Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Dafato Team | Jun 23, 2022

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Henri-Marie-Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Montfa (Albi, November 24, 1864 - Saint-André-du-Bois, September 9, 1901) was a French painter, among the most significant figures in late 19th-century art.

Family origins

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born on November 24, 1864, in one of the family mansions, the Hôtel du Bosc near Albi, a small town in the south of France eighty kilometers away from Toulouse. His was one of the most prestigious families in France; the Toulouse-Lautrec considered themselves descendants of Raymond V, count of Toulouse, father of Baudouin, who in 1196 would give rise to the lineage by contracting marriage to Alix, viscountess of Lautrec. The family ruled for centuries over the Albigese, whose descendants played a prominent role during the Crusades, who nevertheless did not fail to take pleasure in the fine arts: indeed, over the centuries, there were many Toulouse-Lautrecs who took an interest in drawing, so much so that Henri's grandmother once said, "If my sons on a hunt catch a bird, they get three pleasures out of it: shooting it, eating it and drawing it."

Henri's parents were Count Alphonse-Charles-Marie de Toulouse-Lautrec-Montfa and Countess Adèle-Zoë-Marie-Marquette Tapié de Céleyran, and they were first cousins (the bride and groom's mothers were sisters). It was customary for aristocratic families to marry among blood relatives, so as to preserve the purity of blue blood, and Alphonse and Adèle did not shirk this tradition either, celebrating their marriage on May 10, 1863. This union, however, turned out to be incompatible; Lautrec's father, Count Alphonse, was a bizarre exhibitionist and an insatiable womanizer who loved to devote himself to idleness and the pastimes of the wealthy, frequenting high society and following hunting and horseracing (he was a frequent visitor to the races at Chantilly. These are the words he addressed to his son when he turned twelve:

It was these words of extreme comfort to Henri, especially in his most difficult moments, but they were incompatible with his untamed temperament, from which he was aroused to venture into the darkness of Parisian cabarets and not so much into the open-air fields. Equally conflicting was Toulouse-Lautrec's relationship with his mother, a notoriously pious, reserved and loving woman, but also a bigoted, hysterical, possessive, moralistic and hypochondriac. "My mother: virtue personified! Only the red breeches of chivalry [this is the uniform worn by his father, ed.] he could not resist," Henri would later say once he became an adult; in the course of his life, in fact, Toulouse-Lautrec became increasingly emancipated from his mother's influence, until he became a bohemian quite unlike the aristocratic nobleman his mother wanted him to become. Despite the various frictions that sometimes existed, however, Adèle did not fail to stand by her son, even in his most difficult moments.

This intermarriage of blood relatives, however, in addition to the character incompatibilities present between the two spouses, entailed serious consequences in the genetic makeup of the son: it was not uncommon, in fact, for deformed, sick, or even dying children to be born into the Toulouse-Lautrec family, such as the second-born son Richard, who, born in 1868, perished in tender childhood. The family in the 19th century belonged to the typical provincial, land-owning aristocracy and led a comfortable life among the various chateaux they owned in the Midi and Gironde from the proceeds of their vineyards and estates. In Paris they owned apartments in residential districts and owned a hunting estate in the Sologne. Politically they sided with the legitimists, and it was no accident that Lautrec was named Henri, in homage to the pretender to the throne the Count of Chambord.


Young Henri had an idyllic childhood, vexed as he was at the various castles owned by the family, where he could enjoy the company of cousins, friends, horses, dogs, and falcons. His boyhood was not in the least affected by the fact that his parents, although formally remaining in wedlock, lived separately after the death of their second son, also complicit in such a marked incompatibility of character: although he did not fail to frequent his father, Henri went to live with his mother, by whom he was affectionately called petit bijou or bébé lou poulit For the young Toulouse-Lautrec, his mother was an indispensable point of reference, especially in light of the painter's future bohemian life.

In 1872 Lautrec followed his mother to Paris to attend the Lycée Fontanes (now the Lycée Condorcet). There he met Maurice Joyant, of Alsatian descent, who became his trusted friend, and the animal painter René Princeteau, a valued acquaintance of his father. Both Joyant and Princeteau soon recognized Henri's genius and openly encouraged him: the child, after all, had been drawing since he was four years old, and the comparison with painters of a certain stature certainly heightened his artistic sensibility. At the age of ten, however, his fragile health in fact began to deteriorate when it was discovered that he suffered from a congenital bone deformity, pycnodisostosis, which caused him severe pain (some doctors, however, advanced the hypothesis that it may have been osteogenesis imperfecta).

