[ Home: Virtual Museum: Individual Artists: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec ]


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: 1864 - 1901

On 24 November 1864 a son was born to the Comte and Comtesse de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa. He grew up in one of the oldest families in France, with ancestors who had fought in the crusades. The French aristocracy had little political power by the late 19th century, but the Lautrec family was very wealthy and kept apartments in Paris as well as country estates around Albi, not far from Toulouse in south-west France.

However, the child's aristocratic stock did him much more harm than good. Though his parents seemed complete opposites - his father, a wild eccentric hunter of women as well as animals; his mother, quiet and devout - they were in fact first cousins. And although he at first appeared a beautiful and healthy child, young Henri had inherited a congenital weakness of the bones.

During Lautrec's early teens, two slight falls (one from a chair, one into a small ditch) caused fractures in each leg. The bones stopped growing and remained weak and feeble, while the rest of his body grew into maturity. By way of cruel compensation, nature rewarded Lautrec with the full attributes of manhood: a thick beard, rich voice and lively libido. "I may only be a small coffee-pot", he was fond of saying later, "but I have a big spout"!


In spite of the popular legend that Lautrec remained a midget, he did in fact grow to over five feet tall. It was his large head and ill-proportioned body which made him appear dwarfish. Added to this, his thick lips' bulbous nose and short-sighted eyes meant that the charming "Little Jewel" as he had been called as a child, had grown into an ugly cripple. His self-portraits and letters indicate that this is exactly how he saw himself.

Apart from the traumatic accidents, Lautrec's early years were relatively uneventful. Much of his childhood was spent at the Chateau du Bosc, home of his grandfather, the so-called Black Prince. His cousins provided company, and the days were spent playing croquet and badminton, collecting toy horses-and-coaches (Lautrec's childhood passion), and learning Latin and English.

His father and uncle were accomplished draughtsmen, and the young Henri seems to have received some encouragement from them. By the age of 14, he was being tutored by a professional artist, Rene Princeteau, a deaf-mute who specialized in horses and hunting subjects.

Early in 1882, Lautrec moved to Paris with his mother. He entered the teaching studio of Leon Bonnat, a painter of portraits and historical subjects, who thought Lautrec's drawing was "atrocious", and tried to strengthen his sense of form. When Bonnat closed his studio a few months later, Henri and the other students enrolled with a successful history painter called Fernand Cormon, who was much more positive about his talents.

By 1885, Lautrec was beginning to find his feet as a young painter in Paris. He had discovered Montmartre, a village suburb in northern Paris, mid-way between the fashionable boulevards and the outer industrial districts, which was rapidly becoming a center of popular entertainment and a haven for artists. Lautrec wanted to work there, but his parents disapproved, and refused to give him the money to rent a studio. So he "left home" and moved in with Rene Grenier, a gentleman-painter from Cormon's. Grenier and his ex-model wife Lily were good companions. They took Lautrec to parties, dance-halls and cabarets, and photographs of the time show him dressed up with his friends in exotic costumes. Meanwhile, another set of friends at Cormon's studio - Emile Bernard, Vincent van Gogh and Louis Anquentin - widened his horizons artistically and helped him find his own style.

This group had been producing experimental work, influenced greatly by the strong designs and pure color of the Japanese prints which were popular and cheap in Paris at the time. In 1888, Lautrec exhibited his work with "Les Vingt" (The Twenty), a group of modernist artists based in Brussels, and the following year he showed for the first time at the Salon des Independants, the forum of the Paris avant-garde.


In 1886, Lautrec's parents provided him with a big enough allowance to rent his own studio and share a flat with a medical student friend, Henri Bourges. Both flat and studio were in Montmartre, where the little artist, with his pince-nez, bowler hat and walking stick had by now become a familiar sight, particularly at night. His life settled into a regular pattern: staying up late into the night drinking cocktails and wine, talking and drawing; sleeping occasionally and working furiously.

