In a career of less than 20 years, Toulouse-Lautrec created:
- 737 canvased paintings
- 275 watercolors
- 363 prints and posters
- 5,084 drawings
- some ceramic and stained-glass work
- an unknown number of lost works.
“You know, if one were a Frenchman, or dead, or a pervert – best of all, a dead French pervert – it might be possible to enjoy life!”an artist laments in an illustration in the German satirical magazine Simplicissimus issued in 1910
Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse- Lautrec was born in 1864 in Albi, in southwestern France, into a wealthy and distinguished noble family that could trace its lineage back to the time of the crusades. Lautrec’s father was eccentric and neglectful. His pious and over-protective mother has been criticised for the way in which she later handled his illness.
However, correspondence still extant shows that they were a close and loving family. The young Henri was cherished and spoilt. One of his grandmothers wrote of him: ‘Henri keeps chirping from morning to night. He goes on like a cricket who brightens up the whole house. His departure leaves a great gap each time, for he really occupies the place of twenty people here.’
Before the twentieth century when such things ceased to matter, Lautrec was unique among the great European painters in coming from such a privileged and aristocratic background. It is worth remembering that the great French cultural flowering that illuminated the world throughout the nineteenth century was very largely the product of one class – the much maligned bourgeoisie. Very few French artists of any significance came from either the working classes or from the aristocracy. The young Henri was encouraged to draw and paint, and was praised for his precocious efforts. Like women, aristocrats were expected never to advance beyond the stage of the gifted amateur. (One is reminded of the Morisot sisters, whose art teacher warned their parents that they were in danger of becoming too skilled for their own good.) Lautrec himself would probably never have progressed beyond the amateur had it not been for two accidents in his early teens.
Perhaps as a result of inbreeding (his parents were first cousins and his grandmothers were sisters), Lautrec’s young bones failed to heal properly and his legs ceased to grow, leaving him stunted, deformed and quite literally déclassé. He could no longer follow the traditional outdoor pastimes of his class – notably hunting.
Life-drawing of the nude was the basis of all academic art training in nineteenth century Paris. Nude drawings and paintings by Lautrec in the 1880s show clearly enough what it was that so offended his teacher Bonnat. Nude Study of 1883 and Voluptuous Mary of 1885 – both executed while Lautrec was still working with Cormon – are academic nude studies of a type Lautrec would rarely produce later on. The women each pose motionlessly in what seems to be an artist’s studio. A piquant touch of modernity is given to the earlier nude by her black shoes and stockings. Her pose suggests loneliness and vulnerability – themes that Lautrec would explore later in many of his brothel pictures.
While still a student, Lautrec began the exploration of Parisian nightlife, which was to provide his greatest inspiration and eventually to undermine his health. In the early stages of this exploration, Lautrec was often accompanied and encouraged by a fellow student from Cormon’s studio called René Grenier. For some time, Lautrec lodged with Grenier and his beautiful wife Lili. He clearly enjoyed a relaxed and somewhat unconventional relationship with the couple, at one stage drawing a pornographic caricature of Lili, nude and with huge pendulous breasts hanging over the diminutive and almost fully dressed Lautrec as she performs fellatio on him…
He was clearly fascinated by Oscar Wilde, on one of his periodical visits to London in 1895 even attending some sessions of the author’s trial for homosexual offences and making several portraits of Wilde’s bloated and androgynous face. Lautrec’s art reached a peak in 1896 with the series of eleven lithographs (including the cover) entitled Elles depicting scenes of daily life in a brothel. The series provides a splendid coda to Lautrec’s interest in the subject in the first half of the 1890s and, indeed, to the interest in Parisian ‘modern life’ subjects that had prevailed among French artists and writers since the 1860s.
Courbet, Manet, and in particular Degas, had all exploited the top hat as a symbol of masculinity and bourgeois morality. Lautrec’s use of the hat here may be specifically inspired by a picture by Gervex entitled Rolla that gained great notoriety when it was rejected on moral grounds from the Salon.
Lautrec deals with almost every aspect of human sexuality with unflinching truthfulness, occasionally with savage humour, but more often with a gentleness and humanity that removes his art to the farthest extreme from brutalising pornography…
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