His mother, concerned about her son's shabbiness, picked him up from the Lycée Fontanes (later Condorcet) in Paris, allocated him to private tutors in the family mansion in Albi, and attempted to give him spa treatments in an attempt to relieve his pain. It was all to no avail: neither the therapies from his mother nor the reductions in the two major fractures of the femoral head had any effect, and, indeed, Toulouse-Lautrec's gait began to become caracolling, his lips became swollen, and his features became grotesquely vulgar, as did his tongue, from which he derived conspicuous speech defects. In 1878, in Albi, in the living room of the house where he was born, Henri fell on the badly waxed parquet floor and broke his left femur; the following year, during a stay in Barèges, while still wearing orthopedic braces on his left leg, he fell into a ditch and broke his other leg. These fractures never healed and prevented him from proper skeletal development: in fact, his legs stopped growing, so that as an adult, although he did not suffer from true dwarfism, he remained only 1.52 m tall, having developed a normal torso but retaining the legs of a child.

Long periods of convalescence in the sanatorium forced Henri into immobility, moments that were certainly unwelcome and tedious for him. It was on this occasion that Toulouse-Lautrec, to kill time, deepened his passion for painting, cultivating it with increasing strength and dedication, drawing incessantly in sketchbooks, albums and scraps of paper. To this period can be dated a series of slender little paintings that, while not revealing the genius of the enfant prodige, certainly denote a loose, sure hand and a highly developed technical skill. The subjects of these early pictorial endeavors are related to the equestrian world: critic Matthias Arnold observed that "horses, if he could not ride them, he at least wanted to know how to paint them!" Dogs, horses and hunting scenes were, moreover, familiar subjects for young Henri (who grew up under the sign of his father's passion for riding) but also indicated for the training of young painters. It should also not be ignored that with the creation of works such as Souvenir d'Auteuil and Alphonse de Toulouse-Lautrec at the carriage Henri was desperately trying to earn his father's esteem: in fact, Alphonse had always wished that he could make his son into a gentleman with the hobbies of horseback riding, hunting, and painting (both he and his brothers Charles and Odon were amateur painters), and at that moment he found himself instead with a bedridden and physically deformed son.

According to a possibly apocryphal account, to those who mocked him for his short stature, Lautrec replied, "I have the stature of my household," citing the length of his noble surname (de Toulouse-Lautrec-Montfa). This ready joke, while brilliant, did not, however, make Toulouse-Lautrec physically fit to participate in most of the sporting and social activities usually undertaken by men of his social class: it was for this reason that he fully immersed himself in his art, turning what was an initial pastime into a vocation. After struggling to attain a high school diploma, Henri announced to his parents in November 1881 that he did not want to waste any more time and would become a painter; his parents fully went along with his choice. "Of parental resistance to their son's plans, a recurring theme in biographies of artists, no record has come down to us for the Toulouse-Lautrec family," Arnold further observes, "if Lautrec later had disagreements with relatives, it was not because he painted, but because of what he painted and how." It must be remembered, however, that in Henri's artistic beginnings the subjects he chose for his paintings remained in the groove of tradition, and this certainly should not have raised family concerns.

Artistic training

Aware that he would never be able to mold Henri in his own image, Alphonse accepted his son's choice and sought advice from those among his friends who practiced painting, namely Princeteau, John Lewis Brown and Jean-Louis Forain, who advised him to encourage his son's passion and channel it into the academic tradition. Toulouse-Lautrec at first thought of taking classes from Alexandre Cabanel, a painter who, after stunning the Salon audience in 1863 with his Venus, enjoyed considerable artistic prestige and was able to guarantee his disciples a bright future. The supernumerary demands, however, dissuaded Henri from attending his classes.

Although Toulouse-Lautrec possessed a fair amount of technical expertise, he understood that he was still immature in terms of painting and knew that he absolutely needed to perfect his hand under the guidance of an academic artist of solid reputation. It was for this reason that, in April 1882, he opted for the courses of Léon Bonnat, a painter who enjoyed great popularity in Paris at the time and who later also trained Edvard Munch. The didactic service provided by Bonnat involved drawing practice conducted with iron discipline.Toulouse-Lautrec studied what was assigned to him with fervor and dedication, although in the end his passion for painting did not fail to generate considerable friction with the master. "Painting is not bad at all, this is excellent, in short ... not bad at all. But the drawing is really terrible!" muttered Bonnat once to his disciple: Toulouse-Lautrec remembered this rebuke with great regret, not least because his works-though still immature, in a way-already denoted great graphic and pictorial talent.

