Toulouse-Lautrec was a French painter and printmaker. He is best known for his portrayals of late 19th-century Parisian life, particularly working-class, cabaret, circus, nightclub and brothel scenes. His greatest contemporary impact was his series of 30 posters (1891-1901), which transformed the aesthetics of poster art. He also did a number of illustrations for the magazine Le Rire during the 1890s's.
Between 1882 and 1892, the Café du Divan Japonais, at 75 rue des Martyrs, had been run first by the grocer and poet Jehan Sarrazin and then by the eccentric Maxime Lisbonne. In 1893 it was transformed into a café-concert by Edouard Fournier, whose name appears on this poster. The auditorium was decorated with lanterns and bamboo chairs in Japanese style. Japonisme had enjoyed a great vogue ever since the 1860’s. Lautrec, who was asked to design the poster for the opening of the Divan Japonais, decided to adopt Japanese principles of composition, cropping and colour. The structure of the work, the arrangement of lines and flat areas of colour, is audacious and indeed revolutionary. In the center, clad in an austere black dress and a black hat, Jane Avril presents her elegant silhouette against the light buff of the orchestra pit, from which the necks of two double-basses emerge like a pair of snakes charmed by the conductor’s baton. To the right of the young woman, whom Lautrec greatly admired, is the music critic Edouard Dujardin, founder of La Revue wagnerienne. Beyond is the stage with the figure of Yvette Guilbert, on the left, half concealed by the curtain and identifiable only by her black gloves.