The singer and actress Yvette Guilbert was the icon of the café-concert in the fin de siècle.
With her lanky appearance, striking voice, and contemporary repertoire, she played to full houses and was a favourite subject of printmakers who depicted Paris night-life, such as Henri-Gabriel Ibels and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. She also commissioned posters from them, which made her even more famous.
From 1890 onwards, Guilbert focused on interpreting the chansons of contemporary songwriters like Aristide Bruant, and also wrote the occasional song herself.
She was not traditionally beautiful and had a poor singing voice, but she skilfully exploited her shortcomings to set herself apart from her more polished fellow artistes.
Contemporaries called her a diseuse, because of the strongly articulated way she spoke rather than sang her songs.
Her unique voice ‘pierced the fog of smoke, alcohol fumes, and breath,’ the critic Gustave Geffroy wrote in Yvette Guilbert, an artist’s book by Toulouse-Lautrec.
The caricatural prints show the singer draped in her trademark long dress and gloves. Rather than downplaying Guilbert’s flaws, Lautrec exaggerated her gawky figure and upturned nose to emphasise her individuality.
Yvette Guilbert, La chanson de ma vie (mes mémoires), Paris 1927
Jacques Paul Dauriac et al., Yvette Guilbert, diseuse fin de siècle, tent.cat., Albi (Musée Toulouse-Lautrec) 1994
Richard Thomson et al., Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre, Washington 2005