By Darla McCammon
We are going to move this week to the late 1800s to learn about an artist who took the world by storm.
Like Gauguin, Toulouse-Lautrec is now categorized as a post-Impressionist. Unlike many of the other artists we have studied, Lautrec was wealthy and successful in selling his art (even though he was already independently rich.)
Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec Monfa was given this long name at his birth on Nov. 24, 1864, due to his family’s high-class social standing. This was a common practice in those times in the aristocracy of the region of southern France, where they made their home. Lautrec was also the only surviving son to reap the many privilege inherent with being wealthy and influential. He loved animals, especially horses, and rode often. His father and his uncles were talented, though amateur, artists and passed along this love to Lautrec as well.
Unfortunately, by the time he was eight years old, several riding accidents and broken bones led to the knowledge there was an inherited illness that caused his lower body to stop growing. Some pundits attributed this to the excessive inbreeding within his family. Nevertheless, the boy remained very short-statured from the waist down (with an overall height of five feet) but with manly attributes from the waist up. He had to use a cane in pain to navigate to his art lessons, but he became dedicated to improving his art work. This was robustly supported by his family who could afford the costly private lessons. His talent is very evident in the work combining his two loves: art and horses.
Lautrec convinced his parents to send him for more training to Paris, the hub of the art world. There he continued to improve himself and became friends with many other artists, including Van Gogh. He began offering his work professionally in the community of Montmartre, a city built on a high hill about 500 feet above the right bank north of Paris. Montmartre leads into the Pigalle area, which became famous for brothels and its red-light district. This is all a jarring juxtaposition to a beautiful, large, white Basilica that towers over Paris from a lofty, perhaps condemning, view.
High class does not necessarily equate to high morals and Lautrec began making friends where he felt most welcomed and comfortable. He dived into the colorful nightlife and became popular with the denizens of that night life. They reciprocated and helped his artwork sell. Soon his work was famous and gathering momentum for its unique and carefully designed color and subject choices, which were often of a disreputable society. His friends in this society affectionately called him “coffeepot.” Lautrec was able to gain glimpses of their lives due to his small stature and his ability to remain almost invisible.
The bohemian Montmartre lifestyle appealed very much to Lautrec and his work revealed how taken he was with the inhabitants and friends he portrayed in his now successful art. His sales were continuous and almost limitless and he left us a legacy of the seamier side of life that was seldom revealed by artists. Lautrec was unhealthy and in pain for most of his life but he found a place where he was welcomed, accepted and loved. He gave us a glimpse of things not often seen and showed a talent that deserved recognition.
In his 30s, he was institutionalized for alcoholism at a facility near Paris. While there, he produced an incredible assortment of drawings from memory. Then, a few weeks before his 37th birthday in 1901, Lautrec passed away. Biographers point to the cause as most likely alcoholism and syphilis. They also point out how Lautrec was able, unlike any other, to rub shoulders with the riffraff of society without judgment. His work lives on and remains valuable today. See it in-person at the Art Institute of Chicago as well as the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City.