THE LAUTREC LEGEND
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
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.
NIGHTS IN MONTMARTE
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
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.
TENSION IN THE FAMILY
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
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
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.
COMMITTED FOR ALCOHOLISM
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