December 15, 2019

French poster, with water
French poster from Paris in the Belle Epoque, Norton Simon Museum, 12/6/2019 (Inktense pencil on mixed media paper with dry brush technique added)

I found myself downstairs at the Norton Simon last Friday evening in the salons of art from the “By Day & by Night: Paris in Belle Epoque” exhibit. My sketching gang hadn’t quite gathered together yet, so I thought it would be interesting to sketch Georges de Feure’s 1894 poster with my 6 Inktense colored pencils—sun yellow, bark, baked earth, leaf green, tangerine, and sea blue. I did it on mixed media paper because I planned to later “just add water” to the sketch and thought the mixed media paper would take the water better than just some old sketch paper. If you are an artist you really understand how important it is to consider your paper before you get it wet. I mean, I don’t care if paper gets a little ripply, but color on cheaper paper will look dull when it dries. In past posts I have described how I’ve experimented with drawing with watercolor and Inktense pencils that I later squirt with water, but often use watercolor paper to get nicer color. I like the softened, splattered and/or runny effect you can get. (Actually using such descriptive words makes me wonder why I think so highly of this technique. It sounds rather terrible and ultimately like I am trying elevate something that looks a bit of a mess and shouldn’t be celebrated.) When I “just added water” to this one, later in the week, I was much more civilized in my approach. I used a 1/2 inch flat brush and added water using a dry brush technique—no splatters for this one, and the paper had only a couple ripples. Of course, going back to this piece to “just add water” reminded me again that I had left out the second letter A in Almanach. I was reminded of that error several times as my damp brush butted up against those pencil marks. Yuck!

I think what struck me most about de Feure’s poster, as well as other posters done by Toulouse-Lautrec, is that those were all advertisements for something. Many of Toulouse-Lautrec posters were done to advertise the Moulin Rouge and of course de Feure’s poster is an advertisement as well. I read the description of the piece next to the actual poster and it said that it was meant to advertise a city guidebook of Paris. It was published by a famous 19th century Paris print dealer, Edmond Sagot. I guess consumers were to see the fashionably beautiful and sophisticated urban woman holding the Paris guidebook and want one too. I think it was to make you want to be like her or maybe even meet her in some cool hot spot, like the Moulin Rouge. The description goes on to describe the men in the background as thought they were looking at her through a plate glass window—hence the grey/blue color. If you look at those guys, they really seem to be leering at her as well. Had advertisers back then already learned that “sex” sells? It made me wonder if the Moulin Rouge would have been listed in there as a place to visit while in Paris. From what I have read the Moulin Rouge, especially in it’s early days, was quite a naughty place. According to Wikipedia the can-can began there as a kind of seductive dance done by courtesans who “operated” from that sight. (Maybe like the dancehall girls in “Sweet Charity?” Except courtesans were usually prostitutes for the upper-class and/or wealthy clients.)

I’ve already mentioned Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, and you have already probably already heard of him. He was a contemporary of de Feure’s during Le Belle Epoque. Toulouse-Lautrec frequently painted women he saw at the Moulin Rouge and produced quite a few posters featuring them. Those were meant as advertisements as well. He was a master of capturing the movement of the people he saw. If you have ever seen those depictions of women doing the can-can you will know what I mean. I bet it really brought them in to see such a spectacle. And as I have already said, sex really did sell at the Moulin Rouge. Speaking of the can-can, it seems that as time passed the can-can morphed into something a little more about entertainment in a cabaret setting. (Oh, I imagine sex continued to sell at the Moulin Rouge…) But there is a scene of French girl marionettes doing the can-can beside Pinocchio in the Disney movie, “Pinocchio.” That definitely has a “G” rating.

Both men were serious artists and did more than make posters. They painted Paris’s changing urban landscape of people and places, both sophisticated and “everyday.” They were some of the artists, who painted from 1871 to 1914, and they established the artistic area known as the Montmartre district. 

It’s kind of cool to imagine such an urban change in Paris that changed the art world forever. I mean, the Eiffel Tower was constructed during this time. Such an urban and artistic achievement, Oui? Maybe this CA urban sketching thing I seem to be swept up into will someday be given a name like “dessinateurs urbanism de Californie?” Maybe not. However, I do intentionally try to capture people, places and things in one CA girl’s urban life. And what I see won’t look the same to coming generations, much like Paris has changed quite a bit in the past 100 years. Maybe that’s an important contribution to these “good times?” Not sure about the “sex sells” angle of the various urban sketchers I have met in the Burbank/Glendale area. OMG, Walt Disney would be rolling in his grave!


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