Fortunately, the discipleship with Bonnat did not last long. After only three months of practice, in fact, Bonnat closed his private studio because he was appointed professor at the École des Beaux-Arts. Lautrec, following this event, entered the studio of Fernand Cormon, a salon painter as illustrious as Bonnat but who, while keeping in the vein of tradition, tolerated new avant-garde trends and, indeed, painted unusual subjects himself, such as prehistoric ones. In Cormon's stimulating atelier in Montmartre Toulouse-Lautrec came into contact with Emile Bernard, Eugène Lomont, Albert Grenier, Louis Anquetin and Vincent van Gogh, who was passing through the French capital in 1886. "He especially liked my drawings. Cormon's corrections are much more benevolent than Bonnat's. He observes everything submitted to him and encourages a great deal. You may be surprised, but I like this one less! My previous patron's lashings hurt, and I did not spare myself. Here I have grown a little sluggish, and I must force myself to make an accurate drawing, since in Cormon's eyes a worse one would already have been enough," Henri once wrote to his parents, betraying behind apparent modesty the satisfaction of having been praised by such a prestigious painter as Cormon (now considered of secondary importance, true, but at the time absolutely first-rate).

Artistic Maturity

Lautrec, in his drawings always emphasizes the subject to attract attention. He moved, then, to Montmartre. This is a very significant choice: Henri in fact did not choose a neighborhood that suited his aristocratic origins, such as the one around the Place Vendôme might have been, but he preferred to it a lively, colorful suburb, full of cabarets, café-chantants, brothels and establishments of dubious fame, which Montmartre was (these interesting peculiarities will be discussed in the section Toulouse-Lautrec: the star of Montmartre). His parents were scandalized by Henri's preferences: his mother, in fact, resented the fact that her first-born son resided in a neighborhood she considered morally questionable, while his father feared that doing so might tarnish the family's good name, and therefore required his son to sign his early works with pseudonyms (such as Tréclau, an anagram of "Lautrec"). Toulouse-Lautrec, a volcanic spirit and intolerant of restraint, initially complied with this prescription, only to end up signing paintings with his name or with an elegant monogram bearing his initials.

With his witty and courteous charisma, the petit homme became very familiar with the inhabitants of Montmartre and the patrons of its establishments. Here, in fact, he gave himself to a profligate and nonconformist existence, exquisitely bohemian, assiduously frequenting such establishments as the Moulin de la Galette, the Café du Rat-Mort, and the Moulin Rouge and drawing from them the lifeblood that animated his works of art. Toulouse-Lautrec by no means disdained the company of intellectuals and artists, and his sympathies with the consortium of dandies are well known. He, however, preferred to place himself on the side of the dispossessed, the victims: although he was of aristocratic stock, in fact, he himself felt himself an outcast, and this certainly fed his affection for the prostitutes, the exploited singers and the models who hung around Montmartre. A friend would remember him in these terms, "Lautrec had the gift of endearing himself to everyone: he never had provocative words for anyone and never tried to make wit at the expense of others." His grotesquely deformed body was then no impediment to philandering: fiery was the romance that bound him with Suzanne Valadon, a former circus acrobat who after an accident decided to try her hand at paintbrushes. Their romance then ended stormily, and Valadon even attempted suicide in hopes of being married by the Montmartre artist, who eventually repudiated her.

These were also very fruitful years from an artistic point of view. The friendship with Aristide Bruant was very important in this sense: he was a chansonnier who made his fortune with salacious and irreverent jokes aimed at the public and who "had fascinated Lautrec with the attitudes of anarchic rebelliousness mixed with explosions of naive tenderness, with the manifestations of a basically modest culture, to which verbal vulgarity gave color" (Maria Cionini Visani). In 1885 Bruant, bound to Lautrec by a sincere and mutual esteem, agreed to sing at Les Ambassadeurs, one of the most renowned café-concerts on the Champs-Élysées, if and only if the owner was willing to publicize his event with a poster specially designed by the artist. Even more sensational, then, was the poster he designed for the Moulin Rouge in 1891, thanks to which both he and the venue became famous overnight. From that year onward, masterpieces destined to become illustrious followed one another at an ever-increasing pace: notably Al Moulin Rouge (1892-95), Al Salon on the rue des Moulins (1894), and The Private Parlor (1899).

