In the final decade of the 19th century, the bohemian quarter of Paris known as Montmartre was home to a remarkable community of avant-garde writers, artists and performers whose works would help change the course of modern art.
Among them was a headstrong, rebellious painter of genius from a proud aristocratic family that traced its lineage back to the Crusades.
Henri Toulouse-Lautrec was just 26 years old in 1891, when his first poster advertising Montmartre's racy night life suddenly appeared on walls all over Paris. The effect was electric, like the incandescent street lamps that only a few years earlier had made Paris famous as "the city of lights."
Here was a new kind of realism, unaffected and unflinchingly honest, graphically inventive and thoroughly modern, yet tempered by droll humor and affection for the colorful characters who prowled the dance halls, cabarets, bars and bordellos of Montmartre, where slumming aristocrats and rich bourgeoisie rubbed shoulders with street thugs and ladies of easy virtue in a gay whirl of decadent pleasure.
The intoxicating atmosphere of those years is brilliantly recaptured in Toulouse-Lautrec: Master of the Moulin Rouge, an exhibition of more than 100 posters, prints and other graphic works by Lautrec and his contemporaries that opens Sunday at the Baltimore Museum of Art.
Drawn exclusively from the museum's permanent collection of early modern art, the exhibition includes virtually all of Lautrec's celebrated posters of Parisian dance halls, as well as sets of lithographs he created for private collectors and advertisements for print portfolios, books and magazines.
The show also features works by Lautrec's post-impressionist contemporaries such as Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard and Henri-Gabriel Ibels, who contributed to the explosion of printmaking that helped define the visual character of the age and allowed the most progressive artists to present their works directly to the public.
Lautrec's first poster, Moulin Rouge, La Goulue, was the largest he ever executed and it is the first that greets viewers on entering the gallery.
The image depicts a popular nightclub performer at the Moulin Rouge nicknamed La Goulue ("the glutton") for her voracious sensual appetites (she was famous for going around draining the glasses of customers' unfinished drinks).
In the foreshortened picture space, La Goulue merrily kicks up her skirts with a shapely stockinged leg, to the obvious delight of a dandified gentleman in top hat and the audience silhouetted in the background.
The image already shows the graphic qualities that set Lautrec's posters apart: the drastically flattened picture space derived from Japanese prints, the animated drawing that captures the scene's whirling motion as if snapped by a camera, the exaggerated perspective that turns the yellow globes of an electric chandelier into a glowing necklace of lights.
Lautrec had been in Paris for nearly a decade by the time he created Moulin Rouge, La Goulue, a work that turned the unknown young artist into an instant celebrity. It also propelled him to the forefront of a graphic-arts revolution made possible by recent developments in the color lithograph process, which offered the first practical means of reproducing large numbers of color images relatively cheaply.
Over the next decade, Lautrec would go on to create dozens of posters and more than 300 smaller lithograph prints for various clients.
The posters, which often featured popular nightclub performers like the raconteur Aristide Bruant, the dancers Jane Avril, May Belfort and May Milton, and the singer Yvette Guilbert, helped elevate a throwaway artifact like the humble advertising poster into an independent art form.
During his lifetime, Lautrec's posters became so popular that people took to tearing them down and taking them home almost as soon as they were plastered onto the city's walls.
What separated Lautrec's posters from those of his predecessors was their uncanny ability to visually put the spectator into the very midst of the action being depicted.
By way of comparison, the BMA show offers a contemporary poster by Jules Cheret, an artist who was a generation older than Lautrec and who, during the 1870s and 1880s, helped cement the modern marriage between art and advertising.
Cheret had discovered that fetching images of scantily clad women were sure-fire attention getters. His 1888 poster advertising the Folies Bergere accordingly depicts a group of dancers in skimpy costumes floating weightlessly above the waters of a tropical lagoon and an exotic background of lotus blossoms and greenery.
By contrast, when Lautrec tackled a similar assignment, as in his famous poster of Jane Avril, there is never any doubt that the performer is a real person subject to the same laws of gravity as the spectator.
Although Lautrec depicts Avril's long black dress and elaborate hat with maximum economy of means, her figure retains a definite weight and spatial presence - one gets the sense of being in the very first row of the theater - both of which are quite absent from Cheret's frothy forms.
Despite his success as an artist, however, Lautrec was desperately unhappy as a man.
Afflicted since childhood with a crippling bone disease that left him a dwarf, he was never able to participate in boyhood sports or have normal relationships with women as an adult - except for his mother, whom he both depended on for support and resented for her conservative views, which she tried to impose on him.
As the heady years of the fin-de-siecle wore on, Lautrec increasingly sought consolation by throwing himself into the debauched world depicted in his posters and prints - even for a time living in a bordello, where he sketched the prostitutes at their leisure for a portfolio of erotic prints commissioned by his publisher.
(The work, titled Elles, has come to be recognized as one of the artist's greatest achievements but suffered poor sales at the time, possibly because of Lautrec's utter refusal to sentimentalize his subjects.)
As Lautrec sank ever more deeply into a life of dissipation and vice, his health, always fragile, began to fail him completely. For a time his mother had him committed to a clinic, where he seemed to recover somewhat. But when he returned to his old haunts he resumed his old ways, and after his last breakdown in the spring of 1901, he drank himself to death in a matter of months. He died later that year at the age of 36.
The BMA show offers a wonderful panorama of Lautrec's gaudy and tragic life and times, which, thanks largely to his art, have left their image indelibly stamped on the imaginations of those who followed.
What: "Toulouse-Lautrec: Master of the Moulin Rouge"
Where: The Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive
When: Through May 23
Hours: Wednesday-Friday 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Admission: $12 adults, $10 students and seniors
Call: 410-396-7100 or visit the Web site www.artbma.org.