1900; Lithograph in four colors, 160 x 65 cm
The poster La Gitane is among Henri de Toulouse-lautrec's most evocative works, as well as one of the rarest. It advertises a never-published play, now lost; its plot can be reconstructed from contemporary reviews that suggest a story line similar to that of Bizet's Carmen, with a sinister and melodramatic twist.
The heroine, Rita, is married to her cousin but betrays him with any man who catches her fancy. Among her casual conquests, the Count de Moreuse refuses to be discarded. He abandons his family and follows Rita to Granada, where, while Rita dances, husband and lover fight and die. The heartless Rita is gleeful and vindictive, as Toulouse-Lautrec shows; the play ends as she steps over the fallen men to flee, laughing with her brother-in-law.
Toulouse-Lautrec's composition captures the sinister interaction in bold silhouettes suggesting harsh theatrical lighting as well as back-alley darkness. This compression of detail is characteristic of Lautrec's work. He is credited with causing the reassessment of the poster as an art form. Posters were made and distributed in Paris from the seventeenth century, but only in the nineteenth was this means of advertising widely practiced by painters. Toulouse-Lautrec's posters are notable for their sophisticated and innovative color. His stark compositions frequently emphasize a single forground figure, a signature of his work. The flat color areas and abstracted shapes strongly reflect influences Toulouse-Lautrec absorbed from Japanese prints he and other contemporary artists studied.