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Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Portrait of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Too many prostitutes and too much absinthe

The fallen aristocrat

Young Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec loved horses, and when he was 13 years old he broke his right leg in a riding accident. A year later he broke his left. Unable to heal properly, his legs stopped growing. Today we think that Henri had a genetic bone disorder, possibly pycnodysostosis, but in the late 1800’s he was simply the dwarf son of a shattered family — the tragic result of aristocratic inbreeding.

Henri’s childhood was a parade of illness and instability — his parents separated after the death of his younger brother, and Henri was raised in a large part by nurses and nannies. Relief arrived in the form of René Princeteau, a friend of the family, who became Henri’s first art instructor — teaching him to draw and paint the horses he could no longer ride.

The Bohemian Painter

At age 18 Toulouse-Lautrec moved to Paris. He was in constant pain and walked with a cane — but the young artist had honed a sharp wit and sharper ambition. He began his formal training in the studio of Fernand Cormon, shoulder to shoulder with Vincent van Gogh and Émile Bernard. The three friends sank into bohemian life, wandering the streets to paint during the day, discovering prostitutes and absinthe bars at night.

In the smoky underbelly of Paris, Toulouse-Lautrec found his people. For the first time the reject aristocrat met people as disillusioned as himself — pleasure seekers and escapists, the poor and grotesque. His paintings of this world are incredibly vivid — a hedonist milieu of circus performers and revelers. His fellow impressionists painted quiet river afternoons and introspective dancers, Toulouse-Lautrec painted the party. It was hip-hop, it was crunk.

In the end, Toulouse-Lautrec partied too hard. He contracted syphilis from Rosa La Rouge, a prostitute and model, and it took more and more liquor to forget his chronic pain. At age 36 he drank himself to death with a drink of his own invention — the Earthquake (Tremblement de Terre) — one-half absinthe, one-half cognac.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s work is a dizzying dive into the music, parties, and brothels of turn-of-the-century Paris — so put on the Weeknd and explore, just remember to go easy on the absinthe.


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Reed Enger, "Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Too many prostitutes and too much absinthe," in Obelisk Art History, Published June 02, 2016; last modified May 16, 2021, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/henri-de-toulouse-lautrec/.

Read More
Portrait of Vincent van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Portrait of Vincent van Gogh

1887
The Hangover, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

The Hangover

1887-1889
At The Moulin Rouge, The Dance, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

At The Moulin Rouge, The Dance

1890
Moulin Rouge, La Goulue, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Moulin Rouge, La Goulue

1891
The Streetwalker, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

The Streetwalker

1890-1891
Poster for the performance of Artistide Bruant, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Poster for the performance of Artistide Bruant

1892
The Englishman at the Moulin Rouge, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

The Englishman at the Moulin Rouge

1892
Cover for the album L'Estampe 1, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Cover for the album L'Estampe 1

1893
Poster for Le Divan Japonais, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Poster for Le Divan Japonais

1892-1893
At the Café-concert, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

At the Café-concert

1894
At the Moulin Rouge, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

At the Moulin Rouge

1892-1895
Elles (portfolio cover), Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Elles (portfolio cover)

1896
The Sofa, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

The Sofa

1894-1896
Woman before a Mirror, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Woman before a Mirror

1897
The Jockey, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

The Jockey

1899

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