The world of entertainment, particularly dance, provided especially fertile ground for the emancipation of women—and Loïe Fuller became an iconic figure in this feminist struggle. With the help of her lighting designer brother, the woman who registered no fewer than ten patents and copyrights also revolutionized her art by using the most up-to-date technology. During her performances, the "light fairy" stood on a square of glass lit from below, then twirled her flowing costume using rods. Side projectors lit the fabric in turn, and mirrors reflected her image ad infinitum. Dancers, like Jane Avril and La Goulue, were inexhaustible sources of inspiration for Toulouse-Lautrec in both his paintings and posters: a new form of expression in which he distinguished himself with a direct, synthetic vocabulary. Movement and speed, whether on horseback or in the madness of Parisian nights, always inspired him as the full expression of the life he constantly celebrated. Qualities found in this oil on paper, which also has a fine pedigree. It first belonged to the art historian Emmanuel Bénézit, then entered the collections of the dealer Marcel Guiot and in 1946 went to Georgette Brisset, the wife of Bessou, a storekeeper from a family of merchants in Les Halles. It has remained in the family's descendants in Mettray (Touraine) until now.
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