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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.

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/.

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