In this episode, I’m keeping the subject close to home once again and talking about a painter, illustrator and printmaker who comes from my local town, Albi, down here in the south-west of France. The artist’s name: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Actually his full name is Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa. Not often you need to draw breath midway through saying someone’s name so I’m just going to call him Lautrec for the rest of this podcast.
He was born here in Albi in 1864 into an aristocratic family – his parents were the Count and Countess of Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa. Possibly as the result of his mother and father being first cousins, he was born with multiple congenital problems, in addition to which he broke both his legs as a teenager. This meant they didn’t develop properly and he only grew to around five feet tall.
Despite being in pain for much of the time because of these disabilities, Lautrec was able to make light of it. On one occasion when someone made a spiteful comment about his walking stick he remembered: “I had placed my stick on the table, as I do every evening. It had been specially made to suit my height, to enable me to walk without too much difficulty. As I was standing up, a customer called to me: ‘Monsieur, don’t forget your pencil.’ It was very unkind but most funny.”
Because of his health problems and inability to join in with other children his age, he immersed himself in drawing throughout his childhood. Once his mother realised he showed great promise, she sent him to a Paris studio as a young man to learn from the portrait painter, Léon Bonnat. Her motherly ambitions were in the hope that he too would become a fashionable portrait painter. But Lautrec had less pretentious ideas and preferred a far more informal approach.
Although his technique later went on to inspire the likes of other artistic greats like Andy Warhol, not everyone at the time appreciated his talent. The very traditional École des Beaux Arts called his style “atrocious” and showed little interest. In any case, it seemed that Lautrec preferred to learn by working at smaller studios where he met the likes of Vincent Van Gogh – not a bad consolation prize! His portrait of Van Gogh in 1888 which was done in pastel, became one of his best known works. Of his painting style, he said, “I paint things as they are. I don’t comment. I record”.
He was soon drawn to the area of Montmartre and became fascinated by the bohemian lifestyle of colourful 19th-century Paris where he made up part of a group of artists who became known as the post-impressionists, a rather grand sounding concept around the theory that art is based on the perception, imagination and emotion of the artist, not purely on making a copy of what is in front of your eyes. So form, texture and colour took on very different meanings to what was previously seen as ‘art’ in a new freedom of expression. His contemporaries included the likes of Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh and Henri Rousseau.
For Lautrec, this freedom was not only based on his developing style but also, now no longer having to live up to the expectations of his aristocratic family, meant he could also have the freedom to be inspired by the vibrant city all around him. He began to find work as an illustrator for magazines and journals and he led the way in crossing the boundaries drawn between ‘high art’ such as painting and sculpture, and ‘low art’ which included posters and other forms of visual marketing.
Ironically, he was looked down on by other artists for accepting a commission from the Parisian cabaret club, the Moulin Rouge for their dance entertainment evenings but these publicity posters are what he is best known for today. The most easily recognised is of the can-can dancer known as ‘La Goulue’. ‘La Goulue’, which means ‘the glutton’ after her habit of downing punters drinks mid-dance (a girl after my own heart), was one of the most popular entertainers at the club and a favourite subject of Lautrec’s. It was painted in 1891 and three thousand copies were distributed around Paris. They became collector’s items almost instantly to the point where an article was published on how to remove the posters from the walls before the glue dried!
Another very well-known poster is ‘Eldorado’, an image of the satirical singer Aristide Bruant – it’s the one of the man wearing a big hat for those of you vaguely familiar with his work – which was painted in 1892. Bruant was the owner of an other cabaret club, the Mirliton, where Lautrec spent many hours: it was a place where aristocrats mingled with the lower classes and enjoyed having insults thrown at them for being posh. There is a even a story that this poster may have been the inspiration for the Dr Who costume designer, when Tom Baker played the part of the doctor in the 1970s.
His interest in the world of entertainment included the theatre and he painted many of the stars of the day including Sarah Bernhardt but his eye was also drawn to capturing the audience and on one occasion, in 1896, he was even involved with painting a theatre’s scenery!
Women were a major focus for his works – and his life – and although many of his pictures were of scenes in brothels and dancehalls, he clearly had a respectful appreciation of the female form, conveying sensuality and the vulnerability of these women without in any way putting them down for the job they did. He once said that “The body of a beautiful woman is not made for love; it is too exquisite”. One of his favourite subjects even exclaimed, “When I see my backside in your paintings, I think it’s beautiful”.
