Biography of French Post-Impressionist Painter & Poster Artist.

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Yvette Guilbert (1894). (detail)
Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901)


Early Days and Training
Training in Paris
Monmartre Genre Paintings
Final Years

Seated Dancer in Pink Tights (1890)
Private Collection.

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The archetypal bohemian artist and one of the great characters of late 19th century French painting, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was an important exponent of Post-Impressionism as well as the new medium of colour lithography. He was outstanding at drawing, as well as illustration and various forms of printmaking. A crippled aristocrat, he lingered around the cafes and brothels of Monmartre producing some of the greatest genre paintings of urban nightlife. Now regarded as one of the most innovative of modern artists, his Post-Impressionist painting features a vivid collection of prostitutes, beggars, impressarios, aristocrats and drunks, whom he portrayed without criticism or disapproval. He also produced some 30 colour advertising posters, which contributed significantly to the Belle Epoque era of French poster art, during the 1890s. His posters above all made him a revolutionary artist, a model and source of inspiration for Art Nouveau and the movements of the first third of the 20th century, among them the various schools of German Expressionism and Pablo Picasso's Ecole de Paris.

Woman with a Black Boa (1892)
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

For an idea of the pigments
used by Toulouse-Lautrec, see:
Colour Palette Nineteenth Century.

At the Moulin Rouge (1892-3)
Art Institute of Chicago.

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In many ways, Toulouse-Lautrec symbolizes both the gaiety and seediness of fin de siecle Paris. Influenced by Manet and Degas, the great figurative painters of French Impressionism, Lautrec's key works include Equestrienne at the Circus Fernando (1888, Art Institute of Chicago); Woman Doing her Hair (1891, Musee d'Orsay) and Quadrille at the Moulin Rouge (1892, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC); La Goulue Entering the Moulin Rouge (1892, MoMA, New York); Le Divan Japonais (1893, Museum Toulouse-Lautrec); The Medical Inspection (1894, National Gallery, Washington DC).

See also Brassai (Gyula Halasz) (1899-1984), the Hungarian camera artist noted for his photographs of Paris's nightlife during the 1930s.

Early Days and Training

Born in Albi, France, Lautrec was the son and heir of Comte Alphonse-Charles de Toulouse, and the last in line of a family history that spanned over a thousand years. Traditionally the aristocracy tended to inbreed and Lautrec's own parents were first cousins. Possibly as a result of this tradition, Lautrec suffered a number of congenital health issues. At 13 after falling from a horse, he fractured his left thigh bone, which never healed properly and his legs ceased to grow any further (his height as an adult was 4 foot 9 inches). A sick and quiet boy, he immersed himself in art. As an adult, deprived of any kind of normal life as a result of his deformity, alcohol and painting became his life.


Fine Art Training in Paris

In 1881, in order to develop his considerable talent for figure drawing, he went to Paris for a brief period to train in several workshops. He was assisted financially by his family, especially his mother who was his great protector at some of the most dramatic times of his life. He obtained a traditional training under Leon Bonnat (1833-1922) (who also taught Georges Braque) and later Fernand Cormon (1845-1924) (who also taught Matisse and Van Gogh), and it was this grounding in draftsmanship and the basic principles of figure painting which provided the foundation for his later masterpieces. His assiduity in this area links him with Degas (1834-1917), whose Impressionist compositions he much admired. During this time he met several Impressionist painters including Degas and Cezanne (1839-1906), as well as the expressionist Van Gogh (1853-90), and became facinated by the recently discovered Japanese prints, which had a decisive impact on his work. He began exhibiting with the Belgian group The Twenty and made drawings and lithographs for the Revue Blanche.

Monmartre Genre Paintings

In early 1884, shortly after his 19th birthday, Lautrec was given a monthly allowance and set up in his own studio in the popular but seedy entertainment district of Montmartre, famous for its brothels, nightlife, artists, writers and philosophers. He became such a familiar face in the brothels that he often moved in for weeks at a time. He would become the confidant and friend of both the Madame and her prostitutes, painting and sketching them at leisure. One of his favourite models, a red haired prostitute whom he called Rosa La Rouge, posed for him regularly. It is said that it was through her that he contracted syphilis.

His pictorial activity was vast and varied, and ranged across nearly all media, including canvas, paper, cardboard and even boards as surfaces, with either oils, pastels, charcoal, or even pencil-work sometimes finished off with areas of colour. He painted quickly, using oil paint thinned by turpentine, which allowed for rapid, fine marks. He often painted on unprimed cardboard, allowing for the surface to appear, exploiting its rawness and colour. The economy of his colour and materials are as direct and basic as his subjects. He would often spend his nights drinking heavily in the bars, sketching those around him and then apply those sketches to canvas the following day. Although the subjects in his genre painting are sometimes close to caricature, they are shown without sentiment or criticism. Among his most famous paintings from this time are depictions of the singer Yvette Guilbert and the dancer Louise Weber, also known at the La Goulue (the Glutton), who invented the 'Can-Can'. His paintings of the dancer Jane Avril are also well known.

Lithographic Colour Posters

However, it was in colour lithography - at the time, one of the latest advances in modern art - where his true innovation was felt. His advertising posters are testimonials to his genius for capturing the motion in a dance step or an acrobatic exercise, the essence of the "affiche" pieces that today are coveted by collectors of graphic art. Lautrec dominated the medium in Paris, along with the decorative artists of the Nabis group including Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947) and Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940), and the Czech painter Alphonse Mucha (1860-1939). When the famous Moulin Rouge nightclub was opened, his poster Equestrienne at the Circus Fernando (1887-88) was at the entrance. It was done at a time when he was interested in races, even bicycle races. Other famous posters by Toulouse-Lautrec include: Moulin Rouge - La Goulue (1891); Ambassadeurs - Aristide Bruant (1892); La Reine de Joie (1892); L'Anglais Warner Au Moulin Rouge (1892); Avril (Jane Avril) (1893); At the Foot of the Scaffold (1893); May Belfort (1895); The Jockey (1899); and Jane Avril (1899).

Final Years

From 1890 onward, he established his residence in a luxurious brothel, and there he studied his favourite subject: women. From these years, his works on canvas and cardboard, such as Le Divan Japonaise, The Medical Inspection, Woman Pulling up Her Stocking, Marcelle, and Two Friends are exceptional images.

Among his trips, those he made to Lisbon, Madrid and Toledo should be mentioned. He began to sell his paintings in 1899, the year when his excesses with drink caused some serious medical crises that required his admittance to a clinic in Neuilly. He took advantage of a two-month convalescence period to compose a series of pencil drawings and conte crayon drawings, before discharging himself apparently restored to health. In August 1901, he suffered another health relapse, and this time died from complications induced by alcohol and syphilis, at his family estate, three months before his 37th birthday.


Along with other famous painters, like Paul Cezanne, the Dutch expressionist Vincent Van Gogh, the colourist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) and the young Cloisonnist Emile Bernard (1868-1941), he was one of the most innovative Post-Impressionist painters in Paris. His skill lay in capturing people in their regular environment. There is an immediacy and tension in his work, captured through his fast brushstroke and use of gaudy colour pigments. His works were highly linear, and give emphasis to outlines and contours - he was able to recognizably depict many of his well-known singer subjects by their silhouette alone. After his death, his mother and art dealer promoted his work, and contributed towards funds for the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum in his native town of Albi. Although, as was the fate of so many bohemian artists, his works did not sell well in his own time, he is now rightly considered one of the best genre painters ever, and one of the most influential lithographic post artists of the 19th century. (For more details, see: History of Poster Art.) His works typically sell for prices in excess of $15-20 million. They hang in the best art museums around the world, and appear in most poster catalogues.


Paintings by Toulouse-Lautrec

Although his artistic career only lasted only 20 years, Toulouse-Lautrec produced over 700 paintings, and 5,000 drawings. Copies of his posters continue to be popular today, as they were a hundred years ago. Here is a short selection of some of his most notable works. (Note 1: Unless stated, all works are oil on cardboard/canvas. Note 2: TLM = Toulouse-Lautrec Museum, Albi, France.)

- Comtesse Adele-Zoe de Toulouse-Lautrec, the Artist's Mother (1883) MTL.
- Portrait of Suzanne Valadon (1885) National Art Museum, Buenos Aires.
- Emile Bernard (1886) Tate Gallery, London.
- Red-Haired Woman in a White Blouse (1886) Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
- At Montrouge (Rosa La Rouge) (1887) Barnes Foundation.
- Portrait of Vincent Van Gogh (1887) Rijksmuseum.
- Equestrienne at the Circus Fernando (1887-88) Art Institute of Chicago.
- First Communion Day (1888) Grisaille. Musee des Augustins, Toulouse.
- The Painter's Model Helene Vary (1888) Kunsthalle, Bremen.
- The Model Resting (1889) J. Paul Getty Museum, LA.
- At the Moulin de la Galette (1889) Art Institute of Chicago.
- Red-Haired Woman (La Toilette). 1889. Musee d'Orsay.
- The Morning After (1889) Indian ink and blue chalk. MTL.
- The Dance at Moulin Rouge (1889) Philadelphia Museum of Art.
- Woman Doing her Hair (1891) Musee d'Orsay.
- La Goulue Entering the Moulin Rouge (1892) Museum of Modern Art, NY.
- Quadrille At the Moulin Rouge (1892) National Gallery, Washington DC.
- Jane Avril Dancing (1892) Musee d'Orsay.
- Jane Avril Entering the Moulin Rouge (1892) Courtauld Institute.
- Woman with Black Feather Boa (1892) Musee d'Orsay.
- Jane Avril Leaving the Moulin Rouge (1892) Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford.
- At the Moulin Rouge (1892-93) Art Institute of Chicago.
- In Bed (1892-95) Louvre, Paris.
- Loie Fuller in "Dance of the Veils" at the Folies-Bergere (1893) MTL.
- Yvette Guilbert (1893) Gouache/charcoal on paper. Thyssen-Bornemisza.
- Portrait of Monsieur Boileau (1893) Cleveland Museum of Art.
- Le Divan Japonais (1893) Chalk lithograph. MTL.
- Portrait of Monsieur Delaporte (1893) Ny Carlsberg-Glyptotek, Copenhagen.
- Prostitutes Around a Dinner Table (1894) Szepmuveseti Muzeum, Budapest.
- Woman Putting on Her Stocking (1894) Musee d'Orsay.
- Two Friends (1895) Gemaldegalerie, Neue Meister, Dresden.
- Yvette Guilbert Singing "Linger, Longer, Loo" (1894) Pushkin Museum.
- The Medical Inspection (1894) National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.
- The Brothel Laundryman (1894) MTL.
- Alfred la Guigne (1894) National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.
- In the Wings at the Folies-Bergere (1896) Indian ink, blue pencil. MTL.
- Chocolate Dancing at Achille's Bar (1896) Chinese ink, blue pencil, charcoal.
- Portrait of Cipa Godebsky (1896) Cleveland Museum of Art.
- Crouching Woman with Red Hair (1897) San Diego Museum of Art.
- At the Circus (1899) Black chalk, estompe, colored crayons. Chicago.


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