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Unearthing a Minor Masterpiece

By Justin Sondak in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 13, 2005 4:03PM

T-L restored.jpgIt’s the art world version of a rock band stuck with a bad sound engineer or a gifted author languishing in B-list hell. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s “Scene de Ballet,” an early painting that curators and critics previously designated a hazy minor work, was given a much-needed restoration by the Art Institute. And wouldn’t you know, the painting’s more beautiful and more important than the art world realized.

As the story goes, twenty-year old Toulouse-Lautrec had tired of Paris and escaped to a suburban village where he'd paint murals of ballet dancers at the local inn. His talent blossomed quite nicely but he had a little too much fun in town and died in his late 30s of alcoholism and syphilis. As the artist’s posthumous reputation grew, the innkeeper, anticipating the fortune to be made, hired a butcher to cut the murals from the walls and mounted them on canvas. Art dealers got rich, Henri's became a household name in France, and generations of college students would decorate their dorms with Moulin Rouge posters (pictured, right).moulinrouge-med.jpg

The Art Institute’s analytic chemist and conservation scientist X-rayed the work to understand the extent of the damage and, through painstaking analysis, recreated the artist’s brushstrokes and sense of light and shadow. This episode demonstrates that Toulouse-Lautrec’s gifts were apparent even at a young age and that Organic Chemistry is actually quite useful for Art History majors.

The painting will take its rightful place alongside the artist’s other important work, as the Art Institute opens the Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmarte blockbuster exhibition this Saturday.