Henri de Toulouse Lautrec (1864-1901) was a Post-Impressionist whose art and life was strongly associated with hedonistic Paris.
He was acquainted with Manet, van Gogh, Gauguin, and Degas. Toulouse Lautrec’s work gives a good glimpse into Paris at night in the early 1900s.
He was born into an aristocratic family descended from the counts of Toulouse. He was born on November 24, 1864 at his family’s Chateau de Malromé in the Midi-Pyrénées of France.
When he was a teenager, he broke both his legs. His legs didn’t heal properly and stopped growing, but the rest of his body did continue to grow more-or-less normally. His family encouraged his art endeavours, as they didn’t see him able to take on another career.
Toulouse-Lautrec moved to Paris in 1882, at the age of 18, and quickly became known in the community for both his looks and his art work. (Some people referred to him as looking like an “ugly dwarf”). He eventually started going out every night in Montmartre, socialising and drinking until dawn. He embraced the bohemian life.
Toulouse-Lautrec painted a picture of Paris in the 1890s and early 1900s as one of bars, dance halls, cafes, racetracks, brothels, theatres, and circuses.
He often exhibited at the Moulin Rouge night club after it opened in 1889. It quickly became the most important cafe-concert in Paris during the 1890s. It had a huge dance floor, lots of flashy lights, exotic entertainment, circus-like music, and patrons and performers sharing the dance floor. There was a variety of entertainment every night like singers, dancers, clowns, and acrobats. All classes came. Toulouse Lautrec was a devoted patron right from the opening night and he knew the other regulars and the famous entertainers. He loved to use it and the debauchery as subjects, without presenting any moral judgement. He just painted what he saw.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was influenced by Japanese prints and photography. He was a natural draftsman with an individual vision for design. He used pastels and oil paints, thinning his oil paints with turpentine. Toulouse Lautrec was best at drawing: he was able to harness the movement and energy of a scene. He worked fast which sometimes meant his finished product looked sketchy. He also used lithography.
He changed the common view of posters. The purpose of posters had always been to convey messages with words, but he made the pictures, lettering presentation and design dominate the page. He became very famous for his advertising posters.
Toulouse-Lautrec drank a lot. He even had a miniature bottle of brandy and glass hidden in his cane. But even when he stayed out all night, which was most nights, he would work all day. The white nights and heavy drinking got to him to the point that by his 30s, he looked like an old man.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec had a breakdown in 1899. He recovered somewhat after his mother institutionalised him for awhile, but he did not work for much longer. His alcoholism and syphilis got the best of him. On September 9th, 1901, he died at his family’s Chateau de Malrome at age 36.
The best selection of Touloue-Lautrec's art on display in Paris is at the Musee d'Orsay.