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Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901)

( Originally Published 1955 )

A French painter, graphic artist and poster designer. A descendant of the counts of Toulouse, he was born at Albi (site of the present Lautrec Museum) and educated in Paris. As a boy he broke both thighs and, unable to live a normal life as a result of these crippling accidents, he turned to painting. His first studies were with Princeteau, a painter of sporting scenes, then with a succession of academic artists ending with Cormon. During 1884-85 Lautrec, who had already shown a taste for contemporary subjects and a flair for drawing, came under the influence of the caricaturists Willette and Forain as well as the Impressionist group, especially Manet, Berthe Morisot and Degas. During 1886-88 he began to frequent the cabarets of Montmartre, where he found a kind of visual excitement and movement that his crippled and dwarfed condition would never have permitted him to participate in directly and a type of society that accepted him on his own terms without regard to his ugliness.

In 1889 he began to show at the Independants and a few years later at the Goupil Gallery run by Van Gogh's brother Theo. Lautrec had begun to do posters in 1891 in the brilliant flat, linear and decorative style that was so uniquely his, and soon thereafter plunged into a series of illustrations far various satirical journals. In 1895 during a visit to London he met Oscar Wilde, Aubrey Beardsley, Arthur Symons and other figures of the literary-artistic world revolving about the Art Nouveau Yellow Book, whose viewpoint was close to that of Lautrec himself. In 1897 he became friendly with the Natansons, publishers of La Revue Blanche, and at this time turned from posters to color lithography. He had been doing paintings of cabaret performers, dancers, acrobats, etc., and now broadened his scope to include brothel scenes, circus subjects (as in the series called Le Cirque), nudes, medical themes and even portraits. By 1899 his heavy drinking and other forms of dissipation had so weakened him that he had to be sent to a sanatorium. But the habits of many years were not to be overcome and in 1901 he began drinking heavily again, suffered a stroke and ended his hectic life at the age of thirty-seven.

Although Lautrec emerged from the Impressionist milieu in his Japanese-derived compositions and his everyday subjects, his preoccupation with sinuously flowing line related him to the Art Nouveau tradition (see), while his general attitude toward the thematic material of his paintings and lithographs is essentially that of Symbolism (see), expressing the mournfulness of a given situation (as in the Moulin Rouge) by depressing browns and greens and by the psychological isolation of the figures. Thus we may see certain general parallels between Lautrec and his contemporaries Munch and Hodler as well as between Lautrec and Nabis (see) like Bonnard and Vuillard, who relied on technique alone for the expression of their viewpoint.

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