Henri Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901)
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born on November 24, 1864, in southern France. Son and heir of Comte Alphonse-Charles de Toulouse, he was the last in the line of an aristocratic family that dated back a thousand years.
As a child, Henri enjoyed the privileged life of nobility – surrounded by family and a staff of servants to tend to his needs – often horseback riding or hunting on the estate. By age 8, Henry was increasingly weak and often sick with fevers and severe headaches. But by the time he was ten years old, he turned his attention to drawing, as his grandfather, uncle and father were all accomplished amateur painters.
At thirteen, Toulouse-Lautrec broke the femur of his left leg, and at fourteen, he broke the femur of his right leg. The bones did not heal properly, and his legs ceased to grow – leaving him permanently disfigured. He reached maturity with a body trunk of normal size but with abnormally short legs. His adult height would only reach 4’ 11” tall.
Deprived of the physical life that a normal body would have permitted, Toulouse-Lautrec lived completely for his art. His father introduced Henri to Rene Princeteau, a painter and deaf-mute who recommended his parents enroll him in the studio of a local master painter, Bonnat. At seventeen, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec left home to study painting with Bonnat. A life-long dislike developed between the two men; Bonnat successfully kept Toulouse-Lautrec’s work out of the French national collections until his death in 1922.
Henri went on to study under Ferdinand Cormon, in Paris, and adopted the techniques of the Impressionist painters. By age twenty, he sought new artistic direction, relocating to the Montmartre district of Paris, the center of cabaret entertainment and the bohemian lifestyle that is well represented in his work. Dance halls and nightclubs, racetracks, prostitutes - all these were memorialized on canvas or made into lithographs. Toulouse-Lautrec was very much an active part of this community, as he would often sit at a crowded nightclub table, laughing and drinking, all-the-while making sketches. The next morning in his studio, he would expand the sketches into brightly colored paintings.
As a product of his participation in the nightlife of Paris, Toulouse-Lautrec began to drink heavily. By the 1890s the drinking was affecting his health. At his family’s behest, he was confined first to a sanatorium and then to his mother's care at home, but he could not stay away from alcohol. Toulouse-Lautrec died on September 9, 1901, at the family chateau of Malrome.
Toulouse-Lautrec was a Post-Impressionist painter along with Van Gogh, Gauguin and Rousseau. Because his initial notoriety came from his poster illustrations, he was first recognized as an illustrator and not immediately regarded as a great painter. Today, the family estate houses the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec.