Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was a French painter, printmaker, draughtsman and illustrator whose immersion in the colourful and theatrical life of Paris in the late 1800s yielded a collection of exciting, elegant and provocative images of the modern and sometimes decadent life of those times. Toulouse-Lautrec, along with Cézanne, Van Gogh and Gauguin, is among the most well-known painters of the Post-Impressionist period.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born in the Midi-Pyrénées région of France, in an aristocratic family. At the age of eight, he went to live with his mother in Paris where he drew sketches and caricatures in his exercise workbooks. The family quickly realized that Henri's talent lay in drawing and painting. In 1875 Henri returned to Albi for his health problems. He took thermal baths and consulted doctors in the hope of finding a way to improve his growth and development. Henri suffered from congenital health conditions sometimes attributed to a family history of inbreeding. Modern physicians attribute this to an unknown genetic disorder. His legs ceased to grow, so that as an adult he was extremely short. He had developed an adult-sized torso, while retaining his child-sized legs. He is reported to have had hypertrophied genitals.

Physically unable to participate in many activities typically enjoyed by men of his age, Toulouse-Lautrec immersed himself in art. After failing college entrance exams, he passed at his second attempt. His progress in painting and drawing impressed Princeteau a family's friend, who persuaded his parents to let him return to Paris and study under the acclaimed portrait painter Léon Bonnat. Henri's mother had high ambitions and used the family influence to get him into Bonnat's studio. Toulouse-Lautrec was drawn to Montmartre, the area of Paris famous for its bohemian lifestyle and the haunt of artists, writers, and philosophers. Studying with Bonnat placed Henri in the heart of Montmartre, an area he rarely left over the next 20 years.

After Bonnat took a new job, Henri moved to the studio of Fernand Cormon in 1882 and studied for a further five years and established the group of friends he kept for the rest of his life such as Émile Bernard and Van Gogh. In this period Toulouse-Lautrec had his first encounter with a prostitute, which led him to paint his first painting of prostitutes in Montmartre. With his studies finished, in 1887 he participated in an exposition in Toulouse using the pseudonym "Tréclau", an anagram of the family name 'Lautrec'. He later exhibited in Paris with Van Gogh and Louis Anquetin. The Belgian critic Octave Maus invited him to present eleven pieces at the Vingt (the Twenties) exhibition in Brussels in February. From 1889 until 1894, Henri took part in the "Independent Artists' Salon" on a regular basis. He made several landscapes of Montmartre.

When the Moulin Rouge cabaret opened, Toulouse-Lautrec was commissioned to produce a series of posters. The cabaret reserved a seat for him and displayed his paintings. Among the well-known works that he painted for the Moulin Rouge and other Parisian nightclubs are depictions of the singer Yvette Guilbert; the dancer Louise Weber, known as the outrageous La Goulue ("The Glutton"), who created the "French Can-Can"; and the much more subtle dancer Jane Avril. Lautrec travelled to England. While in London he met and befriended Oscar Wilde. When Wilde faced imprisonment in Britain, Henri was a very vocal supporter of Wilde.

Lautrec was mocked for his short stature and physical appearance, which led him to drown his sorrows in alcohol. In 1893 Lautrec's alcoholism began to take its toll, and in 1899, his mother and some concerned friends had him briefly institutionalised. He even had a cane that hid alcohol so that a drink was always available. An alcoholic for most of his adult life, Toulouse-Lautrec was placed in a sanatorium shortly before his death. He died from complications due to alcoholism and syphilis at the family estate in Malromé at the age of 36. He is buried in Verdelais, Gironde, a few kilometres from the Château Malromé, where he was born. After Toulouse-Lautrec's death, his mother, the Comtesse Adèle Toulouse-Lautrec, and Maurice Joyant, his art dealer, promoted his art. His mother contributed funds for a museum to be created in Albi, his birthplace, to house his works. The Toulouse-Lautrec Museum owns the world's largest collection of works by the painter. Throughout his career, which spanned less than 20 years, Toulouse-Lautrec created 737 canvases, 275 watercolours, 363 prints and posters, 5,084 drawings, some ceramic and stained glass work, and an unknown number of lost works.

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