Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Summary

Henri-Marie-Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Montfa (Albi, November 24, 1864 – Saint-André-du-Bois, September 9, 1901) was a French painter, among the most significant figures in the art of the late nineteenth century.

Family origins

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born on November 24, 1864 in one of the family palaces, the Hôtel du Bosc, near Albi, a small town in the South of France, eighty kilometers away from Toulouse. His was one of the most prestigious families in France. The Toulouse-Lautrec considered themselves descendants of Raymond V count of Toulouse, father of Baudouin, who in 1196 would have given origin to the lineage, contracting marriage with Alix, viscountess of Lautrec. The family reigned for centuries on the Albigese and gave birth to brave soldiers, militarily active in the Crusades, who, however, did not fail to take pleasure in the Fine Arts: over the centuries, in fact, there were many Toulouse-Lautrec who were interested in drawing, and even Henri”s grandmother once said: “If my children hunt a bird, they get three pleasures: shoot it, eat it and draw it”.

Henri”s parents were Count Alphonse-Charles-Marie de Toulouse-Lautrec-Montfa and Countess Adèle-Zoë-Marie-Marquette Tapié de Céleyran, and they were first cousins (the bride and groom”s mothers were sisters). It was customary for noble families to marry among blood relatives, so as to preserve the purity of blue blood, and not even Alphonse and Adèle escaped this tradition, celebrating the marriage on May 10, 1863. This union, however, was fraught with bad consequences: the two spouses, in fact, were both nobles, but they were also absolutely incompatible with each other. Lautrec”s father, Count Alphonse, was a bizarre exhibitionist and an insatiable playboy who loved to devote himself to idleness and to the pastimes of the rich, frequenting high society and following hunting and horseracing (the races at Chantilly were his daily bread). His element was the open air, as we can read in these words that he addressed to his son when he turned twelve:

These were words of extreme comfort to Henri, especially in the most difficult moments, but they were incompatible with his untamed temperament, from which he was aroused to venture into the darkness of Parisian cabarets and not so much into the open-air fields. Equally conflicted was Toulouse-Lautrec”s relationship with his mother, a notoriously pious, reserved, and loving woman, but also a bigoted, hysterical, possessive, moralistic, and hypochondriac. “My mother: virtue personified! Only the red pants of the cavalry [this is the uniform worn by his father, ed.] could not resist,” Henri would later say once he had become an adult, when all remnants of the umbilical cord had been severed (in the course of his life, in fact, Toulouse-Lautrec became increasingly emancipated from his mother”s super-ego, until he became a bohemian completely different from the noble aristocrat that his mother wanted him to become). Despite the various frictions that sometimes existed, however, Adèle did not fail to stay close to her son, even in his most difficult moments.

This marriage between blood relatives, however, was catastrophic not only for the incompatibility of character between the two spouses, but also because it had serious consequences on the genetic heritage of the son: it was not uncommon, in fact, that in the Toulouse-Lautrec family were born deformed children, sick, or even dying, such as the second son Richard who, born in 1868, died in tender childhood. The family in the nineteenth century belonged to the typical provincial aristocracy, landowners, and led a comfortable life between the various castles owned in the Midi and Gironde thanks to the proceeds of their vineyards and farms. In Paris they owned apartments in the residential districts and owned a hunting estate in the Sologne. Politically they sided with the legitimists and it is no coincidence that Lautrec was named Henri, in homage to the pretender to the throne the Count of Chambord.

Childhood

The young Henri had an idyllic childhood, pampered as he was in the various castles owned by the family, where he could enjoy the company of cousins, friends, horses, dogs, falcons. His childhood did not suffer in the least from the fact that the parents, while formally remaining in marriage, after the death of the second son lived separately, accomplice also incompatibility of character so marked: while not failing to attend his father, Henri went to live with his mother, by whom he was affectionately called petit bijou or bébé lou poulit For the young Toulouse-Lautrec, his mother was an essential point of reference: this is a factor that should not be forgotten, especially in light of the future bohemian life of the painter, as we have already had the opportunity to point out. Adèle did not suspect the illnesses that would have devastated the existence of her son in the near future.

