Monday, April 19, 2010

Artist of the Week: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Note to you all:  my apologies for not being quite present in the blogging world. I'm on vacation this week but as fate would have it, the Icelandic volcano has wreaked havoc on our plans. WP was due home from Zurich yesterday but he now can't get a flight out. I'm trying to fill up the days in lieu of our vacation plans:  lots of "to-dos" and a little fun thrown in, too.

Peace and love,
Pagan Sphinx

French painter, printmaker, draftsman and illustrator

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born into an aristocratic family in the south of France in 1864. His father, Count Alphonse, was a notorious eccentric known for all kinds of unpredictable behavior: from washing his socks in the river (unheard of for an aristocrat!) to galloping off to a hunt wearing outlandish costumes, to simply disappearing for long stretches of time. The young Henri never became very close to him.

Unknown at the time, Henri suffered from a genetic condition that prevented his bones from healing properly. Fatefully, at age twelve, he broke his left leg. And at age fourteen, he broke his right leg. Both legs ceased to grow, while the rest of his body continued to grow normally.
At maturity, Lautrec was 4 1/2 feet tall. But his great misfortune was a sort of blessing in disguise, at least from our perspective. After his accidents he was no longer able to follow his father in the typically aristocratic pastimes of riding and hunting. Instead, he focused on sketching and painting. Read the rest of this biography here.

His stunted physique earned him laughs and scorn, and kept him from experiencing many of the physical pleasures offered in Montmartre, a sorrow that he drowned in alcohol. At first it was beer and wine. Then brandy, whiskey, and the infamous absinthe found their ways into his life.
Art and alcohol were his only mistresses, and they were mistresses to which he devoted all of his time and energy. He was doing one or both almost every day of his life until he died.

 "Of course one should not drink much, but often."


THE singer Aristide Bruant (1851-1925) was the very embodiment of the Montmartre café-concert scene. Among the most combative of performers, he delighted his audiences with his insulting and domineering treatment of them.

Every woman who entered his club, Le Mirliton, was escorted in with an audience chorus, led by Bruant himself, of "O how pale she is."
When the bourgeoisie came to spend money in his cabaret, he addressed them as "pigs" and worse. Bruant's songs celebrated the outlaw and the prostitute. He consciously sought out themes that would appeal to his audience, and support his carefully cultivated public image. Ever the self-promoter, the posters he commissioned and the songbooks he published helped establish his fame in his own time as well as posthumously. 

Today we know Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec as the archetypical bohemian artist of the belle époque, the "beautiful era" in Paris in the last decade of the 19th Century. He helped usher in the new century, and died when the job was done.
Lautrec captured the spirit and emotion of the era in his posters and portraits. Although his handicap and his alcohol abuse kept him from enjoying some of life's pleasures, Lautrec clearly shared in the joie de vivre of the time.


  1. Certainly an artist who defines an entire milieu.

    Aloha from Waikiki

    Comfort Spiral

  2. A truly excellent choice for this week's artist

  3. Jams and Cloudia: thanks for stopping by. Lautrec was a genius and a character. Can't get enough of his work!

  4. I have never been more riveted in a museum than in the Art Institute in Chicago, in the gallery devoted to Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Seing these in person you can observe how the figures and perspective were found gradually in bold strokes of black or brown oil paint thinned with turpentine. Then the colors were built on top, without losing the amazing vitality and virtuosity of the lines beneath. And what colors!!! "At the Moulin Rouge" (the painting in your post with the woman's face, in white make-up, cut off at the right hand edge) has the most captivating colors - which can't be reproduced. The browns, the ORANGE in the central figure's hair, the greens on the face to the right, lifted to the circus-like lighting... I was in awe. I came back to that gallery five times that day and the next, to look at this piece and the other large painting, of a ring master and a woman riding a huge horse around him. His compositions are among the most original and unexpected ever painted, I believe, and both of those pieces show it better than most of the rest of his work. Degas was another who could surprise and charm and beguile with his unique use of space and placement. Unpredictable and yet instantly recognizable, both of them.

    If I could have only one orginal work of art, and I could have any in the world, I would quite possibly choose "At the Moulin Rouge."

    When I tried absinthe in New Orleans (at 11:00 AM on Bourbon Street) I thought of both Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec. It's a weird potion, prepared with a process that reminded me of alchemy. The poison in it (from wormwood - removed for modern consumers), along with the alcohol, contributed to the early deaths of both artists. I was the only one at the bar. It was a long slow thoughtful moment.

  5. His is the most stylistically beautiful and energetic work of any artist I've ever seen.

    I hope WP made it home so the two of you can have something of a proper holiday together.

  6. Steve: I will one day get to the Art Institute of Chicago and if all I see there are Lautrec's, that's fine with me! Amazing, brilliant work he left us. He knew how make a vivid scene come alive on canvas. My favorite I think is the one you mention where the woman's pale face is cropped in the corner and the background scene is of people socializing in a cafe. And I love, love, love his yellows!

    Susan: It's amazing how many things you can put off that get done when one's partner is away. I have been keeping quite busy; perhaps a bit too much so, as my back aches from raking!


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