Though Henri de Toulouse Lautrec is recognized today as one of the great French Impressionist artists of the late 19 th century, he could also be considered the Andy Warhol of his time: a pop culture icon and radical documentarian choosing prostitutes, dance halls, and the underbelly of Paris nightlife as his subject matter. Standing barely 5 feet tall he was a curious and often-outrageous fixture of the world he imagined on canvas.
He was born on November 24, 1864, in Albi in the French Pyrenees. Highly eccentric and protective of their only surviving son, his aristocratic parents educated him at home. Due to a genetic weakness resulting from the consanguineous marriage of his parents (they were first cousins), Lautrec’s legs ceased growing after he broke both of his femur bones in separate, minor accidents in his adolescence. At age ten, he began a lifelong cycle of physical complications and extended periods of convalescence. Obsessive drawing and painting served as an escape from his physical and emotional challenges.
Thanks to his childhood tutor - also an art therapist - who encouraged him to shift his energy from riding to drawing (a safer pursuit for a child struggling with illness), Toulouse-Lautrec's early passion for physical activity was channeled directly into his art. The breathless excitement and athleticism of his sinuous line is like muscle memory - physical energy transposed into art.
In 1882, he went to Paris to study art and become academically trained, first with Léon Bonnat, then Fernand Cormon: in latter’s studio, he soon became acquainted with Émile Bernard and Vincent van Gogh. As an adult, Lautrec had a normally proportioned upper body but the stubby legs of a dwarf; his mature height was barely five feet, and he walked with great difficulty using a cane. Lautrec often compensated for his physical deformities with alcohol and a self-deprecating wit.
Henri de Toulouse Lautrec / Self Portrait
Countess Adele de Toulouse Lautrec
In 1884, Toulouse-Lautrec permanently settled in Montmartre,
a low-rent haven for artists, bohemians, and the performers, patrons, and prostitutes frequenting the neighborhood’s nightclubs, including the Moulin de la Galette and Chat Noir. He led a highly social existence, associating with a range of people, from the poor and marginalized to the wealthy and celebrated and by sheer force of will, Toulouse-Lautrec turned his disability into a superpower. At a time when the only acceptable designation for persons with disabilities was freak, Toulouse-Lautrec used his unique appearance to his advantage. It allowed him to disappear into a crowd or the corners of a bedroom, seeing others without being seen. His favorite pursuits were dressing up (geisha girl and clown get-ups were among his more memorable party outfits) and frequenting Parisian brothels. His paintings, drawings and of course his famous posters preserve the swirl of energy, mix of classes and cultures, and the highs and lows of urban life in 19th century Paris.
Toulouse-Lautrec was the first artist to elevate advertising to the status of a fine art. This is an extraordinary shift in the history of art, obliterating the boundaries between high (painting, drawing, sculpture) and low (posters, logos and other forms of visual culture) art.
His remarkable observations of people on the margins of society almost certainly stems from his status as an outsider. The crooners, dancers, acrobats and prostitutes with whom he socialized were his adopted family. He identified with them, and there is every indication that he saw them as equals.
Most important Toulouse-Lautrec was a visual historian of urban life, a documentarian of that infamous and celebrated time known as Belle Epoque Paris.
After years of alcoholism and living with syphilis, he was briefly admitted to a sanatorium in 1899. He suffered a stroke in 1901, while on holiday in the south of France, and died soon after, on September 9, at his family’s estate Château Malromé, Saint-André-du-Bois, leaving behind more than 700 canvas paintings, 350 prints and posters and 5,000 drawings, among other works.