There is perhaps no other artist as closely associated with Paris’s ‘Beautiful Age,’ the Belle Époque, than Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. His art of the late 19th century captured the colorful whirlwind of a raucous, modernizing city, from raunchy cabaret promotions to provocative brothel scenes. He was drawn to the avant-garde performers and prostitutes at very edge of society; an outsider himself, his own experiences informed his subjects.
The Outsider Aristocrat
Lautrec was born Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa, a descendent of one of the oldest and most prestigious French families, on an estate in Albi in southern France. He was his parents’ first child and came from generations of counts and viscounts, but would nonetheless live the life of an outcast as a dwarf. Between the ages of 13 and 14, he broke each of his legs in turn. Neither fully healed and the legs ceased growing, presumably because of a genetic disorder caused by inbreeding in his aristocratic family—his parents were first cousins. Lautrec therefore grew into adulthood with the foreshortened legs of a child below a normal-sized torso. He stood at 4 feet, 8 inches tall, and used a cane to walk with difficulty for the rest of his life.
Mocked for his physical appearance and prevented from participating in the sports and outdoors activities appropriate for a boy of his background and which he longed to do, Lautrec coped using alcohol. He drank copious amounts, especially the alarmingly potent absinthe. He even hollowed out his walking cane in order to fill it with liquor and always have a drink close by. Highly intelligent and always bitterly aware of how a normal, pleasurable, successful life in society remained out of his grasp due to his deformity, he developed a stinging wit. “I will always be a thoroughbred hitched up to a rubbish cart,” he said.
He also escaped into the world of Parisian brothels, where he surrounded himself with prostitutes. Although known for his louche behavior, he didn’t spend time with these women for sexual pleasure alone. He found a kind of camaraderie in their common status as outsiders. Lautrec was drawn to these women and even adopted them as a kind of family. Fellow painter Édouard Vuillard commented,
“Lautrec was too proud to submit to his lot, as a physical freak, an aristocrat cut off from his kind by his grotesque appearance. He found an affinity between his own condition and the moral penury of the prostitute.”
The Sympathetic Artist
Lautrec learned to draw as a child while bedridden with various illnesses. He favored horses as a subject; his father kept a full stable of them in Albi. In 1882, Lautrec moved to Paris at the age of 18 to study art in the studios of Léon Bonnat and Fernand Cormon. At Cormon’s he met other young members of the avant-garde, including Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh and French writer and painter Émile Bernard. Lautrec settled in Montmartre, and became a legendary fixture of the bohemian neighborhood over the next 20 years.
Although Lautrec was an outsider in society and at the fringe of the Paris art world among the avant-garde, he would meet with wide acclaim and financial success through his posters, prints, and illustrations for journals and magazines. His first poster for the Moulin Rouge, The Dance at the Moulin Rouge featuring the striking, bawdy can-can dance of La Goulue (“The Glutton”), catapulted him to overnight success. This and the many so-called commercial works to follow inspired his contemporaries to view posters as fine art; arguably, Lautrec’s greatest masterpieces were advertisements for the famous Moulin Rouge and other eager clients in the entertainment business.
Lautrec didn’t merely observe Paris’s hot spots for the sake of his work. His art and life were inseparable, and he was a celebrated customer at the very brothels and cabarets whose prostitutes and performers he immortalized in his art. The Moulin Rouge even reserved a special front-row seat for him in the nightclub in addition to displaying his paintings. Lautrec formed close relationships with some of Paris’s greatest actresses, singers, and dancers; they were his muses, and, in return, he their publicist. Performers whose careers were supported by his exuberant posters and occasional portraits include American dancer Loië Fuller, French dancer and close friend Jane Avril, and French diseuse Yvette Guilbert. Paul Leclercq, a friend of Lautrec’s, described a typical scene at the Moulin Rouge that captures the spirit of Belle Époque Paris and the harmony between Lautrec’s personal life and work:
“In the midst of the crowd, there was a stir, and a line of people started to form: Jane Avril was dancing, twirling, gracefully, lightly, a little madly; pale, skinny, thoroughbred, she twirled and reversed, weightless, fed on flowers; Lautrec was shouting out his admiration.”
Lautrec was a master lithographer, tossing away artistic convention for his own vision and making exceptional use of all the latest innovations in color, texture, and printing. And like many artists of his generation, he drew heavy influence from the Japanese prints that were entering Paris for the first time at the end of the 19th century. He borrowed techniques like outlined areas of flat color, shifts in perspective, cropped compositions, and unusual angles.
One of Lautrec’s most notable achievements is his Elles series. Through these 50 paintings, Lautrec lifted the curtain on the intimate inner lives of the prostitutes he knew. The paintings depict the women in moments of solitude and repose. They aren’t romantic, floating feminine types; nor are they laughing, flirting, bawdy prostitute types; rather, they are real flesh-and-blood individuals. Through these paintings, the viewer enters an introspective, private moment that makes the women seem breathtakingly human.
Much of Lautrec’s work, and the Elles series in particular, reveal an artist who understood, even favored, the people who were consigned to the fringes of society. He showed deep sympathy for them, capturing qualities that they held in common with the rest of humanity, rather than emphasizing what set them apart as outsiders.
Unfortunately, Lautrec led a lifestyle that far outstripped his body’s ability to cope. He boldly declared at the age of 24, “I expect to burn myself out by the time I’m forty.” He died earlier than his prediction—at the age of 36 in 1901, from the combined effects of alcoholism and syphilis. He left behind a body of work that included 737 canvases, 275 watercolors, 363 prints and posters, 5,084 drawings, ceramics and stained glass work, and an uncounted number of lost works. These, and the spirit of Belle Époque Paris they immortalize, are his legacy which resounds today.
Resources “Henry de Toulouse-Lautrec.” The Art Story: Modern Art Insight “Henry de Toulouse-Lautrec,” by Cora Michael, Department of Drawings and Prints, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, May 2010. The Metropolitan Museum of Art Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/laut/hd_laut.htm “Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge.” Exhibition June – September 2011, The Courtauld Gallery, London. http://courtauld.ac.uk/gallery/what-on/exhibitions-displays/archive/toulouse-lautrec-and-jane-avril-beyond-the-moulin-rouge Toulouse Lautrec in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, by Colta Feller Ives. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1996.