by David Fox
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was a painter, illustrator, lithographer, poster artist and illustrator. Born on November 24th,1864, in Albi, France, Henri died on September 9th, 1901, at Malromé Castle, at Saint-André-du-Bois.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was the son of Count Alphonse de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa (1838-1913) and Adèle Tapié de Céleyran (1841-1930), and was born into one of the oldest noble families in France. He was indeed in line with the great counts of Toulouse, who were, despite their illustrious name, were known to pass on health conditions due to selective inbreeding.
In the 19th century, marriages within the nobility were routinely between cousins, in order to avoid the division of assets and the diminution of fortune. This was the case of Henri’s parents, Alphonse de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa and Adele Tapie de Céleyran, they were cousins in the first degree.
They had two boys, Henri, the eldest and, four years later, his brother Richard-Constantin, who died a year later.
Henri grew up between Albi, the castle of Bosc (home of his grandparents and also of his childhood) and the castle of Celeyran. The incompatibility between his two parents caused their separation and Henri remained in the care of his mother.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec had a happy childhood until the discovery in 1874 of a disease that affects the development of the bones, pycnodysostosis, a genetic disease caused due to the consanguinity of his parents. His bones were fragile, and on May 30th, 1878, he stumbled and fell.
The doctor diagnoses him with a broken left femur.
Between May 1878 and August 1879, he suffered from this fracture of the bilateral femur, which then aggravates his stunting: he will not exceed the size of 1.52 m or 4′ 8″. Doctors tried to cure him by means of electric shock and placing on each foot a large amount of lead.
Due to his various medical conditions, his torso is of normal size, but its legs are short. He has thick lips and a thick nose, and hypertrophied genitals. Henri made himself a provocateur at the salons.
He is at some point photographed naked on the beach of Trouville-sur-Mer, as a bearded choir boy, or with the boa Jane Jane (called “Melinite”), while simultaneously being very aware of the discomfort aroused by his exhibitionism.
A student at the Condorcet high school, he failed in 1881 at the baccalaureate in Paris, but he was fortunately received in Toulouse at an October session. That’s when he decided to become an artist.
Supported by his uncle Charles and Rene Princeteau, a friend of his father animal painter, he finally convinced his mother it was a good idea.
Back in Paris, he studied painting with René Princeteau, in his studio at 233, Rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré, then in April 1882 in Leon Bonnat’s studio, and in November 1882 in Fernand’s studio, where he stayed until 1886.
He then befriended Vincent Van Gogh, Émile Bernard, Louis Anquetin, and Adolphe Albert.
Toulouse-Lautrec lived for his art. Painter in the post-impressionism style, illustrator of the Art Nouveau, and lithographer of remarkable skill, he embraced the lifestyle of Bohemian Paris at the end of the 19th century.
In the mid-1890s, he contributed illustrations to the comic weekly Le Rire.
Considered “The Soul of Montmartre “, the Parisian neighbourhood where he lived since his arrival in 1884 at 19 Bis, Rue Fontaine, his paintings describe life at the Moulin Rouge and other cabarets and theaters in Montmartre or Paris.
He paints Aristide Bruant but also in the brothels he frequented and where, perhaps, he contracted syphilis. He had a room in residence at La Fleur blanche. Three of the well-known women he has represented are Jane Avril, singer Yvette Guilbert, and Louise Weber, better known as La Goulue, an eccentric dancer who created the cancan.
Toulouse-Lautrec gave painting classes and encouraged the efforts of Suzanne Valadon, one of his models and probably his mistress.
An alcoholic for most of his adult life, he used to mix cognac with his daily absinthe, in defiance of the conventions of the time. This drink, a favourite of his, was called an “earthquake” or Tremblement de Terre, which was mixed in a wine goblet.
He also used subterfuge in the form of a hollowed out cane to hide his alcohol, which he walked around with constantly so as not to ever need to do without his vice.
He was admitted to a sanatorium shortly before his death at Malromé, his mother’s property, following the complications of this alcoholism and also syphilis. Dying at 36, he was buried in the Verdelais ( Gironde ) cemetery a few kilometers from Malromé.
His last words were to his father, present at the time of his death, referring to the likes of this whimsical and hunting enthusiast aristocrat: “I know, Dad, you do not miss the kill.”
He also cited his lapidary reaction to seeing his father, a hunter at heart, trying to hit a fly that flies on the deathbed of his son with the elastic of his boots: “The old fart!”
At the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum in Albi, reference is made to the last words of the artist addressed to his mother. Lautrec’s relations with his father were subject to many ramblings.
