Since 1887 he had been represented by the Paris gallery Boussod and Valadon, where Vincent van Gogh's brother Theo was the first to promote his work. By 1891, when Lautrec conceived his famous poster for the notorious Moulin Rouge cabaret and dance-hall, his artistic career was flourishing and he had begun to explore the multicolored lithograph as a fine-art as well as commercial medium.
Napoléon was a submission to a competition sponsored by Boussod and Valadon for a poster to advertise a new biography of the emperor. Lautrec's composition is relatively conservative in its drafting and naturalistic in its detail, yet it is infused with a characteristic sense of immediacy and unconventional symbolism: the red, white, and blue horses suggest the French tri-color and the soldiers' costumes evoke Napoleon's campaigns in North Africa and Europe.
Though Lautrec had tempered his style to suit the academic tastes of the jury, the winner of the competition was Lucien Métivet—like Lautrec, a former pupil of Fernand Cormon—who submitted an emblematic and heraldic design. Despite his third-place ranking, Lautrec was satisfied enough with his image to produce it in an edition of 100, without lettering, for an ever-growing market of collectors of fine-art lithographic prints.
Napoléon is one of more than forty works on paper by Lautrec held by Krannert Art Museum.
Text by Gisele Atterberry, from Krannert Art Museum: Selected Works, 2008