Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was a famous bohemian artist of the ‘belle époque’ (beautiful era) in Paris at the turn of the 20th century. His Post Impressionist paintings, lithography and posters contributed significantly to the development of Art Nouveau.
Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec was born on November 24, 1864, in Albi, France. His aristocratic parents, Comte Alphonse and Comtesse Adèle de Toulouse-Lautrec, were first cousins. His mother doted on Henri after his younger brother died at the age of one.
Inflicted with a degenerative bone disease, Henri’s childhood was difficult. He was ostracized by other children and found solace in painting. By the age of fifteen, he had fractured both thigh bones and his illness prevented him from healing properly. The disease stunted his growth so that when he reached maturity, he was only 1.5 meters in height, which caused him to be ridiculed and teased.
Not able to follow his father in the typically aristocratic pastimes of riding and hunting, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec felt very alone. He focused on sketching and painting, and his efforts would later be recognized when he was invited to study under Fernand Cormon whose studio was located on the hill above Paris, Montmartre.
At eighteen, he went to Paris to visit various, conventional painting studios; there, he met artists Emil Bernard and Vincent van Gogh. Subsequently, the portraits he created of his mother revealed an emerging impressionist style. In the late 1880s, he began to emulate the Japanese style prints that portrayed large areas of a single color with strong contours and patterning that conveyed movement and form.
Henri de Toulouse Lautrec was deemed "the soul of Montmartre". He spent most of his time drinking, socializing and sketching in brothels and cabarets in the Montmartre section of Paris where he had made his home. His portrayal of life at the Moulin Rouge, as well as other Montmartre and Parisian cabarets and theaters, featured well-known performers such as Yvette Guilbert, Jane Avril, Aristide Bruant, and Louise Weber (La Goulue), the dancer who created the "French Can-Can".
The artist exhibited his first works in the cafes and restaurants of Montmartre, and that gained him many commissions from the performers for posters or theater billboards. He used acid and garish colors, drawing in a grotesque and exaggerated style to advertise the venues. He earned the exposure he had been seeking, and soon received a commission to illustrate for the humorous magazine, Le Rire. His exhibitions in galleries made him famous. ‘Moulin Rouge: La Goulue’ (1891) was one the artist’s most popular works from this time.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec began to drink heavily in an effort to deal with the constant ridicule of his physical appearance. Complications from alcoholism and syphilis greatly affected his health. In 1899, he had a severe nervous breakdown and was confined to a clinic for three months. He later suffered a stroke which resulted in partial paralysis, and was taken to the castle residence of his mother to recuperate. A few days later, Toulouse-Lautrec died at the age of thirty-six on September 9, 1901. As he lay dying, his mother and some close friends sat by his side. His father Count Alphonse, who had been absent during the artist’s entire life, arrived at his bedside in time to hear his last words, "Good Papa, I knew you wouldn't miss the kill." The Count did not respond and the son murmured, "Old fool".
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was buried in Verdelais, Gironde, a few kilometers from his birthplace, and a museum was built in his honor in Albi. His mother, together with his art dealer, promoted his art after his death.