Toulouse Lautrec was a French painter, printmaker, draftsman, and illustrator, whose immersion in the colorful and theatrical life of fin de siècle Paris yielded exciting, elegant and provocative images of the modern and sometimes decadent life of those times. Toulouse-Lautrec is known along with Cézanne,
Van Gogh, and Gauguin as one of the greatest painters of the
Post-Impressionist period. The French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec depicted the Parisian night life of cafés, bars, and brothels, the world that he inhabited at the height of his career.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, a direct descendant of an aristocratic family of a thousand years, was born on November 24, 1864, at Albi, France, to Alphonse-Charles and Adèle Zoë. The Lautrec family was very wealthy and kept apartments in Paris as well as country estates around Albi, not far from Toulouse in south-west France. However, the child's aristocratic stock did him much more harm than good. Though his parents seemed complete opposites, his father, a wild eccentric hunter of women as well as animals; his mother, quiet and devout, they were in fact first cousins. And although he at first appeared a beautiful and healthy child, young Henri had inherited a congenital weakness of the bones. He was a delicate child, but led a normal life until he was fourteen. Then, in minor accidents, Toulouse Lautrec broke first one thigh bone and then the other. The bones did not heal properly due to a rare bone disease and when he could finally walk again, he had a normal torso with abnormally stunted legs. In spite of the popular legend that Lautrec remained a midget, he did in fact grow to over five feet tall. It was his large head and ill-proportioned body which made him appear dwarfish. Since Toulouse Lautrec had shown talent in drawing as a very young child, his parents encouraged him to take lessons with various teachers in Paris.
Toulouse-Lautrec's father and uncle were accomplished draughtsman, and the young Henri seems to have received some encouragement from them. By the age of 14, he was being tutored by a professional artist, Rene Princeteau, a deaf-mute who specialized in horses and hunting subjects. In his late teens, Lautrec was honored to become a student of the artist Fernand Cormon, whose studio was located on the hill above Paris. He stayed in the Montmartre section of Paris, the center of the cabaret entertainment and bohemian life that he loved to paint. Circuses, dance halls, nightclubs, racetracks and Parisian brothels, all these spectacles were set down on canvas or made into lithographs. Toulouse-Lautrec was very much a part of all this activity. He would sit at a crowded nightclub table, laughing and drinking, and at the same time he would make swift sketches. Toulouse-Lautrec preserved his impressions of these places and their celebrities in portraits and sketches of striking originality and power. Outstanding examples are "La Goulou Entering the Moulin Rouge" ,(shown) "Jane Avril Entering the Moulin Rouge", and "Au salon de la rue des Moulins".
Toulouse-Lautrec moved freely among the dancers, the prostitutes, the artists, and the intellectuals of Montmartre. From 1890 on his tall, lean cousin, Dr. Tapié de Celeyran, accompanied him, and the two, depicted in At the Moulin Rouge (shown here), made a colorful pair. Despite his deformity, Toulouse-Lautrec was extremely social and readily made friends and inspired trust. He came to be regarded as one of the people of Montmartre, for he was an outsider like them, fiercely independent, but with a great ability to understand everything around him. Among the painter's favorite subjects were the cabaret dancers Yvette Guilbert, Jane Avril, and La Goulue and her partner, Valentin le Désossé, the contortionist.
Through the seriousness of his intention, Toulouse-Lautrec depicted his subjects in a style bordering on, but rising above, caricature. He took subjects who often dressed in disguise and makeup as a way of life and stripped away all that was not essential, thus revealing each as an individual, but a prisoner of his own destiny. The two most direct influences on Toulouse-Lautrec's art were the Japanese print, as seen in his slanted angles and flattened forms, and Degas, from whom he derived the tilted perspective, cutting of figures, and use of a railing to separate the spectator from the painted scene, as in At the Moulin Rouge. But the genuine feel of a world of wickedness and the harsh, artificial colors used to create it were Toulouse-Lautrec's own. He incorporated into his own highly individual method elements of the styles of various contemporary artists, especially French painters Edgar Degas and Paul Gauguin. Japanese art, then coming into vogue in Paris, influenced his use of sharp delineation, asymmetric composition, oblique angles, and flat areas of color. His work inspired van Gogh, Georges Seurat, and Georges Rouault.
Toulouse-Lautrec's posters of the 1890s established him as the father of the modern large-scale poster. His best posters were those advertising the appearance of various performers at the Montmartre cabarets, such as the singer May Belfort, the female clown Cha-U-Kao (shown here), and Loïe Fuller of the Folies-Bergère. Toulouse Lautrec, many of whose works are in the museum that bears his name in Albi, was a prolific creator. His creative work includes great numbers of paintings, drawings, etchings, lithographs, and posters, as well as illustrations for various contemporary newspapers.
Toulouse Lautrec's alcoholic dissipation, however, eventually brought on a paralytic stroke, to which he succumbed at Malromé, one of his family's estates. As he lay dying, his mother and a few friends sat at his side. When his father, the rarely-seen Count Alphonse showed up, everyone was astonished, except Henri Toulouse Lautrec. He said, "Good Papa. I knew you wouldn't miss the kill." Today we know Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec as the archetypical bohemian artist of the belle époque, the "beautiful era" in Paris in the last decade of the 19th Century. Toulouse Lautrec helped usher in the new century, and died when the job was done. Lautrec captured the spirit and emotion of the era in his posters and portraits. Although his handicap and his alcohol abuse kept him from enjoying some of life's pleasures, Lautrec clearly shared in the joie de vivre of the time.