Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: The clubfoot who loved promiscuous women
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec did not just capture life in his paintings, drawings and lithographs, but he also caught the life of a singular and unique Paris that did not exist before him and disappeared after him. During the third Republic, the new Paris imagined by Haussmann was already a reality with its boulevards, its department stores, commercial malls, stations, iron-framed markets and luxurious private hotels. The city was expanding further away from its centre invading the last resisting hills. Only the distinctive blocks of the village of Montmartre remained, where vineyards grew and where Auguste Renoir worked outdoors whilst his wife and children gathered snails in the poppy fields. New restaurants appeared one after the other, brothels, cabarets and concert-cafés.
In the 1860s and 1870s Maupassant, the Goncourt brothers, Daudet and Renoir would meet up at the rustic restaurant of the ‘Father Fournaise’, on the river banks, near Chatou. The art world would then meet up at the ‘Chat noir’, a cabaret founded in 1881. There one could see Hugo, Zola, Anatole France, Wagner, Gounod, Massenet. The first Parisian chansonniers suddenly blossomed before disappearing just as abruptly without a trace. Many were killing themselves drinking absinth. In fact, there is only one bright star in the Montmartre figurative art of the end of the nineteenth century: Toulouse-Lautrec.
Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa was born on November 24, 1864, in the south of France, in the family chateau of the Bosc in Albi. He descended from an ancient family: his ancestors had been on crusades and entered Jerusalem in the eleventh century. His parents, Count Alphonse and Countess Adèle, were cousins; the purpose of their marriage was to consolidate the Toulouse-Lautrec line that was weakening. The birth of their son Henri was a joy for the whole family, especially as he was the only male descendant. The father, grandfather and uncles of the artist painted well and Henri started drawing horses, dogs and birds at an early age. The only thing that worried his family was his health.
Aged fourteen he broke his thighbone falling in the sitting room of the chateau, fifteen months later, he fell in a gutter and broke his other leg. He remained a cripple. His legs stopped growing whilst his torso reached a normal size. As he grew up his nose grew big and his lips lost their shape giving him a speech impediment. He had to give up the idea of a normal life. He could only expect disgust and pity from young women. The only thing that he had left was his hands, which could do wonders.
Back in Paris, Toulouse-Lautrec entered the studio of the academic master Léon Bonnat and later of Professor Carmon, where he met Van Gogh. Toulouse-Lautrec’s appearance attracted attention upon him wherever he went. The first sessions in the studio with his mates were very difficult for him. He needed courage to struggle against rejection. Toulouse-Lautrec’s self caricatures were remarkable. His piercing eyes noticed not only outstanding details in others but also in himself. He painted himself sitting in front of his easel, drawing in a firm and assured line his profile with a big nose and protruding lips whilst a few light lines recalled the scattered hair on his head. He only felt free in the company of other rejected people, like himself – Montmartre was his real home.
Toulouse-Lautrec spent the summer 1887 at the chateau of Malromé that his mother had bought near Bordeaux. He painted a classical and very serious portrait of his mother with harmonious blue tones (Countess Adèle de Toulouse-Lautrec in the Living Room of the Malromé Château). He changed the letters of his name and signed ‘Treclau’. Perhaps he did not want to disgrace his family again, from whom he was becoming more and more distant.
From then on Toulouse-Lautrec looked more and more often for models amongst old declining prostitutes; in human faces, he was mostly looking for the signs of adversity and despair, vice and debauchery. The Dihaus, a family of musicians belonged to his remote family. Toulouse-Lautrec enjoyed visiting them a lot: they knew Edgar Degas and many artists visited their house. Degas had always been his favorite out of all the painters of the time whom he appreciated and had learned something from. He even tried the themes of Parisian life that Degas painted. But the way he interpreted those subjects was completely different. Degas painted nudes with harmonious lines, catching a fleeting moment or the outline’s gracious curve. Toulouse-Lautrec’s hard lines underlined dry hands mercilessly, sticking out shoulder blades or a loose knot in thin hair.
Amongst Impressionist subjects there is a famous painting by Renoir called the Dance at the Moulin de la Galette (1876), an elegant symphony of colorful glittering lights. Toulouse-Lautrec painted his Moulin de la Galette in 1889 (At the Moulin de la Galette). That painting was the first of a series of compositions that turned out to be a real chronicle of ‘joyous’ Montmartre.
Near the avenue de Clichy, the wings of a red mill had started to turn, like a signal: it was the beginning of the famous cabaret. There one could see people of the Parisian high society as well as characters from the very bottom. Louise Weber, a young Alsatian, danced quadrilles with her partner, a wine merchant from the Coquillère street. His incredible suppleness was the reason he was nicknamed the boneless Valentin; as for Louise, she received the nickname ‘La Goulue’ [the Greedy] because of her insatiable appetite. Toulouse-Lautrec untiringly painted the dancer who was the central character of his composition.
Drawing was the major part of Toulouse-Lautrec’s work. However, in 1891, he was inspired by an order from the owners of the Moulin Rouge, who asked Toulouse-Lautrec to design the poster for the opening of the cabaret season. He drew La Goulue and the outline of Boneless Valentin over a crowded background as they had both become the symbols of the Moulin Rouge. The poster was readable from far away; it was provocative and striking. (La Goulue au Moulin Rouge). His poster had become a collector’s dream as soon as the day after it was released in the streets of Paris. For the artist himself, it was the revelation of a new form of art, which he immediately favored.
Toulouse-Lautrec established poster drawing as a graphic art. In that limited genre, Toulouse-Lautrec managed to express his admiration for the dancer Jane Avril. He drew her many times. His broken lines conveyed the sudden movements in her dancing and her fragile outline (Jane Avril Dancing). The making of a poster was preceded by a vast number of drawings. At the Folies-Bergères, he drew the American dancer Loïe Fuller fluttering about the stage with her light, vaporous dresses. Toulouse-Lautrec’s drawings and paintings nourished his posters. The opposite was also true, his posters brought laconism and finesse to his painting style.
However, Toulouse-Lautrec’s Montmartre had changed. Its cabarets and concert-cafés were not going to last. They disappeared or turned into something else one after the other. He did lots in painting and graphics, throwing himself passionately into theatre for which he created paintings and posters, but it was getting harder and harder for him to work. His mother and friends tried to save him from alcoholism but it was beyond his power to give up. In 1899, he had to stay in a clinic for the insane for a while. He tried to get a taste for life back again through work for a little while, when he came out of hospital, but he finally died aged thirty-seven at Chateau Malromé, on September 9, 1901.
Toulouse-Lautrec had started to exhibit his works very early on. The public and most critics were choked by its indecency. His paintings entered museums quietly, as if they were on a black list. Several works by Toulouse-Lautrec were thus lost to French museums. Yet, without his paintings and prints, the art of the Post-Impressionist era would not be as rich. Toulouse-Lautrec was responsible for an immense contribution to the formation of the decorative style called Art Nouveau, which became the symbol of the link between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
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