Ostensibly far more risqué than Strictly Come Dancing, thigh split wisps of lycra and chiffon and all, 19th century Montmartre, made famous by the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, was a heady mix of dancing, singing, art, brothels and absinthe, or so one would believe from the work of its poster artists. Like latter day publicists of instant fame, artists defined Montmartre, immortalising it in the commercial medium of poster art – and their methods were much the same as those of publicists some 100 years on.

Jules Cheret, the “father” of modern poster making, with his fresh-faced, buxom dancers, painted the joyful atmosphere, “sexing up” his protagonists with rather more revealing costumes than they wore; Toulouse-Lautrec moved the depiction on with his brilliant and intimate character sketches, the reality in the facial expression, the bodily posture. He died of it, of course, young, at 36, his body hollowed out and cowed by syphilis and alcoholism, years spent in pursuit of art and dancers, sketching in the auditoria of concert halls, the hallways of brothels, his face as familiar as the artists and artistes – the lines often blurred – whom he immortalised in lithographic splendour. In this new National Galleries exhibition of paintings, posters and prints from Lautrec and others of his generation, there is an opportunity to assess a vast number of these works first hand for the first time in Scotland, including the Galleries’ own fine collection.

It was the lithograph that proved the making of Toulouse-Lautrec, a method of printing large images which the artist mastered with innovative use of colour, superb sense of visual design and ability to capture the entire atmosphere and ethos of place, of a moment in time, in an image that was complex yet neither fussy not busy, and made use of the medium’s ability to recreate hand-drawn lettering.

But it was the older artist Jules Cheret who had first taken advantage of the possibilities of lithography producing engaging, artistic images very different from the information-heavy, text-based posters of the first half of the 19th century. Cheret produced fabulously lively poster images for the clubs and cafés of Montmartre, whether advertising a particular type of drink - “Le Punch Grassot, se trouve dans tous les Grands Cafes” – or his swirling image of American dancer Loie Fuller, which, as National Galleries curator Hannah Brocklehurst points out in the catalogue accompanying the exhibition, was rather more revealing of her figure beneath the whirling swathes of fabric under which she is depicted, than was ever the case in reality.

The hugely innovative Loie Fuller was the subject of other artists’ depictions too, from Lautrec, who captured just head and feet behind a tumultuous cloud of dark silk, to Whistler, who attempted to capture in a series of quick-fire sketches her enthralling “Serpentine Dance”, in which she clothed herself in white silk with hidden batons that created sculptural shapes when she danced, the whole effect enhanced by dimmed lights and a magic lantern show projected on to her whirling and obscured form.

The Parisian public were captivated by the graphical depiction of the heady scent of Montmartre, the bohemian enclave in the north of the city, riddled with writers and artists, dancers and prostitutes. Lautrec’s posters, of which his first, of the dancer La Goulue at the Moulin Rouge propelled him to immediate and spectacular fame just as his own posters brought fame to the dancers and other frequenters of the clubs and cafes, were brilliant innovations of genre. His images were filled with recognisable personalities, both real and archetypal, and his penchant for serial obsessions with certain characters meant that when the rest of Paris made its way up the hill to Montmartre, they would enter a recognisable world.

Ubiquity brought its own problems, as Brocklehurst recounts in relation to the posters of the singer Aristide Bruant, whose image – somewhat tiresomely - dominated Paris in the early years of the 1890s, according to a contemporary journalist. But then Bruant, a dedicated self-publicist, a man who walked the streets of Montmartre listening out for the ripples of his name on people’s lips, a man who repeatedly commissioned Lautrec to publicise his act, did not mind, as countless others, then and now, do not.

But ubiquity has come back to haunt Lautrec, long after his passing. His images are some of the most well-known of any artist, instantly conjuring, as they did then, a place and time, reproduced now on coffee cups, cheap posters, t-shirts, the walls of hotel rooms. “It’s easy to forget how shocking they would have been at the time,” says Brocklehurst, who is hugely excited at the works coming in to the RSA building this week. It is not just the subject matter, but the style, the unusual acidic or dirty colours, the monumental sizes, the intimacy, the thought for and connection with the viewer, she says. “When you see them in real life, they take you completely unawares. They are spectacular.”

Pin-Ups: Toulouse-Lautrec and the Art of Celebrity, Royal Scottish Academy, Princes Street, Edinburgh, 0131 624 6200, www.nationalgalleries.org, 6 Oct – 20 Jan 2019, Daily 10am – 5pm, Thurs until 7pm, £11.50/£6.50/Concessions available