Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec — At the Moulin Rouge, The Dance (1890, oil on canvas, 150 x 115.5 cm, Philadelphia Museum of Art, US)

The legend says that the painter was so dependent on alcohol that he would fill his hollow cane with liquors. And he needed a cane because of his underdeveloped legs and a variety of bone diseases. Toulouse-Lautrec came from an aristocratic family. His parents were cousins, explaining his health problems.

He was born in 1864, lived with his mother from the age of 8 in Paris, where his drawing skills were encouraged. He studied in the studios of Leon Bonnat and Fernand Cormon, in Monmartre, the bohemian centre of Paris, which became his spiritual home of his louche lifestyle. Unlike most of his contemporary impressionist and post-impressionist artists, he had some financial security, getting regular income from his family and also being able to sell his works.

Becoming a part of the Post-Impressionist movement, he was fascinated by the characters and performers of the Monmartre nightlife and people in the margins of the society. His unique posters, inspired by Japanese woodprints, became iconic depiction of Paris celebrities and performers. Toulouse-Lautrec was the first artist to elevate prints and posters to the status of serious art.

Studies of his favourite performers and prostitutes are some of his most famous works. The Streetwalker, depicts a prostitute nicknamed Golden Helmet; The Laundress is showing one of his favourite redhead model, Carmen Gaudin, posing not as a prostitute but as a working-class girl; Divan Japonais is a poster with two of his favourite performers in Monmartre. His fascination with prostitutes culminated in a series of lithographs, called Elles, where he takes a sympathetic, sensitive look at the urban nightlife of Paris. It is often speculated that his own disabilities allowed him to get close to those circles, overcome prejudice, and observe, staying invisible. An interesting fact about his works is that being short (only 1.42 m), he saw everyone from below which explains all the prominent nostrils in his works.

Despite the bohemian lifestyle, Toulouse-Lautrec worked hard, constantly trying, learning and implementing new techniques, especially because the technological innovations in the beginning of the century allowed to produce a variety of posters and prints. What was seen as an advertisement previously, became art, translating the energy and decadence of dancehalls like Moulin-Rouge into his posters.

Toulouse Lautrec’s influence on modern art is huge, inspiring artists like Warhol and Picasso.

He died young — at the age of 36, because of complications of as a result of alcoholism and syphilis. More than a thousand paintings, drawings, posters and prints are the incredible and unique legacy of the magical storyteller and biographer of Paris.

Read more about Toulouse-Lautrec, or about other famous artists in our blog — or come and explore Artbeep’s own artists!