Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born into an aristocratic family in the south of France in 1864. His father, Count Alphonse, was a notorious eccentric known for all kinds of unpredictable behavior: from washing his socks in the river (unheard of for an aristocrat!) to galloping off to a hunt wearing outlandish costumes, to simply disappearing for long stretches of time. The young Henri never became very close to him.
Unknown at the time, Henri suffered from a genetic condition that prevented his bones from healing properly. Fatefully, at age twelve, he broke his left leg. And at age fourteen, he broke his right leg. Both legs ceased to grow, while the rest of his body continued to grow normally.
At maturity, Lautrec was 4 1/2 feet tall. But his great misfortune was a sort of blessing in disguise, at least from our perspective. After his accidents he was no longer able to follow his father in the typically aristocratic pastimes of riding and hunting. Instead, he focused on sketching and painting.
Lautrec sitting for a self portrait. This is "trick photo" was done by Maurice Guibert circa 1890. It would be a snap to do it with Photoshop these days, but back then, it was a real magic trick. Click here for a larger version of the photo.
Art and alcohol
In his late teens, Lautrec was honored to become a student of the artist Fernand Cormon, whose studio was located on the hill above Paris, Montmartre.
When he graduated from Cormon's studio, Lautrec gave himself up fully to the bohemian life, spending much of his time drinking and carousing — and constantly sketching — in cabarets, racetracks, and brothels.
His stunted physique earned him laughs and scorn, and kept him from experiencing many of the physical pleasures offered in Montmartre, a sorrow that he drowned in alcohol. At first it was beer and wine. Then brandy, whiskey, and the infamous absinthe found their ways into his
Art and alcohol were his only mistresses, and they were mistresses to which he devoted all of his time and energy. He was doing one or both almost every day of his life until he died.
Adapting the fad for Japanese style (asymmetric composition, flat areas of color) that then pervaded French art to the also burgeoning art of the picture poster, he created thousands of artworks both to memorialize his friends and to advertise their venues. Among those whose images are now a part of art history are the Moulin Rouge dancers Louise Weber (La Goulue) and Jane Avril, and the combative singer/entrepreneur Aristide Bruant.
An early grave
Lautrec's lifestyle could not be sustained. In 1899 he entered what we would today call a detox clinic.
In September, 1901 — just over one hundred years ago — he passed away at the age of 36.
As he lay dying, his mother and a few friends sat at his side. When his father, the rarely-seen Count Alphonse showed up, everyone was astonished — except Henri. He said, "Good Papa. I knew you wouldn't miss the kill."
During Henri's last hours, Count Alphonse behaved as strangely as ever. The count suggesting that they cut off Henri's beard in accordance with certain Arabic customs that he'd heard of, and that they use Henri's shoelaces to flick at noisy flies. Henri's last words were addressed to his father: "Old fool."
Joie de vivre
Today we know Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec as the archetypical bohemian artist of the belle époque, the "beautiful era" in Paris in the last decade of the 19th Century. He helped usher in the new century, and died when the job was done.
Lautrec captured the spirit and emotion of the era in his posters and portraits. Although his handicap and his alcohol abuse kept him from enjoying some of life's pleasures, Lautrec clearly shared in the joie de vivre of the time.
Today, we can share in it through his artwork.
Lautrec dressed as a clown circa 1895, and dressed in Japanese costume (acting like a clown) circa 1885.
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