He also assiduously participated in various European art exhibitions and expositions, and even went so far as to hold his own. Crucial in this regard was the intercession of the Belgian painter Théo van Rysselberghe, who after witnessing the painter's talent invited him in 1888 to exhibit in Brussels with the XX group, the liveliest meeting point of the various currents of contemporary art. On this occasion, too, Lautrec did not fail to demonstrate his sanguine and tempestuous nature. When a certain Henry de Groux railed against "that disgusting sunflowers of a certain Mr. Vincent, " Toulouse-Lautrec let himself be overcome by a furious rage and challenged such a detractor to a duel for the next day: the quarrel did not degenerate only thanks to the saving intervention of Octave Maus, who miraculously succeeded in appeasing the tempers. In fact, it is worth remembering the deep affection that bound Toulouse-Lautrec to Vincent van Gogh, an artist who is famous today but misunderstood at the time: the two were united by a great sensibility, both artistic and human, and by the same existential loneliness (of this beautiful friendship today we are left with a portrait of Vincent van Gogh). Beyond his rifts with de Groux, Toulouse-Lautrec was profoundly proud of his experience with the XX group and also of the reactions of the critics, who declared themselves impressed by the psychological acuity and compositional and chromatic originality of the works exhibited there. Buoyed by this initial success Toulouse-Lautrec participated regularly in the Salon des Indèpendants from 1889 to 1894, the Salon des Arts Incohérents in 1889, the Exposition des Vingt in 1890 and 1892, the Circle Volnay and the Barc de Boutteville in 1892, and the Salon de la Libre Esthétique in Brussels in 1894: his success was such that he also inaugurated solo exhibitions, such as the one in February 1893 held at the Boussod and Valadon gallery.

He also traveled frequently: he was, as mentioned above, in Brussels, but also in Spain, where he was able to admire Goya and El Greco, and in Valvins. The city that most dazzled him, however, was London. Toulouse-Lautrec, in fact, spoke English very well and admired British culture unconditionally: in London, where he went in 1892, 1894, 1895 and 1897, he had as one can well imagine the opportunity to express his Anglophilia, befriending, among other things, the painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler, whose Japanism and chromatic symphonies he greatly appreciated, and Oscar Wilde, a standard bearer of dandyism and a playwright who skillfully blended brilliant conversation with refined unscrupulousness. The esteem in which he held Whistler and Wilde, by the way, was promptly reciprocated: the former dedicated a banquet to the painter at the Savoy in London, while the latter claimed that his art was "a bold attempt to put nature back in its place."

Last years

Soon, however, the hour of human and artistic twilight struck for Toulouse-Lautrec. The painter, as we have had occasion to observe, assumed enfant terrible poses, and this lifestyle entailed fatal consequences for his health: before he was even thirty, in fact, his constitution was undermined by syphilis, contracted in the Parisian brothels where he was now at home. Proverbial was his sexual appetite, and his being "well-endowed" earned him the nickname cafetière in that milieu. As if that were not enough, his assiduous frequentation of the clubs of Montmartre, where alcohol was served until dawn, led Toulouse-Lautrec to drink without any restraint, pleased to enjoy the vertigo of the derailment of the senses: among the drinks he most consumed was absinthe, a distillate with disastrous toxic qualities that nevertheless could offer him a comforting, if artificial, refuge at little cost. As early as 1897, alcohol addiction had taken over: the "familiar and benevolent gnome," as Mac Orlan wrote, was thus succeeded by an often drunken, obnoxious and short-tempered man, plagued by hallucinations, fits of extreme aggression (he often came to blows, and once he was even arrested) and atrocious paranoid fantasies ("outbursts of rage alternated with hysterical laughter and moments of complete ebetude during which he remained unconscious the buzzing of flies exasperated him, he slept with his walking stick on his bed, ready to defend himself from possible attackers, once he shot a spider on the wall with a rifle," Crispino recounts). Worn down and aging, Toulouse-Lautrec was forced to suspend his artistic activity, with his health degenerating in March 1899 with a very violent attack of delirium tremens.

