Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901)
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was seriously injured as a youth – his fractured left and right thighs were stunted permanently. His artistic talent, however, thrived. In 1882 he began to study art seriously in Paris, and by 1885 had a studio in Montmartre. He exhibited at the Salon des Independants in 1889 and with Les XX in Brussels, and in 1891 his first posters brought him immediate recognition.
His color lithographs were his true masterpieces – his first lithograph celebrated the opening of Moulin Rouge, and Toulouse-Lautrec was extremely prolific in the ten years he spent as a printmaker until his physical breakdown and death at the age of 37.
His works included 368 lithographs, drypoints, monotypes and posters which established him as one of the great masters of Post-Impressionism. He made his first color prints in 1892, and held a one-man show in Paris in 1893. The following year he went to Brussels, and in 1895 made his first of several visits to London, where he met Oscar Wilde and Beardsley. He held a second exhibition in 1896, and visited Holland, Portugal, and Spain, but in 1898 his health began to suffer from excessive drinking. In 1899 he spent three months in a clinic recovering from an attack of DTs, and during his convalescence he worked on a series of drawings of the circus. After his recovery, he resumed his old life, until he broke down completely and was taken to his mother's country house, where he passed away in 1901.
His first teacher had encouraged him to paint animals, particularly horses; after he began studying in Paris he met Emile Bernard and van Gogh, and he was deeply influenced by the technique and subject matter of Degas, and by Japanese prints, the influence of which was all-pervasive in Impressionist circles. His subject matter was centered narrowly round the life he led: some portraits, many painted out-of-doors, scenes from dance-halls and cafes in Montmartre, such as the Moulin Rouge, or from Aristide Bruant's cabaret 'Le Mirliton', figures of actresses, female clowns, circus artists seen backstage, and a great number of nudes, either “a la Degas” – washing, dressing – or seen sitting around in brothels, waiting for customers. He loathed posed models; the naked women just walking or sitting about provided him with models in movement and under no restraint either in pose or behavior, and to study them he lived for some time in “maisons closes”.
He achieved an expansive technical range in his lifetime. He was a superb draftsman with a gift for conveying rapid movement and the whole atmosphere of a scene with a few strokes. Most of his paintings are in spirit-thinned oil-paint on unprimed cardboard, using the neutral tone of the board as an element in the design. He executed a large number of posters in lithography, with superb handling of highly simplified line, large areas of flat color, and unique concentration on the aesthetic quality of the design. He also made small lithographs, either for menu-heads, programs, book covers or the like, or as single prints or series from his usual subject matter. Occasionally he used watercolor and pastel, and towards the end of his life his use of oil paint tended to become heavier, more impasted, with more solidly painted backgrounds. He was not interested in light as were the Impressionists, but only in form and movement, and most of his works are devoid of chiaroscuro; for him, light illuminated, never enveloped. He subscribed to no theories, was a member of no artistic or aesthetic movement, and the works in which he records the world he saw and understood contain no hint of comment – no pity, no sentiment, no blame, no innuendo.
There are works in most museums of modern art; Albi (his birthplace) has a notable collection, and the following may be particularly mentioned: London (Tate, Courtauld Inst.), Paris (Mus. de l'Impressionisme), and Washington (National Gallery).