In 1872 Lautrec followed his mother to Paris to attend the Lycée Fontanes (now Lycée Condorcet). Here he met Maurice Joyant, of Alsatian origin, who became his trusted friend, and the animal painter René Princeteau, a valuable acquaintance of his father. Both Joyant and Princeteau soon recognized Henri”s genius and openly encouraged him: the child, after all, had been drawing since he was four years old and the comparison with painters of a certain caliber certainly increased his artistic sensitivity. At the age of ten, however, Henri”s life took an unpleasantly unexpected turn. His fragile health began to deteriorate in an alarming way: when he turned ten, then, it was discovered that he suffered from a congenital bone deformation, pycnodisostosis, which caused him severe pain (some doctors, however, have advanced the hypothesis that it could be osteogenesis imperfecta).

His mother, worried about her son”s weak health, took him from the Lycée Fontanes (later Condorcet) in Paris, placed him with private tutors in the family mansion in Albi and tried to give him thermal treatments, in an extreme attempt to relieve his pain. It was all in vain: neither the therapies risked by his mother, nor the reductions of the two terrible fractures of the head of the femur (probably performed clumsily) had any effect and, indeed, the gait of Toulouse-Lautrec began to become caracolling, his lips became swollen and his features became grotesquely vulgar, as well as the language, from which he derived noticeable defects in pronunciation. In 1878, in Albi, in the salon of the house where he was born, Henri fell on the badly waxed parquet floor and broke his left femur; the following year, during a stay in Barèges, while he still had the orthopaedic appliance on his left leg, he fell into a ditch and broke his other leg. These fractures never healed and prevented him from a harmonious skeletal development: his legs stopped growing, so that as an adult, although not suffering from true dwarfism, he remained only 1.52 m tall, having developed a normal bust but keeping the legs of a child.

The long periods of convalescence in the sanatorium forced Henri to immobility, and they were certainly unwelcome and boring. It was on this occasion that Toulouse-Lautrec, to kill time, deepened his passion for painting, cultivating it with increasing strength and dedication, drawing incessantly on sketchbooks, albums and scraps of paper, and perhaps dreaming of a recovery that will never come. To this period are datable a series of thin pictures that, even if they don”t show the genius of the enfant prodige, denote certainly a loose hand, sure and a very developed technical skill. The subjects of these first pictorial ventures are linked to the equestrian world: “horses, if he couldn”t ride them, he at least wanted to know how to paint them!” rightly observed the critic Matthias Arnold. Dogs, horses and hunting scenes were subjects familiar to the young Henri (who grew up under the sign of his father”s passion for horse-riding) but also indicated for the training of young painters. It should not be ignored, moreover, that with the realization of works such as Souvenir d”Auteuil and Alphonse de Toulouse-Lautrec at the carriage Henri tried desperately to earn the esteem of his father: Alphonse, in fact, had always wanted to make his little man into a gentleman with the hobbies of horseback riding, hunting and painting (both he and his brothers Charles and Odon were amateur painters), and at that moment he found himself instead a bedridden and physically deformed son.

According to a possibly apocryphal story, to those who mocked him for his short stature, Lautrec replied, “I have the stature of my family,” citing the length of his noble surname (de Toulouse-Lautrec-Montfa). This ready joke, though brilliant, did not, however, make Toulouse-Lautrec physically fit to participate in most of the sports and social activities usually undertaken by men of his social class: it was for this reason that he immersed himself completely in his art, turning what was an initial pastime into a shouted vocation. When, after struggling to graduate from high school, Henri announced to his parents in November 1881 that he wanted to waste no more time and become a painter, his parents fully supported his choice. “Of parental resistance to their son”s projects, a recurring theme in biographies of artists, no news has reached us for the Toulouse-Lautrec family,” Arnold again observes, “if Lautrec later had disagreements with his relatives, it was not because he painted, but because of what he painted and how.” It must be remembered, however, that in Henri”s early artistic career the subjects chosen for his paintings remained in the tradition, and this certainly should not have aroused family concerns.

Artistic training

Aware that he would never be able to mold Henri in his own image, Alphonse accepted his son”s choice and asked for advice from those of his friends who practiced painting, namely Princeteau, John Lewis Brown and Jean-Louis Forain, who advised him to encourage his son”s passion and to channel it into the academic tradition. Toulouse-Lautrec at first thought of following the lessons of Alexandre Cabanel, a painter who, after having astonished the public of the Salon in 1863 with his Venus, enjoyed considerable artistic prestige and was able to guarantee his disciples a brilliant future. The overabundance of requests, however, dissuaded Henri from following his lessons.