Following yet another ethyl crisis, Toulouse-Lautrec, on the advice of friends, wanted to extricate himself from the "rare lethargy" into which he had plunged with the abuse of alcohol and checked himself into Dr. Sémelaigne's clinic for mental illness in Neuilly. The press lost no opportunity to discredit the artist and his work and therefore engaged in a vicious smear campaign.Toulouse-Lautrec, in order to prove to the world and the doctors that he was fully in possession of his mental and working faculties, immersed himself completely in drawing and reproduced on paper circus acts he had witnessed decades earlier. After only three months of hospitalization, Toulouse-Lautrec was eventually discharged: "I bought freedom with my drawings!" he was fond of repeating, laughing.

Toulouse-Lautrec actually never freed himself from the tyranny of alcohol and, indeed, his resignation from the clinic marked only the beginning of the end. The recovery was not long lasting, and, despairing of his physical and moral decline, in 1890 Toulouse-Lautrec, in order to restore his health, moved first to Albi, and then to Le Crotoy, Le Havre, Bordeaux, Taussat, and again to Malromé, where he attempted to produce new paintings. But this convalescence was to no avail: his creative energies had long since been exhausted, as had his zest for life, and even his production began to show a noticeable fall in quality. "Thin, weak, with little appetite, but as lucid as ever and sometimes full of his old spirit": this is how a friend described him. Once back in Paris, where his works had begun to enjoy furious success, the painter was placed in the custody of a distant relative, Paul Viaud: even this attempt at detoxification, however, was in vain, as Toulouse-Lautrec returned to sregular consumption of alcohol and, it is thought, even opium. In 1900 a sudden paralysis of the legs survived, which was fortunately tamed by electrical treatment: the painter's health, despite this apparent success, was nevertheless so declining that all hope was extinguished.

In April 1901, in fact, Toulouse-Lautrec returned to Paris to make his will, to bring to completion the paintings and drawings left unfinished, and to tidy up his atelier: subsequently, after a sudden hemiplegia caused by an apoplectic insult, he moved in with his mother in Malromé, in the family chateau, where he spent, amid inertia and pain, the last days of his life. His fate was sealed: because of the pain he could not eat, and completing the last portraits cost him an enormous effort. Henri-Marie-Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Montfa, the last heir of the glorious noble family since the time of Charlemagne, finally passed away at 2:15 a.m. on September 9, 1901, attended at his bedside by his desperate mother: he was but thirty-six years old. His remains were first interred at Saint-André-du-Bois, and then moved to the nearby town of Verdelais in Gironde.

Toulouse-Lautrec: the star of Montmartre

"It often happens that a capricious destiny decides to divert the course of events that seem to be taken for granted": it is with this sentence that art critic Enrica Crispino comments on the pictorial and, above all, existential vicissitudes of Toulouse-Lautrec, a man who seemed from birth destined for an aristocratic life and who instead led a tormented and wild existence, consumed not in the elegant bourgeois salons but in the working-class neighborhood of Montmartre.

In matters of art as in matters of life Toulouse-Lautrec did not share bourgeois ideologies and ways of life and therefore turned to extreme individual freedom and the rejection of all norms and conventions. In fact, his choice to live in Montmartre was not at all hasty, but thoughtful, almost self-imposed. Montmartre was a suburb that, in its upper part (the Butte), had still remained rural and village-like in appearance, crowded as it was with windmills, junipers, gardens and scattered cottages where the less affluent classes lodged, attracted by the cheap rents: still in Lautrec's time, then, this area was oppressed by decay and malfeasance, and it was not uncommon to cross paths there, especially at night, with anarchists, criminals, ill-intentioned people and communards. This was so far as the Butte was concerned: in the lower part, the one abutting the boulevard de Clichy, there was, on the other hand, a resplendent proliferation of cabarets, trattorias, concert cafes, dance halls, music halls, circuses, and other clubs and small establishments that mingled a diverse and colorful crowd of poets, writers, actors, and, of course, artists.

Toulouse-Lautrec adored gravitating to the lively and gaiety-filled world of Montmartre, a district for which the status as a hotbed of new artistic conceptions and daring transgressions had become established. "The real transgressive charge of Montmartre osmosis between the various categories, the exchange between representatives of the beautiful world and exponents of the so-called demi-monde, between artists and people of the people: a varied humanity where aristocrats in search of strong sensations found themselves elbow to elbow with bourgeois and social climbers of various kinds, proceeding alongside the man in the street and mingling with the crowd of artists and merry ladies," Crispino recounts further.

