An aristocrat, an alcoholic, and an artist
Henri Toulouse-Lautrec is a French artist, synonymous with the image of an absinthe-soaked, bohemian 19th century Paris. A nightlife-loving aristocrat, he was a VIP at the Moulin Rouge, and was the first to blur the lines between fine art and advertising. Some of his most famous works are posters, which, while looked down upon as an unworthy pursuit by many, allowed Toulouse-Lautrec to forego the life of an impoverished artist, make a good living and enjoy the pursuits of the Belle Epoque.
He came from aristocracy
Henri Toulouse-Lautrec was born in Albi, France to aristocratic lineage: from three lines to be precise. His parents were the Comte and Comtesse Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa (a count and countess) and if Toulouse-Lautrec were to have outlived his father, he would have inherited the same title. He grew up in privilege, and was a great lover of horseback riding—something that later went on to influence his paintbrush. As an adult he eschewed this lifestyle, and instead preferred to reside in the lively neighborhood of Montmartre in Paris, spending much of his time enjoying the brazen nightlife and bohemian culture.
His grandmothers were sisters
Toulouse-Lautrec suffered with health conditions for all of his life; he fractured both of his legs as a teenager and these never healed, leaving it to be widely believed that he suffered from a congenital bone disease. While he developed an adult-sized torso, his legs never grew beyond those of a child. It is suspected that his ill-health was a result of inbreeding: his grandmothers were sisters and his parents were first cousins (who were also said to have descended from inbreeding themselves).
His ill health allowed him to pursue his art
His sickly nature meant that Toulouse-Lautrec often had to spend long stretches of time recuperating from some ailment or other, and these periods of inactivity meant that he was able to spend time honing his craft as a draughtsman. It also meant that participating in the physical pastimes of his contemporaries, such as sports, was out of the question, so painting proved to be an ideal way for Toulouse-Lautrec to spend his time—and make money.
He created the posters for the Moulin Rouge
Often now associated with the Moulin Rouge (he even made an appearance in Baz Luhrman’s 2001 film of the same name, played by John Leguizamo), Toulouse-Lautrec was commissioned to create the posters for the cabaret when it first opened in 1889. A regular from the beginning, he designed the posters with the performers as a focal point, which was not a tactic normally used at the time. On this poster here you can see the famed dancer and creator of the can-can La Goulue (the Glutton) accompanied by her partner "No-Bones" Valentin.
His disability could be used to his advantage
His short stature of 4 ft 8, meant that Toulouse-Lautrec often felt, and was treated like, an outsider. He felt comfortable in the company of those on the margins of society who were otherwise deemed unsavory, such as circus performers, dancers, and prostitutes. Through these sordid social circles he created some of his most remarkable pieces of art, capturing the vibrancy of the mix of classes and cultures in the French cafés. His height also meant that he could often observe others unnoticed—you might not even notice his self-portrait in At the Moulin Rouge, below—allowing him to incorporate a narrative energy into his art: even in crowd scenes each figure is highly individualized.
He was inspired by Ukiyo-e painting
Initially, Lautrec studied under the León Bonnat and Fernand Cormon who specialized in academic and traditional art and were recognized as two of the great painters of their time. However, he was greatly influenced by the work of Manet, Degas, Van Gogh and Japanese woodblock painting. Ukiyo-e, meaning “pictures of the floating world” often depicted theater scenes and other places of leisure in Japanese culture. The simplicity of form used in these woodblock prints can be seen in Lautrec’s favoring of sharp outlines, bright colors, and pictorial flatness.
He invented a cocktail
Toulouse-Lautrec was an alcoholic, eventually graduating from beer and wine to hard liquors such as the highly-strong liquor absinthe. In fact, the invention of the “Earthquake” cocktail is attributed to him: half absinthe, half cognac (don’t try this one at home). Toulouse-Lautrec was so dependent on alcohol that he even hollowed out his walking stick so he could fill it with drink. Unfortunately his intoxicated lifestyle led to his demise, and the artist died at the age of 36 from alcoholism and syphilis. He left behind 737 canvased paintings, 275 watercolours, 363 prints and posters and 5,084 drawings.