Although Toulouse-Lautrec was technically proficient, he realized that he was still immature as a painter and knew that he absolutely needed to perfect his hand under the guidance of a well-known academic artist. It was for this reason that, in April 1882, he opted for the courses of Léon Bonnat, a painter who enjoyed great popularity in Paris at the time and who later also trained Edvard Munch. The didactic service provided by Bonnat included a practice of drawing conducted with iron discipline: Toulouse-Lautrec studied with fervor and dedication what was assigned to him, even if in the end his passion for painting did not fail to generate considerable friction with the teacher. “Painting is not bad at all, this is excellent, in short … not bad at all. But the drawing is really terrible!” muttered Bonnat once to his disciple: Toulouse-Lautrec remembered this reproach with great regret, also because his works – although still immature, in a certain sense – already denoted a great graphic and pictorial talent.

Fortunately, his discipleship with Bonnat did not last long. After only three months of practice, in fact, Bonnat closed his private studio because he was appointed professor at the École des Beaux-Arts. Lautrec, following this event, entered the studio of Fernand Cormon, a drawing room painter as illustrious as Bonnat but who, while remaining in the tradition, tolerated the new avant-garde trends and, indeed, he himself painted unusual subjects, such as prehistoric ones. In Cormon”s stimulating atelier in Montmartre Toulouse-Lautrec came into contact with Emile Bernard, Eugène Lomont, Albert Grenier, Louis Anquetin and Vincent van Gogh, who was passing through the French capital in 1886. “He especially liked my drawings. Cormon”s corrections are much more benevolent than Bonnat”s. He observes everything that is submitted to him and encourages a great deal. You will be surprised, but I like this one less! The lashings of my former patron hurt, and I did not spare myself. Here I am a little weakened and I must work hard to make an accurate drawing, since in Cormon”s eyes a worse one would have been enough” Henri once wrote to his parents, betraying behind an apparent modesty the satisfaction of having been praised by a prestigious painter like Cormon (today considered of secondary importance, true, but at the time absolutely first rate).

Artistic Maturity

Feeling negatively influenced by academic formulas, in January 1884 Toulouse left the Cormon atelier and founded his own in Montmartre. This is a very significant choice: Henri in fact did not choose a neighborhood that suited his aristocratic origins, which could be the one around the Place Vendôme, but preferred a lively, colorful suburb, full of cabarets, café-chantants, houses of tolerance and premises of dubious reputation, which was Montmartre (these interesting peculiarities will be discussed in the paragraph Toulouse-Lautrec: the star of Montmartre). His parents were scandalized by Henri”s preferences: his mother, in fact, did not tolerate her firstborn son living in a neighborhood that she considered morally questionable, while his father feared that this would tarnish the good name of the family, and therefore forced his son to sign his first works with pseudonyms (such as Tréclau, an anagram of “Lautrec”). Toulouse-Lautrec, a volcanic spirit and intolerant of restraints, initially complied with this prescription, and then ended up signing his paintings with his name or with an elegant monogram bearing his initials.

With his witty and courteous charisma, the petit homme soon became familiar with the inhabitants of Montmartre and the patrons of its restaurants. Here, in fact, he gave himself to an unruly and non-conformist existence, exquisitely bohemian, assiduously frequenting places like the Moulin de la Galette, the Café du Rat-Mort, the Moulin Rouge and drawing from them the lifeblood that animated his works of art. Toulouse-Lautrec did not disdain the company of intellectuals and artists, and his sympathies towards the consortium of dandies are well known. He, however, preferred to place himself on the side of the dispossessed, the victims: despite being of aristocratic matrix, in fact, he himself felt excluded, and this certainly fed his affection for prostitutes, for singers exploited and models who hung around Montmartre. A friend would remember him in these terms: “Lautrec had the gift of winning everyone”s sympathy: he never had provocative words for anyone and never tried to be funny at the expense of others. His grotesquely deformed body did not constitute an impediment to womanizing adventures: he had a fiery love affair with Suzanne Valadon, a former circus acrobat who, after an accident, decided to try her hand at paintbrushes. Their love story ended stormily and Valadon even attempted suicide in the hope of being married by the artist of Montmartre, who eventually repudiated her.

