Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Born: Albi, France
“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”
―Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
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Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec Monfa (the long name reflects his high-class social status) was born into an aristocratic family in the South of France. Raised in an atmosphere of privilege, he loved animals, and owned and rode horses. By age 8, it was clear that he suffered from a congenital illness that weakened his bones. After two serious riding accidents his legs stopped growing. At his full height, Toulouse-Lautrec was 5 feet tall, with the upper body of a man and the legs of a child. He walked with a cane and in considerable pain for the rest of his life.
Unable to participate in the equestrian pursuits and other pleasures afforded other aristocrats of his age and station, Toulouse-Lautrec took art lessons with a local instructor, Rene Princeteau, who assisted him in channeling his passion for horses into drawing and painting. His first drawings were of horses, and the dynamism of line in Two Riders on Horseback(1879) shows his gift for observing and transposing action onto paper, cardboard or canvas. It was around that time that he discovered the Impressionists. Degas shared his love of horses and was his most important early influence, shown in Toulouse-Lautrec’s elegant, gestural line, capture of movement, and immediate and early gravitation toward racy urban subjects.
Shunning the more prestigious traditional Ecole des Beaux-Arts (which still taught students how to paint in the manner of the Italian Renaissance), upon his arrival in Paris in 1882 Toulouse-Lautrec sought (and could afford) individualized instruction in the small studios of Leon Bonnat and Bernard Corman. These teachers fostered unorthodox training and experimental approaches. Cormon’s students included the renegades Vincent van Gogh and Emile Bernard, who became Toulouse-Lautrec’s friends. Unchaperoned for the first time, the teenage Toulouse-Lautrec went wild in Paris, and its colorful night life became the center of his world. Despite ongoing struggles with his health, he was – by all accounts – the life of the party. Exceedingly charming, gracious, witty, and sarcastic, he became a fixture in Montmartre’s cabarets, bars, circuses and brothels, where he knew the prostitutes by name (they, in turn, affectionately called him “the Coffeepot” – an affectionate reference to the diminutive artist’s generous proportions). Learning from a circle of friends and mentors in Paris that worked hard and played hard, he developed his unforgettable shorthand approach to observing from life. As he sat in the theater or circus, he sketched the performers. When in the brothel, he sketched the prostitutes. Like the Impressionists, he preferred to work on site, in front of the motif, beginning and completing his compositions on the spot. Unlike the Impressionists, (with the notable exception of Degas) who gravitated toward scenes of upper-middle-class leisure, Toulouse-Lautrec chose urban night life, the more disreputable the better.
His diminutive stature allowed him a degree of invisibility, so that he could observe others closely. Prostitutes and performers, accustomed to being judged, were not afraid of him. His portrait of the prostitute known as La Casque d’Or in The Streetwalker (1890-91) captures the unprecedented frankness of his approach, and reflects the degree to which his models trusted him.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s career coincided with the expansion of the urban middle class — people with money to spend on entertainment, but who weren’t part of high society. He anticipated and shaped the needs of this audience and his style began to make an impact during his lifetime, inspiring the exaggerated outlines, languid, organic forms and script writing that appeared in the Art Nouveau movement.
He is one of the pillars holding up the rest of modern art. Without him, you’d have no Picasso, Warhol, Diane Arbus, or Chuck Close. Toulouse-Lautrec’s celebration of consumer culture and iconic popular advertisements paved the way for Pop Art. In addition his portrayals fueled the obsession with superstars that persists today (think Niki Minaj, Justin Bieber, Madonna, Miley Cyrus – the list goes on and on).
One further aspect of Toulouse-Lautrec’s achievement deserves special attention. Despite the celebrated freedom and individualism of modern art, few artists of any period have been able to overcome social prejudice. While rubbing elbows with the riffraff was an acceptable, even encouraged rite-of- passage among avant-garde artists, Degas, Manet, and Van Goghmaintained a certain aloofness from their working-class subjects. Toulouse-Lautrec was able to develop true friendships that transcended the rigid class structure of nineteenth-century Paris. His brilliant insights into the glitter and desperation of Paris nightlife, a study in contrasts, were not only more brilliant but more humane than any that had come before him, setting the bar high for future artists.