Henri de Toulouse Lautrec Artist Biography

Henri de Toulouse Lautrec

Despite his short life, Henri de Toulouse Lautrec managed to produce some 737 canvases, 275 watercolors, 368 prints and posters and 5,084 drawings. His works provide an amazing document for the years 1880 to 1900, a period described as “La Belle Époque”. The extraordinary characters in his paintings from clowns to aristocrats, from sportsmen to prostitutes cover a broad social spectrum.

Henri de Toulouse Lautrec was born in 1864 at Albi, son of Comte Alphonse de Toulouse-Lautrec and Comtesse Adele de Toulouse-Lautrec - an aristocratic family (descendants of the Counts of Toulouse) that has fallen on hard times.

At the age of 13, Henri de Toulouse fractured his left thigh bone, and at 14, the right. The breaks did not heal properly. Modern physicians attribute this to an unknown genetic disorder. Physically unable to participate in most of the activities typically enjoyed by men of his age, Henri de Toulouse immersed himself in his art. His sympathy and fascination for the marginal in society, as well as his keen caricaturist’s eye, may be partly explained by his own physical handicap.

Henri de Toulouse moved from Albi to Paris and he attended the Lycée Fontanes in Paris for a time in the early 1870s, and later studied with René Princetau and John Lewis Brown. These artists focused on animal portraiture and thus influenced some of Toulouse-Lautrec’s sensibilities later in his career.

In 1882, he studied art in the ateliers of two academic painters, Léon Bonnat and Fernand Cormon who also taught Émile Bernard and Vincent van Gogh.

In 1884, Henri de Toulouse moved to the Montmartre section of Paris, an area known for its bohemian life, which included live musical performances, bars and brothels. He created art to accompany the music of singer/composer Bruant, who also owned a cabaret where Henri de Toulouse was able to showcase his pieces. Over time, he built a stellar reputation with his depictions of regular Montmartre denizens and celebrities.

In 1899, due to excessive living, Henri de Toulouse was taken to an asylum at Neuilly with an attack of delirium tremens. Upon his release he couldn’t help but return to his hard-drinking ways and two years later he died from a paralytic attack, at 36 years old, leaving behind a lot of works.

Henri de Toulouse excelled at depicting people in their working environments, with the color and movement of the gaudy nightlife present but the glamour stripped away. He was a master at painting crowd scenes where each figure was highly individualised. His works were always striking with bold forms and colors.

His influences probably came from Goya in Lautrec's etchings and Degas in his painting. A friendship with Gauguin certainly led him in a particular direction in his lithographs, inspired by Japanese color prints. Despite his colorful life, his vast oeuvre covers a precise time and place with extraordinary detail, evoking the atmosphere of this time perfectly.

"[He] painted no landscapes, no religious pictures, no abstract conceptions. All his subjects, except for a few representations of animals, were real people whose lives were an integral part of his own life."

Gerstle Mack, from Henri de Toulouse (1938).

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