These years were very fruitful also under the artistic profile. Very important, in this sense, the friendship with Aristide Bruant: he was a chansonnier who made his fortune with salacious and irreverent jokes aimed at the public and that “had fascinated Lautrec with the attitudes of anarchic riot mixed with explosions of naive tenderness, with the manifestations of a modest culture at the bottom, which gave color to the verbal vulgarity” (Maria Cionini Visani). In 1885 Bruant, bound to Lautrec by a sincere and mutual esteem, agreed to sing at Les Ambassadeurs, one of the most famous café-concerts on the Champs-Élysées, if and only if the owner was willing to publicize his event with a poster specially designed by the artist. Even more sensational, then, was the poster that he created in 1891 for the Moulin Rouge, thanks to which both he and the place became suddenly famous. From that year onwards, masterpieces destined to become illustrious followed at an ever-increasing pace: it is worth mentioning, in particular, Al Moulin Rouge (1892-95), Al Salon in rue des Moulins (1894) and the Salottino privato (1899).

He, moreover, participated assiduously in various exhibitions and European art exhibitions, and even came to hold their own. Fundamental, in this sense, was the intercession of the Belgian painter Theo van Rysselberghe, who after witnessing the talent of the painter invited him in 1888 to exhibit in Brussels with the group of XX, the liveliest meeting point of the various currents of contemporary art. Even on this occasion Lautrec did not fail to give proof of his sanguine and tempestuous nature. When a certain Henry de Groux railed against “that disgusting sunflowers of a certain Mr. Vincent”, Toulouse-Lautrec let himself be overcome by a furious anger and challenged this detractor to a duel the next day: the quarrel did not degenerate only thanks to the saving intervention of Octave Maus, who miraculously managed to calm the spirits. It is worth, in fact, remembering the deep affection that bound Toulouse-Lautrec to Vincent van Gogh, an artist now famous but unknown at the time: the two were united by a great sensitivity, both artistic and human, and the same existential loneliness (of this beautiful friendship today we have a portrait of Vincent van Gogh). Beyond the disagreements with de Groux, Toulouse-Lautrec was deeply gratified by the experience he had with the group of XX and also by the reactions of the critics, who declared themselves impressed by the psychological acuity and the compositional and chromatic originality of the works exhibited there. Stimulated by this initial success, Toulouse-Lautrec participated regularly in the Salon des Indèpendants from 1889 to 1894, the Salon des Arts Incohérents in 1889, the Exposition des Vingt in 1890 and 1892, the Circle Volnay and the Barc de Boutteville in 1892 and the Salon de la Libre Esthétique in Brussels in 1894: his success was such that he was also able to inaugurate solo exhibitions, such as the one in February 1893 held at the Boussod and Valadon gallery.

Frequent travels: it was, as mentioned above, in Brussels, but also in Spain, where he had the opportunity to admire Goya and El Greco, and Valvins. The city that most struck him, however, was London. Toulouse-Lautrec, in fact, spoke English very well and unconditionally admired British culture: In London, where he went in 1892, 1894, 1895 and 1897, he had, as you can imagine, the opportunity to express his anglophilia, making friends with the painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler, of whom he appreciated the Japanese style and the chromatic symphonies, and with Oscar Wilde, standard bearer of dandyism and playwright who wisely mixed a brilliant conversation with a refined unscrupulousness. The esteem he had for Whistler and Wilde, among other things, was promptly reciprocated: the former dedicated a banquet to the painter at the Savoy in London, while the latter said that his art was “a courageous attempt to put nature back in its place”.

Last years

Soon, however, the hour of human and artistic twilight came for Toulouse-Lautrec. The painter, as we have seen, took on the poses of the enfant terrible, and this lifestyle had disastrous consequences for his health: even before he turned thirty, in fact, his constitution was undermined by syphilis, contracted in Parisian brothels, where he was now at home. His sexual appetite was proverbial, and his being “well endowed” earned him the nickname of cafetière in that environment. As if that were not enough, his assiduous frequentation of the bars of Montmartre, where alcohol was served until dawn, led Toulouse-Lautrec to drink without restraint, pleased to enjoy the vertigo of the derailment of the senses: among the drinks he consumed most was absinthe, a distillate with disastrous toxic qualities that could offer him a comforting refuge, even if artificial, at a low price. Already in 1897 the addiction to alcohol had taken over: The “familiar and benevolent gnome”, as Mac Orlan wrote, was replaced by a man who was often drunk out of his mind, hateful and irritable, tormented by hallucinations, and extremely aggressive (he often came to blows and was even arrested), and once he was even arrested) and atrocious paranoid fantasies (“outbursts of anger alternated with hysterical laughter and moments of complete ebetude during which he remained unconscious, the buzzing of flies exasperated him, he slept with a walking stick on the bed, ready to defend himself from possible aggressors, once he shot a spider on the wall with a rifle” says Crispino). Worn out and aged, Toulouse-Lautrec was forced to suspend his artistic activity, with his health degenerating in March 1899 with a violent attack of delirium tremens.

