Art History: Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901)

     Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa was born in southern France on November 24, 1864.  His parents, Count Alphonse de Toulouse-Lautrec and Countess Adele Tapie de Celeyran were first cousins, which had been a long tradition in their families to preserve their fortunes, estates, and other holdings.      

      However, this inbreeding left Henri with physical conditions that would influence his life’s course as an artist.  Early on he was diagnosed with weak bones due to a hereditary bone disorder.  Because of this problem, by age 14 Henri had broken both legs, after which the legs stopped growing, leaving his final adult height at 5′ tall.

      As a child, Toulouse-Lautrec was unable to keep up with his father, Count Alphonse, who was quite the horseman and hunter.  Henri enjoyed watching and studying the horses and dogs kept at the families estates.  This resulted in hundreds of drawings and paintings of the animals and landscapes, even the hired help.

      The Count and Countess separated when Henri was quite young, and after the age of 8 he went to live with his mother in Paris.  By the time he finished school, his drawings and paintings were capturing the color and life of the family estates and upon the suggestion of a close friend, his parents decided to send him to art instruction at the studio of Leon Bonnat.  His mother’s hopes of Henri becoming a well to do high society painter would be fleeting at best.  Bonnat’s studio was located in the heart of Montmartre, a section of Paris known for bars, brothels, and scandalous nightlife.  Henri loved his mother dearly, but the artist needed to find a life of his own.  Looking to escape his mother’s possessive and prudent lifestyle, Toulouse-Lautrec immersed himself in the life of dancers, music, prostitutes, and alcohol.  The life and art of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec would be forever changed.

       When Bonnat took a teaching position elsewhere, Henri moved to the studio of Fernand Cornan, where he met and befriended Emile Bernand and Vincent van Gogh.  He was inspired by the art of nearby studio resident Edgar Degas, however the admiration was not reciprocal.  Competition in the art world could make or break friendships rather quickly.  Lautrec would use charcoal, oil, gouache, or pen to illustrate the colorful life of the Montmartre social scene as well as the circus, which was also one of Degas’ subjects.  Henri and others of the Paris salons from this period used a technique of definite brush strokes to create texture, as well as layering colors with a minimal amount of blending.  The result was a loose and spontaneous depiction of their subjects, which is known as ‘impressionism’.  However, the height of impressionism started with artists such as Monet, when Henri was a child, and they became known as the ‘Impressionists’.  Therefore, the group including Lautrec, van Gogh, Bernand, and others were soon to be known as the ‘Post-impressionists’.

     Toulouse-Lautrec was a master at this technique, showing the movement and atmosphere in paintings such as “Cirque Fernando:  The Equestrienne”, oil, circa 1888, and “Jane Avril Dancing”, oil, ca. 1892.  Henri had many exhibitions of his work, but he was often criticized for his subject matter of the bohemian lifestyle that Montmartre was known for.  While his family offered financial support, Lautrec achieved financial independence through another art form:  poster illustration.  Posters to announce the opening of business or opening night, especially theaters and bars, were a main means of communication at the turn of the century.  Toulouse-Lautrec painted posters for many opening nights at the famous Moulin Rouge.  His posters depicted dancers such as Yvette Guilbert, and Jane Avril, as well as many other actors and notables.

     Alcohol and syphilis, two diseases readily associated with the Montmartre nightlife, quickly took their toll on Lautrec.  In 1899 Henri suffered a stroke, leaving him partially paralyzed, although he still had the fortitude to produce another painting.  On September 9, 1901 at age 36, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec died with his family and friends by his side.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: "At the Moulin Rouge", oil, ca. 1895. Art Institute of Chicago

    In his short career, Henri created hundreds upon hundreds of oils, watercolors and posters, plus thousands of drawings.  Many of these pieces are on display today at museums such as the Louvre in Paris, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.  The Musee Toulouse-Lautrec at Albi, France, holds the largest collection of Henri’s paintings for public viewing today.

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