“The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”

To love and to live when one is an artist is an experience of a different kind. Being able to express the world around us in its beauty, reality and aspirations can rarely come easy. But Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is known for being one such artist. Having lived in the vibrant and vivacious era of Paris, he captured the loves and lives of its people in his art. Toulouse-Lautrec leaves an influence on the art and the culture of Paris, a city known for the same today.

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Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, photo taken in 1884_wikipedia.org

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was a French artist well known for his paintings and also posters, which expressed a bold array of topics and styles. In his short career span of a few decades, he very naturally captured the lively and often sordid atmosphere of Montmartre’s late 19th-century dance halls, cabarets, and theaters. 

Even though born into aristocracy, Toulouse-Lautrec couldn’t blend in the world of the rich, maybe due to his unknown bone disease, which made him very short as an adult. He instead developed an interest in the entertainment scenes of the 19th-century bohemian lifestyle in France. He frequented brothels and clubs and had an affinity for painting the life of the “urban underclass”. Many of his paintings depicted prostitutes, performers, people of the working class and their lives behind the scenes.

Lautrec first moved to Paris to study painting in 1882, when he entered the atelier of Léon Bonnat. He later found a nurturing teacher with Fernand Cormon until 1886, when he met his lifelong friends Louis Anquetin, Emile Bernard, and Vincent van Gogh. Toulouse-Lautrec later started working in Montmartre and the vivacious and liberating lifestyle of the place is always a standout character of his work.

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La Blanchisseuse(1886), his early painting of a young laundress, sold for US$22.4 million, setting a new record for the artist._fineartamerica.com

Style of work

With his career spanning across the turn of the 20th century, his style also aligns with the contemporary evolution of artistic styles during the period. His style can be classified as post-impressionism, encompassing the innovation of the same, along with his choice of subjects.

One can find inspiration from more figurative impressionists like Édouard Manet and Edgar Degas in his paintings. His style was also influenced by the classical Japanese wood prints, which had become popular among the artistic community of Paris in the latter half of the 19th century. Toulouse-Lautrec Toulouse-Lautrec is said to have a highly linear approach emphasizing contours on the human subjects. He often applied paint in long, thin brushstrokes leaving much of the board visible. One could see him creating caricature-like human figures, with changed proportions, which was a part of the modernizing culture of his surroundings. This kind of depiction of humans was very different from the very academic style of painters, and one of his first teachers Léon Bonnat often disapproved of this style of Lautrec. 

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At the Moulin Rouge: The Dance (1890)_artsandculture.google.com

He excelled at depicting people in their working environments, with the colour and movement of the gaudy nightlife present but the glamor stripped away. In some of his paintings, he expressed the flamboyant and lively environment of the dance halls, brothels and clubs, with rich colours and people in dynamic movements. This was in stark contrast with the depiction of the destitute but enigmatic lives of the prostitutes behind the scenes.

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La toilette (1889) depicts a woman, stripped to the waist facing away from the viewer, just before or after bathing._artsandculture.google.com

Subjects and philosophy

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The Medical Inspection at the Rue des Moulins Brothel(1894) depicts prostitutes lining up for medical checkups, showing their life outside working in the brothel._www.nga.org

In contrast to his family and upbringing, Lautrec found artistic inspiration in the lives of common people. Being in a place of booming entertainment and performance, he lived and expressed the “modern urban life” of Paris, with its exuberance as well as sometimes sad reality. His subjects were the people he lived among in Montmartre’s working-class neighbourhood, including prostitutes, singers, and fellow artists. They are not happy or in remorse, and neither are they a glorified or idealized depiction. The people in his art are real and he depicts their lives in a very natural manner. In his very famous painting La Blanchisseuse, he depicts a laundress looking out of the window. A simple subject but painted in such a way that it evokes a sense of longing and sadness. He also expertly depicted crowded scenes, but where the figures were individualised and told a story. His painting of the In La Goulue at the Moulin Rouge (1891–92), shows Louise Weber, a dancer nicknamed, “The Glutton,” linking arms with two women at the Moulin Rouge. He perfectly captures her confidence and boldness in her body language as well as her position among the other people present. 

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La Goulue, a star of the Moulin Rouge, arriving at the Moulin Rouge, 1892, Museum of Modern Art_artsandculture.google.com

Recognition and legacy

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Moulin Rouge: La Goulue, a colour lithograph from 1891, advertising the famous dancers La Goulue and “No-Bones” Valentin_artsandculture.google.com

Lautrec’s work was closely connected to Montmartre from the start of his professional career. From his first works to the posters he created later, he put forth the tale of Montmartre in a very creative but strong sense. He also chronicled his era largely through printmaking, by creating posters for the theatres and other places, in a very unconventional but distinctly his style. In his later career, he found success in this field and produced nearly 350 lithographic posters, editioned portfolios, and illustrations for journals and theatre programs recounting life in then Paris.

An outgoing and social person, Lautrec befriended a variety of people around him, including aristocrats, streetwalkers, artists, writers, models, and dancers. One can see a cross-section of their lives of Montmartre, often set in his studio, in neighbourhood cafés, at dance halls, or cafés-concerts through his eyes, sensitive but also firmly real. Paris in the fin-de-siècle was known as the ‘city of pleasure’, with its vibrant dance halls, cabaret performances, brothels as well as the many artists who lived and worked there. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec in his career very aptly captures the spectacle and the spirit of life, and the stories of these people. 

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At the Moulin Rouge(1892), Art Institute of Chicago. The artist has depicted himself in the crowd(background centre-left)_wikipedia.org

REFERENCES 

  1. The Museum of Modern Art. (n.d.). Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec | MoMA. [online] Available at: https://www.moma.org/artists/5910.
  2. www.nga.gov. (n.d.). Artist Info. [online] Available at: https://www.nga.gov/collection/artist-info.1935.html.
  3. Wikipedia Contributors (2019). Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. [online] Wikipedia. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Henri_de_Toulouse-Lautrec.
  4. nationalgalleries (2018). Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2kb1atN-w5Q [Accessed 23 Jul. 2020].
  5. National Galleries of Scotland. (n.d.). Pin-Ups | Toulouse-Lautrec and the Art of Celebrity. [online] Available at: https://www.nationalgalleries.org/exhibition/pin-ups-toulouse-lautrec-and-art-celebrity [Accessed 10 Jun. 2022].
  6. nationalgalleries (2018). Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2kb1atN-w5Q.
  7. artsandculture.google.com. (n.d.). Google Arts & Culture. [online] Available at: https://artsandculture.google.com.
Author

An observant and wandering soul, Gandhali has always been fascinated by the power that words can hold. While exploring architecture, she developed an interest to learn about spaces and the life in them, and about seeing architecture through words. She strives to be able to express through her words too.

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