Vienna offers countless possibilities for the cultural experience. Between the two lockdowns, Albertina Museum reopened and people rushed to see the temporary exhibition which, among great painters like Van Gogh, offered the best of Toulouse-Lautrec. It appears extremely difficult to talk about him in detail in a short article, but we can give it a go.
Henry de Toulouse-Lautrec was born out of incest between first cousins – his grandmothers were sisters. Many would argue that his incestuous background contributed to his poor health. He came from an aristocratic family. His father was somewhat quirky and most of all he was crazy about hunting and shooting. His mother was overbearing and overprotective. The lack of happiness in his childhood pushed him towards drawing from a very young age.
His baby brother died at the age of one and his parents separated. His mother left for Paris and he was looked after by his nanny. When he was eight, he went to live with his mother in Paris. Henry was always ill, suffering from one thing or another. He had so many diseases – one wonders how strong his will to live could have been. The long months in bed gave him a chance to draw, paint and discover art.
When he was thirteen, he fell and broke his femur bone and was half-crippled. The next year he fell again and broke the other. His legs never developed – they were short, kid’s legs, but the rest of his body was totally grown up. For a while, art became his safe haven.
In time, he started attending École des Beaux-Arts and met Émile Bernard and Vincent van Gogh. Allegedly, his friends paid for his first sexual encounter with a woman and that was when he painted his first portrait of a prostitute. As you probably already know, he devoted most of his art to them.
He spent his life in Montmartre, the bohemian part of Paris. He was sociable, had friends, but he always felt like an outcast. All artists did in their own way. Henry’s body, his illnesses, the disproportion of his legs – it all contributed to his heavy drinking.
He left Paris only a few times – once to go to England to meet Oscar Wilde, and once to go to Spain to see the works of El Greko and Diego Velázquez. The rest of the time he spent with the so-called “low-lives” – drunks, homeless people, and prostitutes as he felt he could fit in only with that crowd.
He was practically living in a brothel for years, he spent all nights out drinking and was the Moulin Rouge’s cabaret’s most frequent visitor. He painted the nightlife in Paris the way he lived it. The working girls in his paintings are not beautiful, but not ugly either.
In his works, they were portrayed as they were – tired and destitute, with no make-up, no hairdos, unsmiling and unhappy. He never looked down on them – after all, they were the only ones who slept with him, but he didn’t idealize them, either.
His art was strongly influenced by impressionism. Degas had a huge impact on him, too. Lautrec is ranked next to Paul Cézanne and Van Gogh as one of the geniuses of post-impressionism and art nouveau.
Toulouse-Lautrec was the first painter to make posters. Those were heavily influenced by Japanese Ukiyo-e prints. His Moulin Rouge posters were absolutely remarkable.
He made about thirty of them and although they were meant to attract the crowd for a short while, they turned out to be some of the most brilliant pieces of art in history. In 2014, an example of his debut poster “Moulin Rouge — La Goulue” was sold for £314,500 at Christie’s in London.
He also invented a cocktail – half cognac, half absinthe. He was an excellent cook – his recipes were collected and published later. He adapted some of his dishes, others he invented.
He used to carry his liquor around in a hollow cane and went nowhere without his drink.
Henry went through a total breakdown in 1899 and his mother sent him to an asylum. It helped, but not for long. Two years later, at the age of only thirty-six, he died of alcoholism and syphilis, leaving 737 canvased paintings, 275 watercolors, 363 prints and posters, 5,084 drawings, some ceramic, and stained-glass work, and an unknown number of lost artworks.
His paintings are rarely auctioned, but La Blanchisseuse (The Laundress), which he painted in 1886 was sold in 2005 for 22.4 million dollars at an auction by Christie’s.
The thing about Lautrec was that he managed to capture equally well the person and the person behind the person. “The Seated Clowness” (Mademoiselle Cha-u-ka-o) from the series “Elles”, 1896 shows the performing lady sitting on the bed, relaxing, probably in her break, and unlike her other portraits from the same series, her confidence has gone. All one feels while looking at this painting is her fatigue.
She is not even relaxed because soon the show will have to go on.
“The dance” is the second of a number of graphic paintings from 1890, pretty soon after the Moulin Rouge opened. The focal point is the can-can dancers in the middle of the crowd. There is an inscription at the back: “The instruction of the new ones by Valentine the Boneless.” This suggests that the man left of the dancing woman is well-known as the Moulin Rouge dancer, Valentin le désossé.
Apparently, he is teaching the dancer some new steps. The identity of the woman in pink is not known, but a number of people from the aristocracy can be recognized: the poet Edward Yeats, the club owner, and even Toulouse-Lautrec’s father. In this painting the mood is festive, everyone is having fun and the person behind the person is well hidden.
In almost every portrait of prostitutes, cabaret dancers, and ordinary working women one cannot escape that nagging bitter feeling. “When the music’s over, turn off the lights” would sing Jim Morrison in a few decades.
And in the dark you will see girls talking about anything, but work; leaning onto empty tables, weary, masks off, or just sitting and staring at the nothingness, stockings around their ankles, unable to move even to put clothes on, as if not caring about anything anymore. Sharp features strikingly realistic, and yet, so moving. And then the music would play again and life will push them forward into the spotlight.
Toulouse-Lautrec painted life as he saw it. Under the long stokes with the oil paint, thinned with turpentine, their rest layers of days long gone and eternal emotions which will always stay with us just because we are human.
Also read: Dance me to the end of sand
More on one of the greatest painters ever in Diamonds Production magazine.