In 1896, he put together a series of lithographs which was published under the name “Elles” which was entirely made up of drawings of prostitutes and his observations of their life in a brothel. It was unsuccessful commercially, probably because the images portrayed tenderness rather than sensationalism. The same could be said for his painting, ‘Le Lit’ completed in 1893, which shows an intimate moment between two women. His open-mindedness to homosexuality was well-known and he was a strong advocate for gay rights, supporting his friend Oscar Wilde who was sent to prison for gross indecency in England in the 1890s.
His fondness for living among prostitutes was perhaps a sign of his need to fit in to some part of society. His handicap made him an outcast from his upper-class roots, and as revealed by another artist friend, Eduard Vuillard, he wanted to feel accepted: being outcasts themselves, prostitutes and entertainers made him feel welcome, allowing him to live among them and draw them as he wanted, releasing him from his sense of isolation. He had many intimate relationships with these working girls although he never married but you can sense his loneliness through his words, “Love is when the desire to feel desired takes you so badly that you feel you could die of it”.
His partying was legendary but his addiction to alcohol had reached a point where he had his walking stick hollowed out so he could pour liqueur into it just in case it wasn’t available anywhere else! As he said, “of course, one should not drink much, but often”. His fondness for the hard stuff led him to inventing a cocktail called the ‘Tremblement de Terre’ or ‘The Earthquake’. Purely in the name of research of course, I decided to try one for myself. After some difficult negotiating with a slightly suspicious barman I managed to order this hideously strong concoction of cognac and absinthe, and spent €10 on this devil’s brew which I can safely say is seriously disgusting. Four sips in and I thought I felt my right arm going numb so I’m not quite sure how Lautrec functioned at all.
By 1898, his lifestyle had started to seriously impact his health which eventually led to him being placed in a mental hospital in Neuilly, near Paris. This was mostly to keep him away from alcohol and while he despaired at the confinement, he produced some of his last great work in a sketchbook he called “The Circus”. These sketches were entirely done from memory and he admitted that the project brought him a mental freedom while he was locked away. The scandal of him being incarcerated, in an ‘all publicity is good publicity’ kind of way, brought Lautrec more fame and further demand for his work. He left the hospital after several months and continued drawing and painting, creating new posters but also the famous lithograph, ‘the Jockey’, which he completed in 1899. But as he worked his health continued to deteriorate.
He died in 1901 at the age of 36 from the effects of syphilis and alcoholism. His career only lasted 20 years but in that time he created 737 canvases, 275 watercolours, 363 prints and posters, and just over 5,000 drawings. His painting of a laundry woman, ‘La Blanchisseuse’, broke records at Christie’s in New York in 2005, being sold for a whopping $22 million! A small irony that the subject of the painting, Carmen Gaudin, had to make ends meet by working in a laundry by day and then in a brothel by night.
The Musée Toulouse-Lautrec was partially funded by his mother after his death and set up by his old friend Maurice Joyant, and it is right in the centre of the old part of Albi. It holds the largest collection of his works in the world. It is in fact within the walls of the Palais de La Berbie, which was once the bishop’s palace for the Cathédrale Sainte Cecile which is right next door . It was built in the 13th century making it one of the oldest castles in France – the interior is worth a visit alone. What would all those bishops have said about Lautrec’s paintings of ladies-of-the-night now hanging in the hallowed space of what was once their home? It’s a truly amazing building though and shows off Lautrec’s work perfectly under the beautiful vaulted ceilings and amazing brickwork. And it feels right that a large part of his work is here in Albi, where he was born.
Not being very arty, I’m surprised at the reaction I have on the rare occasion when I’m up close to a famous artwork. It somehow feels like a real honour to be that close to something so revered and precious: to see the real thing, in the flesh as it were, particularly when the image is so very familiar and you are standing right in front of it. I can’t remember a time not having some of Lautrec’s distinctive images in my head but on numerous visits to the museum, seeing the genuine article is humbling and riveting all rolled into one.
And now knowing more about his life and the difficulties he had to live with, I almost felt like I was invading his personal space when I stood up close: pictures he developed in his mind and coloured with his own emotions. Canvases which he physically touched and looked at with his own eyes. Did he like what he saw? Was he pleased with what he had produced? How did he decide when to make the very last brushstroke? Looking at the details and the colours, the subjects’ body language in the knowledge that Lautrec was watching them, helped me imagine what he was feeling while he painted. Is that partly the sign of a true work of art? Its ability to transport you inside the head of its creator?