The portrait painter of the "people of the night"

To the effects of Toulouse-Lautrec's artistic production, this massive social diversification proved decisive. Toulouse-Lautrec, in fact, conceived his paintings as a faithful mirror of the urban everyday life of Montmartre, in the sign of a revival (and, also, an update) of the program expressed by Charles Baudelaire in 1846:

The actual, then, had risen to an aesthetic category as early as the middle of the century, when the Realists and Impressionists boldly began to plumb the scenery of everyday Parisian life, capturing its most miserable, ordinary or incidental aspects. With Toulouse-Lautrec, however, this "painting of modern life" reached even more explosive results. If, in fact, the Impressionists were completely subservient to en plein air and landscape painting, Toulouse-Lautrec preferred to be seduced by the world of the night and its protagonists. Not surprisingly, the quality of Lautrec's manner emerges above all in the portraits, in which the painter could not only confront the human "types" that populated Montmartre, but also explore their psychological peculiarities, significant physiognomic traits, as well as their natural uniqueness: it can be said that, starting from a face, Toulouse-Lautrec was able to rummage through it and grasp its intimate essence. The portraitist commitment of the painter, who not surprisingly detested en plein air painting executed outdoors on motionless subjects and took refuge in the lumière froide of the ateliers, which - being inert - did not alter the physiognomies of the subjects and facilitated the psychological excavation operations, thus appears evident: Lautrec's paintings, for this reason, were always made in the studio and generally required very long incubations. The landscape, in Lautrec's opinion, must then be functional only to the psychological rendering of this comédie humaine:

It is in this way that the painter succeeds in delving into the psychology of those who worked under the Montmartre spotlight: Of the Goulue, a famous vedette who after a fleeting period of glory ended up forgotten because of her insatiable appetite, Toulouse-Lautrec in fact highlights the predatory animality, and the same happens with the black dancer Chocolat, with the agile and lanky dancer Valentin le Désossé, with the clowness Cha-U-Kao, and with the actresses Jane Avril and Yvette Guilbert. Toulouse-Lautrec's relentless brush, moreover, did not limit himself to depicting the Montmartre protagonists we have just listed, but also lingered on the patrons of these establishments (illustrious "curiosities of the night" portrayed by the painter are Monsieur Delaporte, Monsieur Boileau) and on those who, although they did not cross the thresholds of the neighborhood, cross-polarized his interest, such as Paul Sescau, Louis Pascal, and Henri Fourcade. The eye may at first be distracted by the kaleidoscopy of Parisian life captured by Lautrec, but once the aesthetic judgment has been overcome, empathy with the painter is suddenly triggered, as he portrays the locales of Montmartre and its protagonists in a convincing, calm and realistic manner, without superimposing canonizations or, perhaps, moral or ethical judgments on them, but rather by "telling them" as he would tell any other aspect of contemporary life.

The world of maisons closes

Another recurring thematic obsession in Toulouse-Lautrec's artistic production is the world of the maisons closes, the Parisian brothels that the bourgeois and aristocrats assiduously frequented but pretended to ignore, covering themselves with a veil of faux Puritanism. Toulouse-Lautrec, not surprisingly, felt himself an outsider to such a hypocritical and outcast society and for some time even went to live in brothels: as observed by art critic Maria Cionini Visani, after all, "for Toulouse-Lautrec to live in the maisons of rue d'Amboie or rue de Moulins, or to destroy himself doggedly with alcohol, is like Gauguin or Rimbaud going to distant and exotic countries, not attracted by the adventure of the unknown, but rather repelled by what was known in their world."

The brothels, it has been said, play an absolutely prominent role in Toulouse-Lautrec's artistic universe. Taking his nonconformist poetics to extremes, Toulouse-Lautrec chooses to depict brothels and prostitutes in a disenchanted manner, without commentary or drama, thus refraining from making judgments of any kind. It was not so much the subject matter that offended the sensibilities of the well-wishers: already Vittore Carpaccio, in the Renaissance, had depicted a brothel scene, a theme to which much of 19th-century fiction also later drew on, with Goncourt's The Prostitute Elisa, Zola's Nana, Maupassant's La maison Tellier, Huysman's Marthe and Paul Adam's Chair molle. Rather, what aroused so much clamor and so much criticism were the ways in which Toulouse-Lautrec related to this subject matter: as noted above, Toulouse-Lautrec accepted prostitution as one of the many phenomena of contemporary reality and represented this world with paradoxical dignity, without modesty of any kind and without ostentation or sentimentality, grafting a veiled depiction of the carnal violence of reality. Toulouse-Lautrec, it could be said, presented the world of maisons closes for what it actually was, without idealizing or vulgarizing the prostitutes.

