Little master

Different Strokes

Little master

On September 9, 1901 when French artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec breathed his last in the arms of his mother, Countess Adèle de Toulouse-Lautrec, he was just 36.

He had a history of syphilis and alcoholism, and to complicate matters, he also suffered a stroke three weeks before his death, which left him paralysed on one side.

About 110 years after his death, the Parisian poster boy still holds sway and continues to be talked about. His paintings, drawings and posters have inspired generations of artists across the world.

In an artistic career spanning less than two decades, Toulouse-Lautrec is estimated to have created 737 canvases, 275 watercolours, 363 prints and posters, 5,084 drawings, some ceramic and stained glass work, besides an unknown number of lost works.

According to eminent art critic Robert Hughes, Lautrec was an astoundingly precise observer; his ability to capture pose, expression, the slightest nuance of body language in a single inflection of line was extraordinary, and could only have come from the combination of an unflagging interest in human behaviour and sharp reductive power.

“Everyone’s heard of him, but nobody knows him,” writes Waldemar Januszczak, art critic and maker of art documentaries including Toulouse-Lautrec: The Full Story. “The really shocking truth about Toulouse-Lautrec is that he was a profound and weighty revolutionary: a great tragedian. In my film, I call him the Rembrandt of the 19th century.”

When one thinks of Lautrec, the images that come immediately to mind are his evocative portraits of women in brothels, cabarets and dance shows.  More often than not, the scenes he rendered were from personal observations and experiences inside a brothel where sex workers engaged themselves in their natural, everyday activities.

“His subjects seem very human, but their bodies are not their own,” writes Mike McKiernan (Occupational Medicine / Oxford University Press). “They are ‘fetish objects for capitalist consumption’. Lautrec paints women without sentimentality, irony or contempt and despite his own private carnal pursuits (he was a paying client), there is no erotic exploitation although the painting oozes decadence. He makes no attempt to change the reality of the setting but simply records the daily routine of a group of workers.”

Aristocratic family
Although born into an aristocratic family, Lautrec was made fun of for his dwarfish height and ungainly features. He too teased himself – “at his own shape being ‘totally lacking in elegance’, at that big behind, that potato nose, at his legs — broken twice, poor legs…” Feeling isolated in his immediate surroundings, he found refuge in places populated by prostitutes, dancers, actresses, pimps and outcasts.

They reciprocated his attention and affections, showering him with kindness, love and generosity. Stimulating him physically and creatively, some of them even became his muses and mistresses. “I don’t feel at home anywhere else,” he would say. “At last I’ve found women who suit me.” For him, a prostitute was a perfect model, especially in her natural habitat, where she dressed, bathed, slept and went about her daily chores without pretentions.

Lautrec was also one of the finest artists of his generation to evocatively portray lesbian love. “No one could be more loving,” he would whisper. “They’re like two birds burying themselves in each other’s feathers.”

Lautrec’s audacious habit of painting the daily life in brothels shocked many of his contemporaries. But, as critic and curator Paul Sachs observed, “In spite of its sordidness, or more probably because of it, Lautrec took from the gutter the elements that made his a distinguished and exacting art.”

Prof Sachs also believed that Lautrec was the last great draughtsman of the 19th century. “By making clear that great art may draw upon any subject matter, he ushered in one aspect of the 20th Century — the right of the artist to choose his material.” He was also impressed by the “artistic dignity of Lautrec’s representations no matter how commonplace or even vulgar his models happened to be.”

Lautrec retained a lifelong love of horses; his works reveal the brilliant power of observation of the majestic animal. But landscapes seldom interested him. “The pure landscape painter is but a brute. Landscape should only be a way of conveying the character of the model.”

Many admirers
Lautrec was deeply influenced by the master draughtsman of his time, Edgar Degas (1834 – 1917). Impressed by the young artist’s work, Degas too (in 1893) accepted him saying: “Well, Lautrec, you’re clearly one of us.”

Among Lautrec’s several friends were Irish writer Oscar Wilde and Dutch painter Vincent van Gogh. When van Gogh’s work was publicly insulted, it was Lautrec who openly challenged the critic for a duel. As a pal of Wilde, he drew him several times.

Lautrec’s prints and posters (particularly made for the Parisian nightclub, Moulin Rouge) enhanced his reputation and popularity. He was hailed for having helped establish graphic art as people’s art. His graphic brilliance did not fail to influence many artists of his time. 

Lautrec’s work, particularly his lithographs, became a rage even with the likes of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque. Picasso owned copies of Lautrec’s posters, but Braque stole them from the street where they were pasted and re-pasted them in his own room! Some observers suspect that Lautrec’s brothel scenes might have indirectly inspired Picasso’s cubist masterpiece, ‘Les demoiselles d’Avignon’ (1907), which portrayed a group of prostitutes.

Despite his incredible talent and popularity with artists, Lautrec did not receive adulatory obituaries when he died. L’Echo de Paris, for instance, remembered him as a man who ‘looked like a court fool, spent his days studying vice, entertainment, orgies in Paris’ and who ‘depicted grotesque vice’.

It was left to his friend Maurice Joyant to not only take care of Lautrec’s paintings, drawings and posters, but also establish a permanent museum in honour of the deceased artist. “Lautrec amused himself in life with the utter freedom of a little boy in a park,” recalled Joyant. “This little man was a master of his fate and lived by his own lights.”

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