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Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

1864 - 1901
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born into an aristocratic family in the south of France in 1864. His father, Count Alphonse, was a notorious eccentric known for all kinds of unpredictable behavior: from washing his socks in the river (unheard of for an aristocrat!) to galloping off to a hunt wearing outlandish costumes, to simply disappearing for long stretches of time. The young Henri never became very close to him.

Unknown at the time, Henri suffered from a genetic condition that prevented his bones from healing properly. Fatefully, at age twelve, he broke his left leg. And at age fourteen, he broke his right leg. Both legs ceased to grow, while the rest of his body continued to grow normally.

At maturity, Lautrec was 4 1/2 feet tall. But his great misfortune was a sort of blessing in disguise, at least from our perspective. After his accidents he was no longer able to follow his father in the typically aristocratic pastimes of riding and hunting. Instead, he focused on sketching and painting.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Art, alcohol, and absinthe...

In 1882 he entered the atelier of Leon Bonnat, then transferred to Fernand Cormon's studio later that year. Lautrec was honored to become a student of the artist Cormon, whose studio was located on the hill above Montmartre Paris. He studied with Cormon until 1886. It was during this time that he met his lifelong friends Louis Anquetin, Emile Bernard, and Vincent van Gogh.

When he graduated from Cormon's studio, Lautrec gave himself up fully to the bohemian life style of Montmartre, spending much of his time drinking and carousing, and constantly sketching in cabarets, racetracks, and brothels.

His stunted physique earned him laughs and scorn, and kept him from experiencing many of the physical pleasures offered in Montmartre, a sorrow that he drowned in alcohol. At first it was beer and wine. Then brandy, whiskey, and the infamous absinthe found their ways into his life.

Adapting the fad for Japanese style (asymmetric composition, flat areas of color) that then pervaded French art to the also burgeoning art of the picture poster, he created thousands of artworks both to memorialize his friends and to advertise their venues. Among those whose images are now a part of art history are the Moulin Rouge dancers Louise Weber (La Goulue) and Jane Avril, and the combative singer/entrepreneur Aristide Bruant.

first lithograph - the poster
La Goulue: Moulin Rouge December 1891

An early grave...

Lautrec's lifestyle could not be sustained. In 1899, his health failing from the effects of alcoholism and syphilis, he was institutionalized for several months at an asylum near Paris. Soon after his release he returned to drinking.

In 1901 he suffered a stroke. 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. He said, "Good Papa. I knew you wouldn't miss the kill."

During Henri's last hours, Count Alphonse behaved as strangely as ever. The count suggesting that they cut off Henri's beard in accordance with certain Arabic customs that he'd heard of, and that they use Henri's shoelaces to flick at noisy flies. Henri's last words were addressed to his father: "Old fool."

Lautrec died at the age of 36 at his mother's estate, the Château de Malromé.

Joie de vivre...

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. He 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.

Special thanks to Eric C. Johnson and Chris Whitten for this
information, you can visit their website at: