The image of a late 19th-century white male French painter often conjures a penniless genius, a tortured recluse, or some combination of the two. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec different from his contemporaries in that he was neither of these things. He became massively successful during his lifetime, unlike Vincent van Gogh, who sold only a fraction of his numerous paintings while he was alive. Toulouse-Lautrec was at the center of Paris’s vibrant arts scene, unlike Paul Gauguin, who fled the country for Polynesia, where he painted images of Tahitian women. Toulouse-Lautrec also did not craft images of nature en plein air, the way that Claude Monet did, nor he did not devote himself to still lifes free of people, the way that Paul Cézanne largely did.
All of this makes Toulouse-Lautrec, who died at just 36 years old in 1901, an eccentric figure and somewhat of an outlier among his peers. His art, which focused largely on bars and dance halls in Paris and the people who frequented them, looks quite unlike the landscapes his Impressionist and Post-Impressionist colleagues produced, and his bombastic sensibility often imbued his work with a theatricality that ran counter to the era’s dominating styles. And yet, Toulouse-Lautrec’s work continues to fascinate, partly because it provides such a clear window into life in late 19th-century France.
With a Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition featuring 215 of the artist’s most famous prints due to open at the Polk Museum of Art in Lakeland, Florida, next week, below is a look at the French artist’s life and work.
Toulouse-Lautrec depicted—and poked fun at—Paris’s arts scene.
Looking at Toulouse-Lautrec’s prints, drawings, and paintings, one gets a distinct sense for what it was like to patronize a bar in Paris’s Montparnasse and Montmartre neighborhoods, where artists and their friends gathered to have a good time. “To view a Lautrec exhibition is to take a tour of his private world—a world of contrasting images and characters, of aristocrats and clowns, sportsmen and cancan dancers, bordellos and cafes,” art historian Julia Nolet once wrote. “His works themselves became artifacts of his time: portraits, posters, and book illustrations. If an archeologist were to dig them out of the ruins of Western civilization some centuries hence, he would stumble upon precise documents of Parisian life between 1880 and 1900.”
Partly, this is due to Toulouse-Lautrec’s repeated visits to the same bars. He would come back again and again, creating many images of the same settings and their denizens until he got bored, at which point he moved onto a new watering hole with another set of singers, dancers, sex workers, and musicians who fascinated him. Because he so deeply ingrained himself in this way (at times even leading sexual relationships with some of his subjects), scholars have even been able to learn about some of the celebrities of Toulouse-Lautrec’s day based on his art.
Among those who appear in Toulouse-Lautrec’s prints is Yvette Guilbert, a singer who had performed at the Moulin Rouge and other notable venues and accrued a reputation for her unusual style, which often involved crooning softly while standing straight and wearing long black gloves. In one 1893 work on paper in the Polk Museum show, Guilbert stands with her right arm dramatically raised in the air, her back arched slightly; her face is contorted into a smile. Images such as these prove memorable for the intense psychological effects Toulouse-Lautrec has given his subjects, some of whom lived lives of poverty in hardscrabble neighborhoods.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s rise was swift.
Despite the fact that Toulouse-Lautrec worked in neighborhoods largely inhabited by the poor, the artist was himself not short on money. Born in Albi in 1864, Toulouse-Lautrec was raised in a middle-class family. (The extent of the family’s wealth is not entirely clear, though some of his relatives owned estates.) After his brother died, when Toulouse-Lautrec was eight years old, he went to live in Paris with his mother. By the time he was a teenager, he had begun to suffer from what may have been pycnodysostosis, a rare genetic condition; his growth was stunted, and the pain he experienced rendered him unable to do many physical activities. His attention subsequently turned to art.
During his early 20s, while working in the studio of Fernand Cormon, then an artist of renown, Toulouse-Lautrec got his first major commission: a set of illustrations for Victor Hugo’s poetry collection La Légende des siècles. Toulouse-Lautrec’s work didn’t end up getting published, but now he had art that he could send to local newspaper editors. Suddenly, the Paris art scene became aware of him, and before he even turned 30, he had designed a poster for the Moulin Rouge, effectively cementing himself as a major talent. He had also shown at the Salon des Indépedants, the closely watched exhibition series that featured Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art deemed too outré for the aesthetically conservative Salons.
Just as Toulouse-Lautrec rose quickly, he fell swiftly, too. In 1899, having drank heavily for years—“his days and nights were soaked in alcohol,” Museum of Modern Art curator Sarah Suzuki once wrote—his alcoholism began to bear out on his health; he may have also contracted syphilis, which also caused deleterious effects. He died in 1901, merely a decade after his first commission for the Moulin Rouge. Although he lived to be just 36, it is clear that his hard-partying persona has continued to intrigue. Hollywood filmmakers, for example, have not been able to resist his allure: John Leguizamo memorably played the Post-Impressionist in the hit 2001 film Moulin Rouge!
Most of Toulouse-Lautrec’s works are not paintings.
If many of his colleagues made names for themselves through painting, often employing deliberately rough brushwork to then-risqué means, Toulouse-Lautrec got recognized early on for his posters and his drawings. It’s not that Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings aren’t well-known—they are, and ones such as At the Moulin Rouge (1892/95), featuring attendees at the titular bar rendered in sickly shades of green, are considered masterpieces. (At the Moulin Rouge is held by the Art Institute of Chicago.) But whereas Toulouse-Lautrec made more than 700 paintings, he also created more than 5,000 drawings.
Many of Toulouse-Lautrec’s lithographs and the drawings he produced in preparation for them are unpolished and composed of clusters of marks used to denote dark areas. They looked dashed off, even when Toulouse-Lautrec had clearly put careful thought into their look. In one sketch of the famed cancan dancer Jane Avril, her body is mainly made up of diagonal lines, and her dress becomes a series of swirls. Even though her face was crafted from a few quick pencil marks, her theatrical persona is evident—and only more so in the resulting lithograph. Works such as these once caused the critic Arsène Alexandre to remark, “Painter and model, together, have created a true art of our time, one through movement, one through representation.”