Dayton is only North American stop for French exhibit

“Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: The Birth of Modern Paris” is at Dayton Art Institute through Jan. 14.

Ever wonder how it would feel to be a gifted artist strolling through the streets of Paris at the end of the 19th century?

You don’t have to go far to capture that heady experience. At the moment, a trip through the special exhibition galleries at the Dayton Art Institute will transport you back in time to the boisterous and bohemian world of French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. You’ll see Paris through the eyes of one of history’s most influential Post-Impressionist artists.

He’ll take you to cabarets, racetracks, music halls, circuses, cafés and brothels. You’ll meet the actors and dancers, singers and prostitutes who inhabited the City of Lights in the era.

The internationally traveling exhibition, “Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: The Birth of Modern Paris,” was most recently in Shanghai, China, and will head for Japan after Dayton. The DAI is the only North America stop for this version of the exhibit, which has been organized by Pan Art Connections with the support of The Museum Box. The 240 lithographs on display come from a private collector who lives in Greece and Connecticut.

Who was Toulouse-Lautrec?

In many ways, Toulouse-Lautrec doesn’t fit the stereotype of an artist. A few interesting facts about his life:

  • He was born into a wealthy French family and didn’t have to worry about selling his paintings or earning a living — although he was very successful and became famous in his own time. He lived from 1864–1901.
  • Though he could have well-afforded to live in a fancy home and neighborhood, he chose instead to live among bohemian folks in the Montmartre district of Paris. He lived with artists and, as you’ll see in some of his artwork, even in brothels.
  • He faced a number of health issues and was a sickly child. He had bone issues and broke both of his legs, one at age 13, the other at 14. Although his torso was fully developed, his legs stopped growing. He walked with a cane.
  • Because of his health, he was never able to join the rest of his family on riding or hunting expeditions. As a result, he became more of an observer of life than an active participant.
  • He died from complications due to alcoholism and syphilis less than three months before his 37th birthday.

Entering the galleries

We’ve come to expect a DAI exhibition to be beautifully organized and displayed and this show doesn’t disappoint. As you enter the special exhibition galleries, you’ll be greeted by a large photograph that provides an intimate peek of a Cafe Concert where can-can dancers are surrounded by a rowdy audience. A wild scene! By the end of the century, there were an estimated 150 café-concerts in Paris.

The Cafe Concerts, we learn, offered inexpensive entertainment and attracted audience members from all walks of life who interacted freely with the performers and one another. The shows were publicized via posters, souvenirs, printed programs and limited prints. Lautrec turned out to be a master of all of these, influencing other artists.

The lithographs on display are all set against colorful gallery walls inspired by the art and designed by chief preparator and exhibition designer Martin Pleiss in collaboration with chief curator Jerry N. Smith. They are muted colors: orange, yellow, blue and deep red with repeated outlines of the Eiffel Tower and Toulouse-Lautrec’s well-known signature.

The posters and more

It is posters for which this artist was best known. In his remarks at the exhibit opening, Smith told the crowd that Toulouse-Lautrec studied art in the early 1880s, then moved to Paris where he met avant-garde artists of the time, notables like Emile Bernard, Vincent van Gogh and Edgar Degas. “He took up lithography in 1891 and was soon commissioned to create a poster for the Moulin Rouge,” Smith explained. “Plastered all over Paris, it was an instant success and made him famous.”

You’ll see a wide variety of his lively and action-packed posters as you tour the galleries. Smith says they were so popular that they soon became collectibles; people would pay the bill posters to get the copies before they were put up or even hide so they could grab a fresh poster from the wall before it dried! That’s likely why the posters that have survived and are in this exhibit are so well-preserved.

In addition, you’ll see advertisements, illustrated theater programs, restaurant menus ‚sheet music, book covers and more. “He made lithographs in portfolios for collectors and truly did not differentiate between paintings and lithographs, sometimes showing them together in exhibits,” according to Smith. There are original drawings, including those he drew as a youngster. One of the galleries is devoted to more personal items — photographs of Lautrec’s family and his hand-written letters.

It’s obvious that Toulouse-Lautrec was most fascinated by people, including many famous performers of the time. But he was interested in the working-class folks as well. “He wasn’t really interested in landscapes,” notes Smith. “He was interested in friends, family, performers, sex workers. He enjoyed the nightlife of Paris and we see it in his art. It’s a joyful exhibition with great humor.”

Note that because these are all works on paper, the light levels are lower than usual. It may take a minute for your eyes to adjust.

The education space at the end of the exhibit is inspired by the music halls and cabarets where Toulouse-Lautrec found inspiration. Visitors can suggest music to go along with one of the three soundtracks the DAI is creating for this show. “We hope the music will range from the melodies found in the late-1800s Paris to today’s hits. Each soundtrack offers us a chance to consider how popular culture has changed over time,” says Matt Boyd, museum educator. “Guests can follow the evolution of these soundtracks through the QR codes that are present in the space or by searching for them on the Spotify app.”


What:Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: The Birth of Modern Paris”

Where: Dayton Art Institute, 456 Belmonte Park North, Dayton

When: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday. Through Jan. 14.

Admission: Museum admission is $15 adults, $10 seniors (60+), active military and groups (10 or more), $5 students (18+ w/ID) and youth (ages 7–17), free for children (ages 6 & younger) and free for museum members.

Parking: Free

The DAI’s Museum Store offers gifts, drinks and treats. There is also online shopping at For this exhibit, you’ll find everything from Toulouse-Lautrec T-shirts, books, earrings, bookmarks, more.

For more information about the DAI, visit or call 937-223-4ART (4278). Go to for the latest museum information and updates. If you’d like to arrange a group tour, call 937-223-5277, ext. 335.


  • Community Guided Tour: Select Saturdays Dec. 2 and Jan. 13, from 1:30–2:30 p.m. and select Thursdays, Dec. 14 and Jan. 11, from 6–7 p.m.
  • Curatorial Conversations: Saturday, Dec. 9, from 1:30–2:30 p.m.
  • Fashionable Figure Drawing: Saturday, Jan. 6, from 1:30–3 p.m. Cost: $15 for members and $20 for non-members. For ages 12 and up.
  • Pronto Plate Printmaking: Saturday, Dec. 16, from 1:30–3 p.m. Cost: $25 for members and $30 for non-members.

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