The prostitutes immortalized in Toulouse-Lautrec's paintings do not hide from the gaze, but neither do they ask to seduce, so much so that they behave with natural frankness and directness, without shame or false restraint, incapable as they are of arousing desire, voluptuousness. In the very many paintings and drawings that Lautrec devoted to this theme, the prostituées are caught in their most intimate and everyday moments, while combing their hair, while waiting for a client, while putting on their stockings or while taking off their shirts. In some works Toulouse-Lautrec, revealing a very high sensitivity, even went so far as to delve into the homosexual relationships that bound many of the maisons' girls, who were tired of satiating the sexual appetites of disheartened and demeaning clients: ignoring the indignation of the well-wishers, by whom he was accused of being a depraved man, the artist unequivocally sang of the beauty of such authentic and moving loves in works such as In Bed. The Kiss, In Bed and The Kiss. Rarely, however, did Toulouse-Lautrec splurge on vulgar allusions to their craft: the client, if present, is signaled in the work by secondary details, such as hats left on chairs or revealing shadows, precisely because "his face is unimportant, or rather, because he has no face" (Visani). Despite the searing subjects, then, Lautrecian images are not pornographic, sexually explicit, nor do they hold traces of erotic and voyeuristic urges, as noted above: Significant, too, is the distancing from the academic norm, for which scabrous subjects such as those relating to meretriciousness had to be appropriately supported by a hypocritical aesthetic and chromatic dissimulation (many nineteenth-century works of art, in fact, portray maisons closes as exotic settings). It is precisely in this originality, which concedes nothing to either pornography or the Academy, that Toulouse-Lautrec's ingenuity is revealed.

Toulouse-Lautrec graphic

Toulouse-Lautrec was a tireless experimenter with formal solutions, and his versatile curiosity led him to try different possibilities in the field of artistic techniques used. Animated by an eclectic and multifaceted spirit, Lautrec was an easy-going graphic designer before he was a painter, and it was in that field that his art reached lofty heights.

The love of drawing that accompanied Toulouse-Lautrec from the time he was a child stimulated him to learn lithographic practice right away, which precisely in those years was experiencing important ferment thanks to the introduction of "color lithography" by the Nabis. Once he became familiar with this artistic technique Lautrec came to collaborate with a conspicuous number of high-level magazines, among which should be mentioned Le Rire, the Courrier Français, Le Figaro Illustré, L'Escarmouche, L'Estampe et l'Affiche, L'Estampe Originale and, above all, the Revue Blanche: with this intense activity as a graphic designer Lautrec contributed to restoring dignity to this artistic genre, until then considered "minor" because of bourgeois conventionalities. Even more important, then, are the advertising affiches that Toulouse-Lautrec made serially to advertise nightclubs in Montmartre. The following is a commentary by critic Giulio Carlo Argan:

Showing himself sensitive to the influence of Japanese prints in his posters, Lautrec employed impetuous and biting lines, bold compositional cuts, intense colors that were flat and freely distributed in space, in the sign of a synthetic and bold style capable of casually conveying a message into the consumer's unconscious and imprinting the image in his mind. In what can rightly be considered the first products of modern advertising graphics, Lautrec abjured from all artistic naturalism and explicitly renounced perspective, chiaroscuro, and the kind of artifices that, while indicated for works of art intended for museum enjoyment, failed to resonate well with the public. Lautrec, in fact, was fully aware that, in order to create a good advertising artifact, it was rather necessary to use bright colors and apply them homogeneously over extensive surfaces, so as to make the poster visible even from a distance, easily recognizable at first glance and, above all, attractive to the consumer. In this sense, too, Toulouse-Lautrec is a modern artist, deserving of having converted the metropolitan fabric of Paris into a place of aesthetic reflection with the widespread dissemination of his "street art," substantiated by invitation cards, theater programs and, above all, posters, which have now become a constituent element of our urban landscape.

