Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

The French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) depicted Montmartre's night life of cafés, bars, and brothels, the world which he inhabited at the height of his career.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, a direct descendant of the counts of Toulouse, was born on Nov. 24, 1864, at Albi. His eccentric father lived in provincial luxury, hunting with falcons and collecting exotic weapons. Henri began to draw at an early age. He suffered a fall in 1878 and broke one femur; in 1879 he fell again and broke the other one. His legs did not heal properly; his torso developed normally, but his legs were permanently deformed.

Encouraged by his first teachers, the animal painters René Princeteau and John Lewis Brown, Toulouse-Lautrec decided in 1882 to devote himself to painting, and that year he left for Paris. Enrolling at the École des Beaux-Arts, he entered the studio of Fernand Cormon. In 1884 Toulouse-Lautrec settled in Montmartre, where he stayed from then on, except for short visits to Spain, where he admired the works of El Greco and Diego Velázquez; Belgium; and England, where he visited Oscar Wilde and James McNeill Whistler. At one point Toulouse-Lautrec lived near Edgar Degas, whom he valued above all other contemporary artists and by whom he was influenced. From 1887 his studio was on the Rue Caulaincourt next to the Goupil printshop, where he could see examples of the Japanese prints of which he was so fond.

Toulouse-Lautrec habitually stayed out most of the night, frequenting the many entertainment spots about Montmartre, especially the Moulin Rouge cabaret, and he drank a great deal. His loose living caught up with him: he suffered a breakdown in 1899, and his mother had him committed to an asylum at Neuilly. He recovered and set to work again. He died on Sept. 9, 1901, at the family estate at Malromé.

Parisian Demimonde

Toulouse-Lautrec moved freely among the dancers, prostitutes, artists, and 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 (1892), made a colorful pair. Despite his deformity, Toulouse-Lautrec was an extrovert who 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 great ability and intellect.

Among the painter's favorite subjects were the cabaret dancers Yvette Guilbert, Jane Avril, and La Goulue and her partner, the contortionist Valentin le Désossé. Toulouse-Lautrec depicted his subjects in a style bordering on but rising above caricature through the seriousness of his intention. He took subjects who habitually employed disguise and charade as a way of life and stripped away all that was inessential to reveal each as an individual and yet as a prisoner of his destiny.

The two most direct influences on Toulouse-Lautrec's art were the Japanese print, as seen in his oblique viewpoints 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 authentic feel of a world of depravity and the strident, artificial colors used to create it were Toulouse-Lautrec's own.

Unusual types performing in a grand, contrived spectacle attracted Toulouse-Lautrec. In his painting In the Circus Fernando: The Ringmaster (1888) the nearly grotesque, strangely cruel figure of the ringmaster is the pivot around which the horse and bareback rider must revolve. In 1892-1894 Toulouse-Lautrec did a series of interiors of houses of prostitution, where he actually lived for a while, becoming the confidant and companion of the girls. As with his paintings of cabarets, he caught the feel of the brothels and made no attempt to glamorize them. In the Salon in the Rue des Moulins (1894) the prostitutes are shown as ugly and bored beneath their makeup; the madame sits demurely in their midst. He neither sensationalized nor drew a moral lesson but presented a certain facet of the periphery of society for what it was—no more and no less.

Color Lithography and the Poster

Toulouse-Lautrec broadened the range of lithography by treating the tone more freely. His stroke became more summary and the planes more unified. Sometimes the ink was speckled on the surface to bring about a great textural richness. In his posters he combined flat images (again the influence of the Japanese print) with type. He realized that if the posters were to be successful their message had to make an immediate and forceful impact on the passerby, and he designed them with that in mind.

Toulouse-Lautrec's posters of the 1890s establish 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, and Loïe Fuller of the Folies-Bergère.

In a poster of 1893 the dancer Jane Avril, colored partially in bright red and yellow, is pictured kicking her leg. Below her, in gray tones so as not to detract attention, is the diagonally placed hand of the violinist playing his instrument. There is some indication of floorboards but no furniture or other figures. The legend reads simply "Jane Avril" in white letters and "Jardin de Paris" in black letters.

Further Reading on Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

The best books on Toulouse-Lautrec are Gerstle Mack, Toulouse-Lautrec (1938), especially rich in describing Toulouse-Lautrec's demimonde associations, and Douglas Cooper, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1956). See also Philippe Huisman and M. G. Dorty, Lautrec by Lautrec (1964). A major work on the prints is Jean Adhémar, Toulouse-Lautrec: His Complete Lithographs and Drypoints (trans. 1965).