Still entertaining us

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's London promotion poster captures the joie de vivre of the can-can, Christine Dixon writes.

In 1896, the dancer Jane Avril commissioned a small poster from her friend Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec to advertise a quartet of can-can dancers. They were to appear at the Palace Theatre of Varieties in London in February, and the artist created a lively and brilliant poster for the event. He named the members of Miss Eglantine's troupe: they are (above, from right), Gazelle, Miss Eglantine, Cleopatra and Jane Avril. By their diagonal placement across the horizontal space, the figures draw us into their energetic theatrical world.

Each woman is depicted in a frothy dress and blue-plumed hat, with violet shoes and stockings. Lautrec outlines the costumes with a nervous blue line, which animates the costumes against a bright yellow ground. He doesn't fill in the dresses and hats, leaving the paper blank so they appear white. The stage boards upon which they perform are indicated only by a couple of faint ruled lines. All the dancers have orange hair, but their faces and expressions are portrayed so individually we can still identify them more than a century later.

Lautrec is a master of the poster: flat areas are contrasted with flowing lines, touches of colour repeated with variations, and dark hues opposed to light. Dark violet - almost brown - legs and feet seem to recur up the poster. There are only three repeats, however, three limbs of the foremost figures diminishing in order to emphasise perspective, while the artist's friend, Avril, begins the new movement, which the others will then echo. Gazelle's left shoe, her feathered neckpiece and Avril's bow provide three more dark patches against the dancers' white petticoats. The fashionable theory of the colour wheel is invoked by two sets of contrasting values: yellow versus violet, and orange versus blue. Even the inside heel of Gazelle's shoe is coloured orange. Many techniques of lithographic printmaking were exploited by the artist to create different effects. We see the fluid line of a paintbrush, where Lautrec used a liquid to sinuous effect, the sparse drawn lines of a lithographic crayon, and the joyous flicked spatters which make up the blue feathers.

The artist acknowledges earlier masters of the genre, particularly the great Jules Cheret, whose images of young ladies dominated the streets of Paris for decades.

This inheritance is combined with a close observation of the masters of Japan, whose woodcuts were closely observed by French painters in the late 19th century.

Unusual angles, cropped compositions and large uninflected areas of colour were adopted by artists such as Edgar Degas, Claude Monet and Vincent van Gogh.

Lautrec's monogram, HTL in a circle on the lower left, is a nod to the way Japanese artists signed their works. In the poster, Lautrec also refers specifically to one of the earliest high art attempts at poster design, Pierre Bonnard's France-Champagne 1891. Lautrec picks up Bonnard's energetic outlines and flat yellow ground and here transforms them into quick and rhythmic procession, a group of dancers who make up an engaging and entertaining caravan across the stage.

In Miss Eglantine's troupe, the dynamic placement of the high-kicking dancers is countered by a masthead, printed in red in a sober font. Evidently thrifty, Avril thought that if the troupe were successful, she could reuse the generic poster for other venues. The unsuccessful London venture means that this intriguing and enjoyable piece of advertising art was used for a brief moment, but entertains us to this day. The poster captures the joie de vivre of the can-can performance as well as the friendship between artist and dancer.

Christine Dixon is the Senior Curator at the International Painting and Sculpture National Gallery of Australia.