At first, the success enjoyed by Toulouse-Lautrec was very mixed. Many, for example, were scandalized by the excessive stylistic and thematic recklessness of Lautrecian works, and were therefore lavish with reproaches. Particularly venomous was the judgment of Jules Roques, reported in the September 15, 1901 issue of Le Courrier Français, where we find written, "Just as there are enthusiastic lovers of bullfights, executions and other desultory spectacles, there are lovers of Toulouse-Lautrec. It is good for humanity that there are few such artists." Certain critics, then, used the illness that bedeviled the painter in his last years of life to discredit his art, exploiting that positivistic prejudice whereby a painting due to a sick mind is also sick. Inscribed in this vein are the comments of A. Hepp ("Lautrec had the vocation of the nursing home. They interned him yesterday and now madness, having lifted its mask, will officially sign those paintings, those posters, where it was anonymous."), E. Lepelletier ("We are wrong to pity Lautrec, one must envy him ... the only place where one can find happiness, is still an asylum cell."), Jumelles ("We lost a few days ago an artist who had acquired a celebrity in the laid genre ... Toulouse-Lautrec, bizarre and deformed being, who saw everyone through his physical miseries ... He died miserably, ruined in body and spirit, in an asylum, in fits of raging madness. Sad end of a sad life.") and others.

Lautrec's alcoholism, in fact, cast a baleful shadow over his paintings. Other critics, on the other hand, were quick to defend Toulouse-Lautrec from the malignities expressed by the well-wishers and, indeed, openly commended his works: among the latter, Clemenceau, Arsène Alexandre, Francis Jourdain, Thadée Natanson, Gustave Geffroy, and Octave Mirbeau should absolutely be mentioned. Again, however, the biographical implications that marked Toulouse-Lautrec's existence sometimes ended up taking precedence over his activity as a painter. Admittedly, this fringe of critics was not animated by incomprehension or malice: yet, they too - albeit for diametrically opposed reasons - imprisoned Toulouse-Lautrec in his character, forgetting to assess his actual artistic and professional qualities. Today, in any case, it is a universally established fact that Lautrecian works should be considered for what they are, and not for their underlying existential vicissitudes, which are in fact historiographically irrelevant.

While sinning in partiality, these critics had the merit of building the entire Lautrecian bibliography: in fact, it is they who are responsible for all those articles and publications used by scholars to get to know the painter's personality and, above all, to fully understand his artistic conceptions. Important contributions were made by G. Coquiot (1913 and 1920), P. Leclerq (1921), P. Mac Orlan (1934), A. Astre (1938), Th. Natanson (1938 and 1952), F. Jourdain (1950, 1951, 1954), F. Gauzi (1954) and M. Tapié de Céleyran (1953). The man who most of all imparted a decisive impetus to the critical Lautrecian reappraisal, however, was Maurice Joyant, a very close friend of Lautrec's who succeeded in decisively strengthening his posthumous fame. It has been rightly observed that without Maurice Joyant Lautrec probably would not have achieved the worldwide fame he has today: in addition to organizing an exhibition of the painter's works in 1914, in fact, Joyant in 1922 had the merit of persuading Countess Adéle, the artist's mother, to donate the works in her possession to the city of Albi. Thus it was that on July 3, 1922, the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec of Albi, the painter's hometown, was established in Albi: the inauguration was attended by Léon Berard, minister of public education at the time, who delivered a touching obituary that, despite its occasionally hagiographic overtones, officially marked Lautrec's entry into the elite of artists of world renown.

From that year on, an ever-widening public approached his work, and critics incensed him as one of the great artists of the twentieth century. The Lautrecian cult, indeed, was revived thanks to an unrelenting succession of art exhibitions, in Europe as well as in the United States: in terms of the quantity and quality of the works exhibited, the exhibition held in 1931 at the National Library, the one held at the Orangerie des Tuileries on the 50th anniversary of the artist's death, and those held in Albi and at the Petit Palais in Paris on the centenary of his birth are certainly worth mentioning. Also crucial was the continuation of Joyant's cataloguing work, carried out in 1971 by Geneviève Dortu with the publication of a catalog raisonné of 737 paintings, 4748 drawings and 275 watercolors. The graphic work, on the other hand, was catalogued starting in 1945 by Jean Adhémar and completed by the art dealer Wolfang Wittroock: the graphic corpus, eliminating facsimiles and later prints lacking the inscriptions, amounts to no less than 334 prints, 4 monotypes and 30 posters.


  1. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
  2. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

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