Following the umpteenth ethyl crisis Toulouse-Lautrec, on the advice of friends, wanted to escape from that “rare lethargy” in which he had fallen with the abuse of alcohol and was hospitalized in the clinic for mental illness of Dr. Sémelaigne in Neuilly. The press did not miss an opportunity to discredit the artist and his works and therefore engaged in a fierce campaign of denigration: Toulouse-Lautrec, to demonstrate to the world and the doctors to be completely in possession of his mental faculties and work, immersed himself completely in the design and reproduced on paper circus acts to which he had witnessed decades before. After only three months of hospitalization, Toulouse-Lautrec was finally discharged: “I bought freedom with my drawings!” he loved to repeat laughing.

Toulouse-Lautrec, in reality, never freed himself from the tyranny of alcohol and, indeed, his resignation from the clinic marked only the beginning of the end. The recovery did not last long and, desperate for his physical and moral decadence, in 1890 Toulouse-Lautrec to restore his health moved first to Albi, and then to Le Crotoy, Le Havre, Bordeaux, Taussat, and again to Malromé, where he tried to produce new paintings. But this convalescence was of no use: his creative energies had been exhausted for some time, as had his joy of living, and his production began to show a notable drop in quality. “Thin, weak, with little appetite, but as lucid as ever and sometimes full of his old spirit”: this is how a friend described him. Once back in Paris, where his works had begun to enjoy a furious success, the painter was placed in the custody of a distant relative, Paul Viaud: this attempt at detoxification, however, was in vain, as Toulouse-Lautrec returned to take alcohol and, it is thought, opium. In 1900 a sudden paralysis of the legs occurred, which was fortunately tamed thanks to an electrical treatment: the health of the painter, despite this apparent success, was however so declining as to extinguish all hope.

In April 1901, in fact, Toulouse-Lautrec returned to Paris to make his will, to complete the paintings and drawings left unfinished and to reorganize the atelier: then, after a sudden hemiplegia caused by an apoplectic insult, he moved from his mother to Malromé, in the family castle, where he spent, between inertia and pain, the last days of his life. His fate was sealed: for the pain could not eat, and bring to completion the last portraits cost him an enormous effort. Henri-Marie-Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Montfa, the last heir of the glorious noble family since the time of Charlemagne, finally died at 2:15 a.m. on September 9, 1901, assisted at his bedside by his desperate mother: he was only thirty-six years old. His remains were first interred in Saint-André-du-Bois, and then moved to the nearby town of Verdelais, in Gironde.

Toulouse-Lautrec: the star of Montmartre

“It often happens that a capricious destiny decides to divert the course of events that seem to be taken for granted”: it is with this sentence that art critic Enrica Crispino comments on the pictorial and, above all, existential vicissitudes of Toulouse-Lautrec, a man who seemed from birth destined for an aristocratic life and who instead led a tormented and wild existence, consumed not in the elegant bourgeois salons, but in the working-class district of Montmartre.

When it came to art, as when it came to life, Toulouse-Lautrec did not share bourgeois ideologies and ways of life and therefore turned to extreme individual freedom and the rejection of all norms and conventions. The choice to live in Montmartre, in fact, was not at all hasty, but rather pondered, almost self-imposed. Montmartre was a suburb which, in its upper part (the Butte), still had a rural and country aspect, crowded as it was with windmills, junipers, gardens and scattered cottages where the less well-to-do classes lived, attracted by the cheap rents: even at the time of Lautrec, then, this area was oppressed by degradation and crime, and it was not uncommon to meet, especially at night, anarchists, criminals, criminals and communards. In the lower part, close to the boulevard de Clichy, there was instead a brilliant proliferation of cabarets, taverns, cafes, concert halls, dance halls, music halls, circuses and other local and small businesses that mixed a diverse and colorful crowd of poets, writers, actors, and of course artists.

Toulouse-Lautrec adored gravitating around the lively and gaiety world of Montmartre, a district for which the status of a forge of new artistic concepts and daring transgressions had been consolidated. “The real transgressive charge of Montmartre is the osmosis between the various categories, the exchange between representatives of the beautiful world and exponents of the so-called demi-monde, between artists and people of the people: a varied humanity where aristocrats in search of strong sensations find themselves elbow to elbow with bourgeoisie and social climbers of various kinds, proceeding alongside the man in the street and mingling with the crowd of artists and cheerful women,” Crispino recounts.

