Who was Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec?
Toulouse-Lautrec was a 19th century French artist and was one of the best-known painters of the Post-Impressionist period. Although he lived a tragically short life and died at the age of 36, it was not before he left his indelible mark on the history of French art. Along with painters like Cézanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin, he is considered to be a major figure of the Post-Impressionist period. Born into an aristocratic family, he developed an early interest in art and started drawing sketches and caricatures in his exercise workbooks as a young boy. His artistic talents soon became apparent and one of his father’s friends, the painter René Princeteau began giving the boy informal lessons. As a child, Toulouse suffered from ill health which prevented him from undertaking many of the activities that boys from aristocratic families participated in. Thus, he was mostly confined to his room and stared painting in earnest. He eventually went to study art with the portrait painter Léon Bonnat and blossomed into an acclaimed artist in his own right. Even though his career spanned less than 20 years, he created over 737 canvases, 275 watercolours, 363 prints and posters, and 5,084 drawings within his relatively short career. However, he became addicted to alcohol which ultimately led to his decline
Childhood & Early Life
He was born as Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa on 24 November 1864 in Albi, Tarn, France, into an aristocratic family, to Comte Alphonse Charles de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa and his wife Adèle Zoë Tapié de Celeyran. He had one younger brother who died in infancy. The death of his brother shattered his parents and ended their marriage.
His parents were first cousins, and he suffered from several congenital health conditions that might have been caused by inbreeding. His mother consulted several doctors for his treatment but could achieve only limited success.
He fractured his left thigh bone in a minor accident when he was 13 and the right leg when he was 14. After these incidents, both the legs ceased to grow, while the rest of his body continued to grow normally.
Due to his health problems he remained confined to his home and took to painting. He was naturally gifted and became fascinated with painting horses as a young man. One of his father’s friends, René Princeteau, recognized his talents and advised his parents to encourage him in his artistic pursuits.
He was sent to study art under the acclaimed portrait painter Léon Bonnat after completing his college education. During this period he became very familiar with the Montmartre area of Paris which was famous for its bohemian lifestyle.
In 1882, he moved to the studio of Fernand Cormon where he studied for the next five years. This was a very productive time for him and he met fellow painters Émile Bernard and Vincent van Gogh. It was during this time that he developed a fascination for painting prostitutes and their lifestyle.
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Toulouse-Lautrec completed his studies in 1887 following which he participated in an exposition in Toulouse. He later on exhibited in Paris with Van Gogh and Louis Anquetin.
Starting from 1889, he regularly participated in the Independent Artists' Salon. He along with other innovative artists like Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, and Camille Pissarro, played an important role in founding the independent salon which aimed to allow the artists to present their works to public judgment with complete freedom.
The Moulin Rouge cabaret was opened in 1889 and Toulouse-Lautrec was commissioned to produce a series of posters. Even though other artists looked down upon this work, he did not care for social approval and accepted this commission, producing a series of paintings for the cabaret.
Some of the well known paintings he created during this time include ‘At the Moulin Rouge‘ (1890, ‘La Goulue arriving at the Moulin Rouge’ (1892), ‘Salon at the Rue des Moulins’ (1894), ‘The Medical Inspection at the Rue des Moulins Brothel’ (1894), and ‘The clownesse Cha-U-Kao at the Moulin Rouge’ (1895).
His 1886 painting ‘La Blanchisseuse’ (The Laundress) depicting a young laundress at work is regarded as one of his finest works. The painting was sold for US $22.4 million in a 2005 auction at Christie's auction house.
Personal Life & Legacy
As an adult Toulouse-Lautrec was only 4 ft 8 in (1.42 m) tall, having developed an adult-sized torso, while retaining his child-sized legs due to medical conditions. He was often made fun of because of his appearance and sought to drown his sorrows in alcohol. Over the years his dependence on alcohol intensified and he was badly addicted.
He developed the habit of frequenting prostitutes as a young man. He formed friendships with several prostitutes who trusted and confided in him. He reportedly contracted syphilis from a prostitute named Rosa La Rouge who was also the subject of several of his paintings.
Alcoholism took its toll on his mental and physical well-being, and by 1899 his health had declined considerably. His family had him committed to Folie Saint-James, a sanatorium in Neuilly.
Toulouse-Lautrec died from complications due to alcoholism and syphilis on 9 September 1901.