The painter was not an artist cursed by his family, on the contrary. His father wrote to Gabrielle de Toulouse-Lautrec, his mother and thus the paternal grandmother of the painter, on the night of the death of his son: “Malrome, September 9, 1901: Ah dear Mother, that sadness.
God did not bless our union. May his will be done, but it is very hard to see the order of nature reversed. I am anxious to join you after the sad spectacle of the long agony of my poor child, so harmless, having never had for his father a bad word.
Pity us. – Alphonse”
After the death of Toulouse-Lautrec, Maurice Joyant, his close friend, protector, and merchant of his paintings wanted to highlight his work with the endorsement of the Countess Adele of Toulouse-Lautrec. They gave the necessary funds for a museum to be created in Albi, the city where the artist was born, and offer their superb collection of paintings.
Despite a short life marked by illness, the painter’s work is very vast: the catalog of his works, published in 1971, lists 737 paintings, 275 watercolors, 369 lithographs (including posters ) and about 5,000 drawings.
In his youth, horses were his usual subject. Since childhood, he loved riding and had to give it up because of his illness. He continued to live in his works with his passion for horses.
At the beginning of his career, he painted some nude men as exercises, but his best nudes are women. In general, he preferred to start with sketches, but many of his nudes must have been made from nature.
Usually Henri’s models are not beautiful girls, but women who are starting to grow old. To paint this kind of paintings he was inspired by Edgar Degas.
He kept drawing: some drawings are works in themselves, but many are sketches for paintings or lithographs. Sometimes his drawings resembled caricatures which, in a few lines, rendered a gesture or an expression; to realize them, he used various means (pencil , ink , pastel and charcoal).
Although not practicing photography himself, his friends and fellow entertainers include professional photographer Paul Sescau and amateur photographers Maurice Guibert and François Gauzi. He is photographed regularly by them and liked to dress up.
He used pictures of his models or characters as the basis of some works. Spontaneity and the direction of motion of his compositions often come from the photographic instant.
He created 325 posters and lithographs, inventing a technique of spray original, consisting scratch a toothbrush charged with ink or paint with a knife. As an illustrator, Toulouse-Lautrec has made famous posters and, less known part of his work, he also illustrated some forty songs, successes mainly interpreted in the two big Parisian cabarets of the time: Le Moulin Rouge, and The Mirliton by Aristide Bruant.
As he did not need to always subject himself to pleasing everyone by focusing on the nobility as past artists needed to to get by. No, Lautrec chose subjects he knew well or faces that were of interest to him, and as he frequently met people of all kinds, his paintings covered a wide range of social classes: nobles and artists, writers and sportsmen, doctors, nurses and picturesque figures of Montmartre.
Many of his paintings (such as the Salon des Moulins street) show prostitutes because he saw them as ideal models for the spontaneity with which they knew how to move, whether they were naked or half-dressed.
He painted their lives with curiosity, but without moralism or sentimentality and, above all, without trying to attribute to them any fascination. Going the brothel as much by pleasure than necessity (because of disability, there is true affection, so it stands out by giving to see images without trial and without moralistic voyeurism).
Truly a friend to prostitutes, they gave him the nickname “coffee maker” because of his priapism or the proportion of one of his sexual organs.
At the end of 19th century, the circus shows were very numerous in France, and Toulouse-Lautrec regularly visited traveling circuses in Paris. In the popular neighbourhoods of Paris, only two circuses were present: the Cirque D’hiver de Paris, and the Cirque Fernando in Montmartre.
In the upscale neighbourhoods of Paris, several circuses offered spectacular stagings such as the Hippodrome with its famous chariot races, the Cirque D’été near the Champs-Élysées, the Circus Molier Rue Benouville and the Nouveau Cirque, where Chocolat is produced, on Rue Saint-Honoré.
René Princeteau, deaf-mute painter and friend of the family circle of Toulouse-Lautrec, is charged by the father of the artist to teach him the art of painting and drawing. Indeed, René Princeteau possessed an exceptional gift for painting and drawing horses and dogs.
In the early 1880s, he discovered Toulouse-Lautrec circus Fernando, located at the top of the rue des Martyrs in Paris. The father of Toulouse-Lautrec, an aristocrat passionate about the world of horses, had taken his son frequently to the Circus Molier when the family moved to Paris in 1872.
Toulouse-Lautrec was passionate from then on for the circus. This environment reminds him of the unconventionality of his family circle. He is also drawn to these shows by the moving bodies, the athletic performances of the artists and the postures of the animals.
The world of the circus was also interesting because of the links that can be made with the ancient circus and its presentation of bruised and tortured bodies in the show.
