Toulouse-Lautrec works on display this summer in Allentown

About 150 pieces of the French artist will be shown at the Allentown Art Museum.

To Paul Firos, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was more than just the most significant of the French Post-Impressionist artists. Through his posters that were splashed across Parisian buildings in the late 1800s heralding upcoming events, he was the first advertising genius.

“He essentially established the modern advertising concept, through his posters,” Firos told a small gathering Sunday at the Allentown Art Museum as part of a preview of the summer exhibition.

Toulouse-Lautrec and His World — on display from June 2-Sept. 1 in the Scheller and Rodale galleries on the museum’s second floor — encompasses approximately 150 pieces, including about 100 original works on paper. Also on hand will be 35 sketches that served as the templates for some of his famous posters.

He drew from his own experiences in the north district of Montmarte Paris in the late 1880s, depicting the human condition against the backdrop of cabarets, dance halls and brothels. His color poster for the Moulin Rouge nightclub, done in 1891, brought him lasting fame.

Speaking from a podium as samples of the artist’s work were projected on the wall beside him, Firos said the large, predominantly yellow poster with the words “Moulin Rouge” printed three times will not be part of the collection displayed at the museum this summer because “we didn’t find a good copy,” Firos said.

Aware that many Parisians thought of the posters as art, Toulouse-Lautrec kept 100 copies of each for himself — without any lettering, just the artwork — and later signed and sold them. It is these unlettered posters that represent the greatest coupe for any collector of the artist’s work.

The Moulin Rouge poster, Firos said, was his first “and by far the most successful.” And repeating the name of the venue three times was no accident. “People will remember the name. He was at the forefront of advertising,” he said.

Toulouse-Lautrec, Firos said, was not interested in painting landscapes. He focused on people, with no shortage of subjects among the revelers, prostitutes and fellow artists who embodied Paris during his time.

The summer exhibit in Allentown represents the second leg of a three-venue tour of Firos’ collection. The first, which began in New Britain, Conn., in January, concluded Sunday. The collection will now make its way to Allentown for the summer before shifting to Flint, Mich. Firos said a second tour could begin as early as 2015.

Founder of the Herakleidon Museum in Athens, Greece, with his wife, Anna Belinda, Firos’ collection isn’t limited solely to Toulouse-Lautrec, who was born in 1864 and died from alcoholism and syphilis in 1901. He collects and exhibits the works of M.C. Escher, Victor Vasarely, and contemporary artist Carol Wax.

Included among the pieces to be displayed are: Jane Avril (1893, color lithograph); Divan Japonais (1893, color lithograph); La revue blanche (1895, color lithograph); and La troupe de Madamoiselle Eglatine (1896, color lithograph).

During the 10 months the collection was on display in Athens, an average of 10,500 visitors per month, including nearly 9,000 students, took in the exhibit. The Connecticut exhibition has attracted 40,000 visitors, Firos said.