Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec - Biography and Legacy
Biography of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Childhood and Education
Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec Monfa (the long name reflects his high-class social status) was born into an aristocratic family in the South of France. Raised in an atmosphere of privilege, he loved animals, and owned and rode horses. By age 8, it was clear that he suffered from a congenital illness that weakened his bones. After two serious riding accidents his legs stopped growing. At his full height, Toulouse-Lautrec was 5 feet tall, with the upper body of a man and the legs of a child. He walked with a cane and in considerable pain for the rest of his life.
Unable to participate in the equestrian pursuits and other pleasures afforded other aristocrats of his age and station, Toulouse-Lautrec took art lessons with a local instructor, Rene Princeteau, who assisted him in channeling his passion for horses into drawing and painting. His first drawings were of horses, and the dynamism of line in Two Riders on Horseback (1879) shows his gift for observing and transposing action onto paper, cardboard or canvas. It was around that time that he discovered the Impressionists. Degas shared his love of horses and was his most important early influence, shown in Toulouse-Lautrec's elegant, gestural line, capture of movement, and immediate and early gravitation toward racy urban subjects.
Shunning the more prestigious traditional Ecole des Beaux-Arts (which still taught students how to paint in the manner of the Italian Renaissance), upon his arrival in Paris in 1882 Toulouse-Lautrec sought (and could afford) individualized instruction in the small studios of Leon Bonnat and Bernard Corman. These teachers fostered unorthodox training and experimental approaches. Cormon's students included the renegades Vincent van Gogh and Emile Bernard, who became Toulouse-Lautrec's friends. Unchaperoned for the first time, the teenage Toulouse-Lautrec went wild in Paris, and its colorful night life became the center of his world. Despite ongoing struggles with his health, he was - by all accounts - the life of the party. Exceedingly charming, gracious, witty, and sarcastic, he became a fixture in Montmartre's cabarets, bars, circuses and brothels, where he knew the prostitutes by name (they, in turn, affectionately called him "the Coffeepot" - an affectionate reference to the diminutive artist's generous proportions). Learning from a circle of friends and mentors in Paris that worked hard and played hard, he developed his unforgettable shorthand approach to observing from life. As he sat in the theater or circus, he sketched the performers. When in the brothel, he sketched the prostitutes. Like the Impressionists, he preferred to work on site, in front of the motif, beginning and completing his compositions on the spot. Unlike the Impressionists, (with the notable exception of Degas) who gravitated toward scenes of upper-middle-class leisure, Toulouse-Lautrec chose urban night life, the more disreputable the better.
His diminutive stature allowed him a degree of invisibility, so that he could observe others closely. Prostitutes and performers, accustomed to being judged, were not afraid of him. His portrait of the prostitute known as La Casque d'Or in The Streetwalker (1890-91) captures the unprecedented frankness of his approach, and reflects the degree to which his models trusted him.
Perhaps because he had always felt like an outsider, Toulouse-Lautrec developed a circle of friends on the margins of society to whom he was exceedingly generous; they looked out for him, too. Dancers, crooners, and circus performers that lived and worked in the bohemian Montmartre neighborhood of Paris became his friends.
Commercial success came early to the talented young artist, who was literally an overnight sensation. Three thousand copies of Toulouse-Lautrec's very first poster for the Moulin Rouge were hung around the city one December evening and crowds came pouring into the cabaret, stimulated by this memorable image. As a token of appreciation for the artist's work (and to ensure that he would be available to do future work for them), the cabaret reserved seating for him, and displayed his paintings on their walls.
Toulouse-Lautrec's arrival in Paris coincided with an explosion of activity in the entertainment district of Montmartre and a leap in the sophistication of the advertising business. Stimulated by an influx of people moving from the countryside to Paris (working-class people who found employment in the city's circuses, bars and cafés, and the moneyed classes with resources), business owners and entertainers vied with one another for the business of customers who decided on the evening's entertainment based on the word on the street. Posters were intended to generate buzz for a fickle and distractible clientele who chose to attend an event based on whether or not they liked the poster. Toulouse-Lautrec had everything it took to generate interest in these venues: colorful, eye-catching, dynamic forms that captured the essential characteristics of the venue and its performers. Future venues hung his advertising posters by the thousands, and they became collector's items during his lifetime. The anarchist critic Felix Fenéon published an article with explicit instructions on how to take one of Toulouse-Lautrec's posters down before the glue had a chance to dry.
Once business owners knew how good he was, Toulouse-Lautrec, who wasn't exactly hard up for money to begin with, had an unlimited supply of work. He essentially had the ideal job: he could pick and choose what performances he wanted to go to, usually admission-free. He continued generating posters for the Moulin Rouge, and was a VIP at virtually any other performance in Paris that struck his fancy: circus acts, the Jardin de Paris and other nightclubs. He was also a regular at the city's brothels where he availed himself of the services of the prostitutes, who treated their customer with a level of kindness and humanity to which he was unaccustomed. He reciprocated with financial generosity and a series, (Elles) that affords a level of human insight into the business of prostitution that is unavailable in any other study from the period. He moved into these establishments for short periods of time, raising eyebrows among those in the know when the artist gave out his address. An occasional prostitute who modeled for and also took art lessons with Toulouse-Lautrec was Suzanne Valadon, who moved on to a significant career as a visual artist.
Toulouse-Lautrec died in 1901, a few weeks shy of his 37th birthday. The cause was probably alcoholism and syphilis. While he suffered terribly, Toulouse-Lautrec wasn't one to feel sorry for himself, and neither should we. Part of the deep pleasure of looking at his work is the manner in which it acknowledges the value of our time. Like a passerby on the street, even if we have only a second to look, we get something out of it. In his brilliant, graphic line that never stops moving, what comes through is his zest for life.
The Legacy of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Toulouse-Lautrec's career coincided with the expansion of the urban middle class - people with money to spend on entertainment, but who weren't part of high society. He anticipated and shaped the needs of this audience and his style began to make an impact during his lifetime, inspiring the exaggerated outlines, languid, organic forms and script writing that appeared in the Art Nouveau movement.
He is one of the pillars holding up the rest of modern art. Without him, you'd have no Picasso, Warhol, Diane Arbus, or Chuck Close. Toulouse-Lautrec's celebration of consumer culture and iconic popular advertisements paved the way for Pop art. In addition his portrayals fueled the obsession with superstars that persists today (think Nicki Minaj, Justin Bieber, Madonna, Miley Cyrus - the list goes on and on).
One further aspect of Toulouse-Lautrec's achievement deserves special attention. Despite the celebrated freedom and individualism of modern art, few artists of any period have been able to overcome social prejudice. While rubbing elbows with the riffraff was an acceptable, even encouraged rite-of- passage among avant-garde artists, Degas, Manet, and Van Gogh maintained a certain aloofness from their working-class subjects. Toulouse-Lautrec was able to develop true friendships that transcended the rigid class structure of 19th-century Paris. His brilliant insights into the glitter and desperation of Paris nightlife, a study in contrasts, were not only more brilliant but more humane than any that had come before him, setting the bar high for future artists.