Lautrec particularly enjoyed cabarets. One of his haunts, Le Chat Noir, was taken over by the singer Aristide Bruant for his new club, The Mirliton, and its coarse cabaret style appealed to Lautrec who became a frequent customer. Artist and singer became close friends, and Lautrec made posters featuring Bruant with his dark corduroy worker's jacket, wide black hat, bright red scarf and scowling features.

However, Lautrec's immersion in the night-life of Paris was beginning to take its toll. He was drinking hard by now and had contracted syphilis. Dr. Bourges was there to keep his condition in check, but though the first few years of the 1890s saw the artist producing some of his most brilliant work, the seeds of self-destruction had been sown.

Lautrec had branched out in several new directions. He regularly contributed illustrations to magazines and in 1891, he was commissioned to design a poster for the Moulin Rouge, a club he had frequented since its opening night two years earlier. This was the famous La Goulue poster - showing the dancer in action behind the caricatured silhouette of Valentin Desosse. Lautrec was immediately acclaimed as the foremost poster artist of Paris. Throughout the decade he produced many prints - for collectors' albums, menu-cards, theater programs and book illustrations. He took his work very seriously, and gained great professional respect from the Parisian printers. Though he would often arrive in the morning still dressed in his evening clothes, he would work right through the day without a break.

In the 1890s, Lautrec became fascinated by the theater, and began to mix in more high-brow circles. He became friendly with the painters Pierre Bonnard and Edouard Vuillard, who contributed illustrations to a modern art magazine called La Revue Blanche. Lautrec also became smitten by Misia Natanson, the flamboyant wife of one of its proprietors, and depicted her in a poster that he designed for the magazine in 1895. His passion was unrequited: Lautrec never experienced a sexual relationship with a woman of his own class.

To satisfy his desires he visited the expensive brothels of central Paris. The prostitutes proved to be good models as well as bed-companions, since they spent much of their time half-dressed, so Lautrec maintained a studio in one of the brothels, which allowed him to observe and draw at his leisure. Many of his drawings and paintings reveal their monotonous existence - waiting for clients, making beds, eating meals, and playing cards.


By the time Lautrec was 30 he was going downhill fast. In 1893 Dr. Bourges had married; Lautrec moved back in with his mother, and allowed his VD treatment to lapse. His drunken behavior and the subjects he painted caused tension within the family - his uncle even set fire to some of his canvases at Albi. Lautrec's private income was reduced, forcing him to work to make a living, but his painting was at a transitional stage and he was unable to concentrate on developing a new style. It must have been obvious to all concerned that he had become an alcoholic.

Friends rallied round and tried to get Lautrec away from Paris and all its temptations. Maurice Joyant, an old school-mate, would take him to the coast for yachting weekends and they twice visited England together. In 1898, Joyant arranged a one-man show for Lautrec in Goupil's Regent Street gallery. The exhibition was a total failure, but Lautrec did not care. He had lost all interest.

In 1897, while visiting the Natansons, Lautrec had suffered hallucinations and fired a pistol at imaginary spiders. He was unable to control his drinking and in 1899, after his mother left Paris for her country estate at Malrome, he fell under the influence of a livery-stable owner, who encouraged his weakness. By now he was a pathetic sight. He would sit all day drinking in a wine-merchant's shop. One day he was found burning newspapers in the lavatory bowl.


After a violent attack of delirium tremens in February 1899, Lautrec was committed by his mother to a private clinic in Neuilly, just outside Paris. The terror of being locked up for good seemed to spur him to a rapid recovery. He even started drawing again - mainly remembered circus scenes - as if to prove that he still had all his faculties. Finally, the Countess removed him from the sanitarium. Paul Viaud, an impoverished cousin, was paid to supervise him.

Viaud tried to distract Lautrec with holidays on the coast and visits to the opera, his late enthusiasm, but it was too late. At 36, he already looked like an old man, and in the summer of 1901, while taking the sea air near Bordeaux, Lautrec collapsed. His mother took him back to Malrome, where he died on 9 September 1901.

Please direct all inquiries, corrections, and submissions to [email protected].