The portraitist of the “people of the night”

For Toulouse-Lautrec”s artistic production, this massive social diversification was decisive. Toulouse-Lautrec, in fact, conceived his paintings as a faithful mirror of the urban everyday life of Montmartre, in the sign of a resumption (and even an updating) of the program expressed by Charles Baudelaire in 1846:

The current, therefore, had already risen to an aesthetic category in the middle of the century, when the Realists and Impressionists began to courageously plumb the scenery of everyday Parisian life, capturing its most miserable, ordinary or accidental aspects. With Toulouse-Lautrec, however, this “painting of modern life” reached even more explosive results. If, in fact, the Impressionists were completely subjected to the en plein air and landscape painting, Toulouse-Lautrec preferred to be seduced by the world of the night and its protagonists. It is not by chance that the quality of Lautrec”s manner emerges above all in the portraits, in which the painter could not only confront himself with the human “types” that populated Montmartre, but also explore their psychological peculiarities, their significant physiognomic traits, as well as their natural uniqueness: it can be said that, starting from a face, Toulouse-Lautrec was able to peruse it and grasp its intimate essence. The painter”s commitment to portraiture is therefore evident, and it is no coincidence that he detested open-air painting of immobile subjects and took refuge in the frosty light of the atelier, which – being inert – did not alter the physiognomy of the subjects and facilitated the psychological excavation operations: Lautrec”s paintings, for this reason, were always made in the studio and generally required very long incubations. The landscape, in Lautrec”s opinion, must then be functional only to the psychological rendering of this comédie humaine:

In this way, the painter manages to delve into the psychology of those who worked under the floodlights of Montmartre: Of the Goulue, famous vedette who after a short-lived period of glory ended up forgotten because of her insatiable appetite, Toulouse-Lautrec in fact highlights the predaceous animality, and the same happens with the black dancer Chocolat, with the agile and lanky dancer Valentin le Désossé, with the clowness Cha-U-Kao, and with the actresses Jane Avril and Yvette Guilbert. Toulouse-Lautrec”s relentless brush, moreover, did not limit itself to depicting the protagonists of Montmartre that we have just listed, but also lingered on the patrons of these establishments (illustrious “curiosities of the night” portrayed by the painter are Monsieur Delaporte, Monsieur Boileau) and on those who, even though they did not cross the threshold of the quarter, polarized his interest, such as Paul Sescau, Louis Pascal and Henri Fourcade. At first, the eye may be distracted by the kaleidoscope of Parisian life captured by Lautrec, but once the aesthetic judgment has been overcome, the empathy with the painter is suddenly triggered. He portrays the places of Montmartre and its protagonists in a convincing, calm and realistic way, without superimposing canonizations or, perhaps, moral or ethical judgments, but rather “telling them” as he would tell any other aspect of contemporary life.

The world of maisons closes

Another recurring thematic obsession in the artistic production of Toulouse-Lautrec is the world of maisons closes, the Parisian brothels that the bourgeois and aristocrats frequented assiduously but pretended to ignore, covering themselves with a veil of fake puritanism. Toulouse-Lautrec, not surprisingly, felt estranged from such a hypocritical and outcast society and for some time even went to live in the houses of tolerance: as observed by art critic Maria Cionini Visani, on the other hand, “for Toulouse-Lautrec to live in the maisons of rue d”Amboie or rue de Moulins, or to destroy himself doggedly with alcohol, is like Gauguin or Rimbaud going to distant and exotic countries, not attracted by the adventure of the unknown, but rather repelled by what was known in their world.”

As we have said, brothels play an absolutely prominent role in Toulouse-Lautrec”s artistic universe. Taking his nonconformist poetics to its extreme consequences, Toulouse-Lautrec chose to depict the brothels and prostitutes in a disenchanted way, without comment or drama, thus refraining from expressing any kind of judgment. It was not so much the theme that shocked the sensibilities of the well-meaning: already Vittore Carpaccio, in the Renaissance, had depicted a scene of a brothel, a theme to which much of the narrative of the nineteenth century also referred, with The Prostitute Elisa by Goncourt, Nana by Zola, La maison Tellier by Maupassant, Marthe by Huysman and Chair molle by Paul Adam. What aroused so much clamor and criticism was rather the way in which Toulouse-Lautrec related to this theme: as we have already had occasion to observe, Toulouse-Lautrec accepted prostitution as one of the many phenomena of contemporary reality and represented this world with paradoxical dignity, without modesty of any kind and without ostentation or sentimentality, grafting a representation without veils of the carnal violence of reality. One could say that Toulouse-Lautrec presented the world of the maisons closes for what it really was, without idealizing or vulgarizing the prostitutes.

The prostitutes immortalized in the paintings of Toulouse-Lautrec do not hide from the gaze, but do not even ask to seduce, so much so that they behave with natural frankness and immediacy, without shame or false restraint, unable as they are to arouse desire, voluptuousness. In the numerous paintings and drawings that Lautrec dedicated to this theme, the prostitutes are caught in their most intimate and everyday moments, while they comb their hair, while they wait for the client, while they put on their stockings or while they take off their shirts. In some works Toulouse-Lautrec, revealing a very high sensitivity, even came to deepen the homosexual relationships that bound many of the girls of the maisons, tired of satiating the sexual appetites of disheartened and demeaning customers: ignoring the indignation of the well-thinking, by whom he was accused of being a depraved, the artist sang unequivocally the beauty of these loves so authentic and moving in works such as A letto. The Kiss, In Bed, and The Kiss. Rarely, however, did Toulouse-Lautrec lavish himself on vulgar allusions to their craft: the client, if present, is signaled in the work by secondary details, such as hats left on chairs or revealing shadows, precisely because “his face is unimportant, or rather, because he has no face” (Visani). In spite of the burning subjects, then, Lautreci”s images are not pornographic, sexually explicit, nor do they preserve any trace of erotic and voyeuristic urges, as we have already observed: Significant is also the distancing from the academic norm, for which scabrous subjects such as those related to the meretricious had to be appropriately supported by a hypocritical aesthetic and chromatic dissimulation (many works of art of the nineteenth century, in fact, portray maisons closes as exotic settings). It is precisely in this originality, which concedes nothing to either pornography or the Academy, that Toulouse-Lautrec”s ingenuity is revealed.

Toulouse-Lautrec graphic

Toulouse-Lautrec was a tireless experimenter of formal solutions, and his versatile curiosity led him to try different possibilities in the field of artistic techniques used. Animated by an eclectic and multifaceted spirit, Lautrec was a nonchalant graphic designer, before being a painter, and it was in this field that his art reached the highest peaks.

The love for drawing that accompanied Toulouse-Lautrec since he was a child stimulated him to learn the practice of lithography, which in those years was experiencing important turmoil thanks to the introduction of “color lithography” by the Nabis. Once familiar with this artistic technique Lautrec came to collaborate with a large number of high-level magazines, among which should be mentioned Le Rire, the Courrier Français, Le Figaro Illustré, L”Escarmouche, L”Estampe et l”Affiche, L”Estampe Originale and, above all, the Revue Blanche: with this intense activity as a graphic Lautrec helped to restore dignity to this artistic genre, until then considered “minor” because of bourgeois conventionalism. Even more important, then, are the advertising affiches that Toulouse-Lautrec realized serially to advertise the nightclubs of Montmartre. The following is a commentary by the critic Giulio Carlo Argan:

Showing himself sensitive to the influence of Japanese prints, in his posters Lautrec used impetuous and biting lines, bold compositional cuts, intense and flat colors freely distributed in space, in the sign of a synthetic and daring style capable of easily conveying a message in the consumer”s unconscious and imprinting the image in his mind. In what can rightly be considered the first products of modern advertising graphics, Lautrec abjured all artistic naturalism and explicitly renounced perspective, chiaroscuro and all those kinds of artifices which, although indicated for works of art intended for museum use, were not able to have a good hold on the public. Lautrec, in fact, was perfectly aware that, in order to create a good advertising artifact, it was necessary to use bright colors and apply them homogeneously on large surfaces, so as to make the poster visible from afar, easily recognizable at first glance and, above all, attractive to the consumer. In this sense, too, Toulouse-Lautrec is a modern artist, deserving of having reconverted the metropolitan fabric of Paris into a place of aesthetic reflection with the widespread diffusion of his “street art”, substantiated by invitation cards, theater programs and, above all, posters, which have now become a constituent element of our urban landscape.

At the beginning, the success enjoyed by Toulouse-Lautrec was very mixed. Many, for example, were scandalized by the excessive stylistic and thematic unconventionality of Toulouse-Lautrec”s works, and were therefore full of reproaches. Particularly venomous was the judgment of Jules Roques, reported in the September 15, 1901 issue of Le Courrier Français, where we find written: “As there are enthusiastic lovers of bullfights, executions and other desolating shows, there are lovers of Toulouse-Lautrec. It is good for mankind that there are few artists of this kind”. Certain critics, then, have used the disease that has plagued the painter in his last years of life to discredit his art, exploiting the positivistic prejudice for which a painting due to a sick mind is also sick. In this vein are the comments of A. Hepp (“Lautrec had the vocation of the nursing home. They interned him yesterday and now madness, having lifted its mask, will officially sign those paintings, those posters, where it was anonymous”), E. Lepelletier (“We are wrong to pity Lautrec, we must envy him … the only place where one can find happiness, is still a cell in an asylum”), Jumelles (“We lost a few days ago an artist who had acquired a celebrity in the secular genre … Toulouse-Lautrec, bizarre and deformed being, who saw everyone through his physical miseries … He died miserably, ruined in body and spirit, in an asylum, in the grip of fits of furious madness. Sad end of a sad life”) and others.

Lautrec”s alcoholism, in fact, cast a funereal shadow on his paintings. Other critics, on the other hand, were ready to defend Toulouse-Lautrec from the malignity expressed by the well-meaning and, indeed, openly praised his works: among the latter, Clemenceau, Arsène Alexandre, Francis Jourdain, Thadée Natanson, Gustave Geffroy and Octave Mirbeau must be mentioned. Even in this case, however, the biographical implications that marked Toulouse-Lautrec”s existence sometimes ended up taking precedence over his activity as a painter. Certainly, this fringe of critics was not animated by incomprehension or malice: nevertheless, they too – albeit for diametrically opposed reasons – have imprisoned Toulouse-Lautrec in his character, forgetting to evaluate his actual artistic and professional qualities. Today, in any case, it is a universally accepted fact that the works of Toulouse-Lautrec should be considered for what they are, and not for the existential vicissitudes that lie at their base, which are in fact historiographically irrelevant.

Even though they may have been biased, these critics had the merit of building up the entire bibliography of Lautreci”s work: in fact, they are all those articles and publications used by scholars to get to know the painter”s personality and, above all, to fully understand his artistic conceptions. Important are the contributions of G. Coquiot (1913 and 1920), P. Leclerq (1921), P. Mac Orlan (1934), A. Astre (1938), Th. Natanson (1938 and 1952), F. Jourdain (1950, 1951, 1954), F. Gauzi (1954) and M. Tapié de Céleyran (1953). The man who, more than anyone else, gave a decisive impulse to Lautrec”s critical reappraisal was, however, Maurice Joyant, a very close friend of Lautrec”s who succeeded in decisively strengthening his posthumous fame. It has been rightly observed that without Maurice Joyant, Lautrec probably would not have reached the fame he has today all over the world: in addition to having organized an exhibition of the painter”s works in 1914, Joyant in 1922 had the merit of persuading Countess Adéle, the artist”s mother, to donate the works in her possession to the city of Albi. Thus, on July 3, 1922, the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec of Albi, the painter”s hometown, was established: the inauguration was attended by Léon Berard, the Minister of Education of the time, who pronounced a touching obituary that, despite the occasional hagiographic tone, officially marked Lautrec”s entrance into the elite of artists of world renown.

From that year onwards, an ever wider public approached his work and the critics incensed him as one of the great artists of the twentieth century. The cult of Lautreciano, indeed, was revived thanks to a rapid succession of art exhibitions, in Europe as well as in the United States: as regards the quantity and quality of the works exhibited, the exhibition held in 1931 at the National Library, the one held at the Orangerie des Tuileries on the fiftieth anniversary of the artist”s death and those held in Albi and at the Petit Palais in Paris on the centenary of his birth are certainly worth mentioning. Fundamental was also the continuation of the work of cataloging Joyant, operated in 1971 by Geneviève Dortu with the publication of a catalog raisonné of 737 paintings, 4748 drawings and 275 watercolors. The graphic work has been catalogued since 1945 by Jean Adhémar and completed by the art dealer Wolfang Wittroock: the graphic corpus, eliminating facsimiles and later prints without inscriptions, amounts to 334 prints, 4 monotypes and 30 posters.

Sources

  1. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
  2. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
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