The Talent and Tribulations of Toulouse-Lautrec
“Everywhere and always ugliness has its beautiful aspects; it is thrilling to discover them where nobody else has noticed them.” -- Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Far from humble beginnings, the celebrated illustrator, printmaker, painter, and creator of immeasurable beauty, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born into an aristocratic family that could trace its lineage back to successful participation in the Crusades, and generations of lavish wealth that followed. The only surviving heir of a loveless marriage between first cousins, Toulouse-Lautrec was subjected in his childhood to equal measures of his mother’s extremities of religious devoutness and his father’s boisterous life as a devoted huntsman, general roué, and man-about-town. Likely as a result of his family’s years of incestuous marriages, Toulouse-Lautrec inherited a number of genetic diseases, the most severe of which lead him to break a series of bones in his early teens that stunted his growth permanently, as well as creating many physical deformations.
Made an outsider to his father’s world of sport by his physical defects, a young Toulouse-Lautrec sought to circumvent the barriers that kept him from his father’s passions by creating beautiful sketches of sporting hounds and horses in valiant motion. This perspective of that of an outsider—barred from much of the exuberance of life that others of his station so readily enjoyed—would persist throughout his life and throughout his work.
In 1881, Toulouse-Lautrec passed his final examinations and sought out formal instruction in painting. Though his very early paintings subscribed to the strict instruction he received—and the even stricter conventions of the Academy—a studied eye can still detect a subtle rebellion; the artist had his own ideas about painting and drawing right from the start. Toulouse-Lautrec began by repeatedly, and quite successfully, painting portraits of those in his inner circle. Though these early portraits lack many of the characteristics that the artist would later be celebrated for, they hold an astounding psychological fidelity that speaks to his unique ability to create in a capacity that goes far beyond the capturing of mere mood and atmospherics.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s mature style would be marked by what were considered at the time to be “Japanese” elements, which draw on traditional printmaking techniques, such as the absence of shadows, diagonal lines in the compositions, starkly sectional approaches to picture planes and a particular fondness for decorative arabesques. A unique hallmark of his work, and one that would later be adopted by countless masters that followed, was the dual or off-centered vanishing point, which made for abrupt perspectives and unusual, intriguing angles of vision that would afford greater emphasis to the subject. He even anticipated certain “shots'' that would later be adopted by early photographers and filmmakers. In the age of emerging film and photographic technology, artists of the day were tasked with capturing what the camera could not, expressing a higher truth than merely what the eye was confronted with, and perhaps none so masterfully accomplished that task as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
Though his three-hundred-and-fifty work catalogue only includes thirty lithographs, Toulouse-Lautrec is perhaps most remembered for his striking print advertising posters, created for such storied institutions as the Moulin Rouge. In truth, it was an 1891 poster of Louise Weber—better known by her stage name, “La Goulue”—executed to promote the then-new club—that created an instant celebrity and much sought-after printmaker of Toulouse-Lautrec. By 1884, cabaret life had consumed both himself and the constitution of his work, and so the artist relocated to Montmartre permanently, so as to continue to drink in, from a voyeur's perspective, the never-ending stimuli of bars, clubs, and cafes in the area.
Described as one of the “most consistent and extreme” artists of his era, Toulouse-Lautrec rejected the conventions of his time, in which portraits tended towards a mixed style of “cloisonnism” and impressionism, and he succeeded where others failed in creating works that captured the atmospheric effects of a moment, along with the psychological character of the subject. With influences ranging from the French impressionist Edgar Degas to the Renaissance master Vittore Carpaccio, Toulouse-Lautrec absorbed much—but cared little for—the demands, conventions, and preferences of his constituents. Of the sketchiness and unfinished quality of his works, he once remarked to a favorite cousin, “These people get on my nerves. They want me to finish my works, but that is how I see things, so I paint them that way. After all, it is so easy to finish things… There’s nothing simpler than to finish a painting in an eternal sense. It’s the very glibbest of lies.”
Unfortunately, at the age of thirty-four, after years of imbibing heavily and countless sleepless nights spent in various institutions of occasionally dubious nature, coupled with an increasingly-felt status as an outsider that was barred from the fullness and joyousness of life he so masterfully captured, Toulouse-Lautrec began a self-destructive campaign seemingly aimed at constructing his own downfall. Finally interned at an asylum by concerned family and friends, he would eventually be awarded his freedom from the institution after a successful campaign to “prove his sanity and competency” through a series of technically difficult drawings of horses and circus performers. Though he managed to accomplish a few ensuing masterpieces, such as “The English Girl at the Star in Le Havre,” the following years for Toulouse-Lautrec were regrettably those of physical and mental decline. He succumbed to cirrhosis and syphilis in 1901, at the young age of thirty-six.
Though short, the life of the prolific artist made an everlasting impact on the visual mediums he mastered with innovation and ease; an impact that is celebrated worldwide, and commemorated with an exceptional museum in his birthplace of Albi, France. Now a site of pilgrimage for the millions who delight and cherish the epigrammatic artist’s flair for capturing the beauty beneath the surface of things, the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec now holds the largest compilation of his works in the world, and honors the prodigious talents and particular existence of a great man. Collected by the Museum of Modern Art, the Museum of Fine Art Boston, The Musée d'Orsay, The Philadelphia Museum of Art, The National Gallery of Art, the Tate London, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and near countless other recognized institutions around the world, Toulouse-Lautrec’s work seems to endlessly speak to the nature of the current affairs, the enduring constitution of the human spirit.