The other attraction of the circus experienced by Toulouse-Lautrec is the parallelism that can be drawn between the bodies of performing circus artists and his own body. “It is a suffering body, which draws suffering bodies”, as one of the editors of the catalog of the exhibition “Circus in the time of Toulouse-Lautrec”, said, at the Raymond Lafage museum, which took place in Lisle-sur-Tarn from June 18, 2016 to October 31, 2016.
“The number imposes its daily pain at the mercy of repetitions: muscular hypertrophy of the arms, legs, arched back, limbs, rickets, on the contrary, bodies dedicated to the aerobatics, with imposed levity. “However, Toulouse-Lautrec does not wish to inspire complacency towards circus artists.
“The show must be easy, graceful and happy. ” As noted by one of the editors of the exhibition catalog, “is it for the show to hide … the show, I mean, the intimate, that of his own life?”
Toulouse-Lautrec feels as close to values related to this universe with the notion of freedom.
In early 1899, Toulouse-Lautrec was hospitalized because of several mental disorders related to various ailments including alcoholism. He is interned in the clinic of Dr. Sémelaigne in Neuilly. In February 1899, to prove that he had recovered his mental health and his ability to work, he drew from memory in black pencil and crayons a series of 39 drawings on the circus.
There are amazons, trapeze artists, clowns, bear and elephant trainers, horses, and learned dogs. The stands are drawn empty. The audience is absent as if to show that the painter is there against his will.
The doctors, dazzled by the coherence of these works and the dynamics of the movements represented, let him out on May 17, 1899, thus recognizing the perfect state of his memory and his remarkable technicality.
As Toulouse-Lautrec so poetically said: “I bought my freedom with my drawings.”
Federico Fellini, about this set of works, had compared Toulouse-Lautrec to Mozart. Indeed, when Mozart was 14, he once listened Gregorio Allegri’s “Miserere” in a the cathedral in Rome, copying it down with only minor corrections when he got home.
Later, Mozart was summoned to Rome once he was discovered to have stolen the sacred work, only to be praised and vindicated by the Pope for this apparent miracle.
Other painters became interested in circus as well. The painter Degas made Cirque Fernando famous, with his painting, Miss Lala at Cirque Fernando. Subsequently, several artists will be interested in this Circassian universe, like Chagall, Matisse and Picasso.
Lautrec first stayed in Arcachon in 1872, then aged 8, with his mother Adèle. At this time, his uncle Ernest Pascal being prefect of Gironde, he enjoyed the presence of his three cousins, rented in Arcachon or staying at the Grand Hotel, to play on the beach and swim, despite his disability, especially with his cousin Louis who was the same age as him.
At adulthood, he visited the Bay of Arcachon almost every summer where he devotes himself and his friends to fishing, sailing, swimming, and other seaside pleasures, taking advantage of the healthy air gracing his fragile lungs.
In 1885, he discovered, thanks to the medical officer of health Henri Bourges, who shelters him in Paris, the village of Taussat (commune of Lanton) while this doctor joins a colleague Dr. Robert Wurtz who stays in the vast family property extending between Andernos and Taussat.
While the Pascal family, following a reversal of fortunes in 1892, no longer comes to Arcachon, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, arranged otherwise and enjoyed the same year the hospitality of Louis Fabre (1860-1923), magistrate originally from Agen, whom he met in Paris probably around 1890, and to whom Lautrec bought in Taussat the villa Bagatelle and a sailboat called “Belle Hélène” in tribute to the bride and future wife of Fabre, Hélène Estève (1859-?) .
Lautrec will become friends with Fabre until his death in 1901.
His friend and photographer, Maurice Guibert often accompanied him to Arcachon or Taussat. Henri was there in 1896, fishing with cormorants that his father Alphonse de Toulouse-Lautrec, authentic master falconer, taught him to train in his youth.
Lautrec knew for a long time a shipowner, Paul Viaud (1846-1906), 18 years his elder who will be charged in 1899 by the family Toulouse-Lautrec watch over Henri, become alcoholic, undermined by absinthe, and who has had to be locked in a health house that same year in Neuilly.
It is indeed in the villa Bagatelle, in August 1901, that, strongly emaciated by a tuberculosis contracted a few months before, the painter appears on a last photograph. Victim of nervous attacks that paralyze him progressively, he is taken to Malromé, where his life was extinguished on 9 September 1901.
Away from Parisian places of pleasure, the painter came to perform a kind of cure, forgetting his physical disability and finding another joy of life. The paintings made during his stays are far from the Montmartre subjects that made his fame and were intended to thank his hosts for their hospitality.
The reconstituted history of its resorts on the Arcachon Basin gives us a much healthier vision of this character.
About David Fox
David Fox is an artist who created davidcharlesfox.com to talk about art and creativity. He loves to write, paint, and take pictures. David is also a big fan of spending time with his family and friends.