Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec 1864-1901

Lautrec was born in Albi, (in a mansion belonging to this grandmother) the son of a count and countess who were second cousins. It is thought that many of his physical ailments were the result of intermarriage. Although he received several treatments, including electroshock to make his legs grow, his legs remained weak and he grew to be no taller than 5 ft. His parents separated when he was eight. In order to ensure an adequate education for him, his mother took him to Paris. His father, for whom Lautrec had great admiration, would visit and take him to the racecourses and the zoo, but also to visit painters such as Princeteau (who admired Lautrec's work thoughout his life), Forain, and John Lewis Brown, much admired by Napoleon III. His father was rather eccentric and would dress up, for example, in Scottish dress or Medieval armor. Lautrec became fascinated with Paris, although he sometimes missed the country: he loved the shops, the bustling traffic, the cafes and fancy restaurants his father would take him to. All went well until, unfortunately, while in his teens, Lautrec broke both his left and right femurs and was hospitalized for months.

During this time, he did what he loved best: drawing. By 1880 he had filled albums, schoobooks, and sketchbooks with thousands of studies in pencil, graphite and pen. These included landscapes of the surrounding area as well as portraits of his relatives and servants. At an early age he showed signs of being able to capture movement as well as the psychology behind the people he drew. Having failed his baccalaureat twice, he enrolled in the studio of Leon Bonnat. There he worked hard on rather dry academic nude studies, and for a while lost the color and movement that he had gained through his independent studies. When Bonnat was accepted as Professor at the Academy, Lautrec had dreams of entering the Ecole des Beaux-Arts through his teacher, but Bonnat rejected him because he did not consider him a fine enough draughtsman! Lautrec was disillusioned, but this did not stop him from continuing to study art. He then enrolled with another painter, Cormon, known for making large historical paintings. Lautrec wrote to his uncle "Cormon gave me a warm welcome. He likes my drawings. He often drops in on us and wants us to have as much funas we can painting outside the studio" (Goetz Adriani; Toulouse-Lautrec, p292). Cormon's studio was a turning point in Lautrec's career because it allowed him to explore the streets of Montmartre, close to the studio, and to enjoy the bohemian life with his fellow students, which included Rachou, Bernard, and Vincent Van Gogh. Although van Gogh was older than the rest, Lautrec soon made friends with him.

At age 20, he moved out of his mother's apartment in the posh part of town, and lived closer to his friends. At this time, he moved away from strict academic painting and started to draw what surrounded him on the streets. He admired the work of Degas and was aware of the work of Renoir and Pissarro. The world of Montmartre offered plenty of material for his pictures: cafe-concert singers, such as Yvette Guilbert, dancers like La Goulue and Jane Avril, entertainment entrepreneurs like Aristide Bruant.
He became fascinated with this life, which he depicted by day, and most notoriously, by night. Lautrec's first success happened in 1888, when he was asked to participate in the Societe des XX (Les Vingt) in Brussels--founded by Ensor. Here he was able to exhibit along with Monet, Renoir, Seurat, van Gogh, and Cezanne.
In 1889, the impresario Oller, opened the Moulin Rouge--a dance hall that became famous worldwide for its wild dancing girls. Lautrec was commissioned by Oller to create posters for the Moulin Rouge. Lautrec knew he was competing against the famous poster-maker Cheret, however, Lautrec's bold forms and colors soon became the rage of Paris.

Between 1892 and 1896, Lautrec worked intensely, and almost without a break--occasionally he would stay in brothels for a week to relax from his unrelenting schedule. He created numerous posters for the Moulin Rouge and worked feverishly to create paintings and sketches that revolved around the raucous life of the boulevards.
By 1897, he was worn out, was often depressed and started drinking heavily. He was sent to a sanatorium, and was let out in 1899. Although doctors thought he was cured, he started drinking heavily the year after. A stroke paralyzed one side of his body.

On September 9, 1901, he died at Malrome, accompanied by his mother and father.

Works by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec featured on this website:

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