Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was a prominent French master of graphic arts and paintings, one of the leading representatives of Post-impressionism and father of modern advertising poster.


Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa was born on November 24, 1864. His family belonged to one of the oldest ones in France. The boy’s relatives were intelligent people, interested in politics and culture of their country. A number of portraits, etchings, pastels and drawings were kept in the Hotel du Bosc, where they lived,. Due to family inclinations little Henri from early on revealed interest in art and learnt horse riding and falconry. Comte Alphonse took his son not only to the hippodromes, but often visited with him studio of his friend Rene Princeteau, who was known for brilliant compositions with horses and dogs, always depicted in movement. Both father and son took lessons him.

The youngster spent a lot of time on fresh air, travelled and visited family mansion. Henri was lively and inquisitive, yet sickly, child. On May 30, 1878, at the age 14, he broke his leg. The fracture became even more complicated because of the fragility of his bones, so in adult age Henri had short legs.

After the accident, he concentrated on drawing and painting. Themes of his work weren’t too variable – mainly pictures of horses and carriages or ships. In about a year and a half, when the future artist almost recovered from the disease, a new misfortune happened: in August 1879 he fell down in small ravine As it had happened in Albi before, he got fractures that turned him into a cripple.


Henri paid more attention to art than to other disciplines. Young Toulouse-Lautrec kept on training under the guidance of Princeteau. Members of the family posed for him. His mastered his skills very quickly and soon those trainings weren’t enough to move forward. Then master Princeteau, who understood that, advised him to leave for Paris and enroll the studio of famous portraitist Leon Bonnat.

Lautrec followed the advice and started studying with Bonnat. Soon father insisted that the son should take a pseudonym; hence Henri started signing his works with anagram of the surname Trecleau or left them unsigned. Gradually Montmartre became center of the artist’s life, as he distanced from his circle and immersed into new life of Parisian bohemia and demimonde, where the young man could exist without being an object of mockery and close attention. There he derived inspiration and had possibility to contemplate human’s uncovered and sincere nature.


Lautrec shaped up his own manner with active role of line, grotesque characteristic of images and intentional decorativeness. His artistic evolution can be clearly traced in portraits. In the beginning of his career Henri painted his mother many times – “Countess Adèle de Toulouse-Lautrec in the Garden” (1881 – 1882), “Countess Adèle de Toulouse-Lautrec, the Artist’s Mother at Breakfast in Malromé Château” (1887). Those piece were still close to impressionistic painting, yet, bore grotesque and lyrical intonations of further creations. During several years his style was changing; impressionistic softness was replaced with graphical approach, visible in portrait of Susanna Valadon (1885) and “Woman with gloves” (1891).

In his portraits master tried to represent personality of his models as truthful (sometimes even grimly) as it was possible. Refining his manner, he absorbed impressionistic light palette, though nothing else connected him with the movement. He painted some portrait en plein air for reasons, different from impressionistic notions, without analyzing play of light and shadows, reflections or changing of coloring depending on season and time of day. Lautrec thought natural lightning to be better for uncovering psychological essence of his personages then studio atmosphere.

All portraits created by the painter could be conditionally divided into two groups. In the portraits of the first group model communicates with a viewer with eyes: “Justine Dieuhl: woman in a garden” (1889), “Portrait of Monsieur Boileau” (1893). The second group includes images with model in natural for him or her surrounding, busy with everyday routine or happits: “The Countess Adèle de Toulouse-Lautrec in her salon at the Château Malromé” (1887), “Desire Dio (reading the newspaper in the garden)” (1890), “Portrait of Madame de Gortzikoff” (1893).

Life of Montmartre in Lautrec’s works

In 1884 – 1885 the artist completely settled in Montmartre and worked there fruitfully. Habitués of cabarets, brothels and laborers became main characters of his pictures. Henri’s pieces of the end of 1880s – like painting “The Laundress” (1889) – are noticeable for expressiveness and vigorous drawing.

In 1888 Toulouse-Lautrec was invited to participate in the exhibition of a Brussels group “Les XX” – one of the most active associations of modernist art followers. He couldn’t be present on the exhibition, but sent 11 canvases and 1 drawing to them. In a short while the author received another invitation and decided to bring works himself. Apart from Lautrec’s “Moulin de la Galette”, paintings of Renoir, Signac, Odilon Redon, Sisley, Cezann and van Gogh were displayed on that show.

It was 1890s, when Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s art reached its high point. His satirical attitude towards the world of theaters, night cafes and artistic Bohemia was embodied in grotesque exaggeration one can see in “Dance At The Moulin Rouge” (1890), “Training of the New Girls by Valentin at the Moulin Rouge” (1889 – 1890) and others.
Between 1892 and 1895 the master depicted numerous scenes from life of brothels. At that time he had first lived in the house on rue Ambroise and then moved to rue des Moulins. Inhabitant of bawdy houses had no clue they were dealing with an aristocrat and famous artist. He was simply “Monsieur Henri” for them. His paintings and sketches of prostitute’s were both distanced from romantization of vices and temptations and wrathful their accusation. Women on his canvases were tangible – Lautrec didn’t glorify or attain them.

Visual language of Posters and Paintings

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec had a special interest in the night life of Moulin Rouge with its whirlpool of feverish, often feigned, joyfulness and absence of stability that produced unique mixture of reality, dynamism and light-effects. Trying to catch that spirit, the artist found bright and eloquent methods he used for poster, which, without exaggeration, can be considered the best samples in history of art. During his short life he produced around 30 posters remarkable for audacious compositions, decorativeness and emotionality of characters. Henri’s first poster was “Moulin Rouge” (1891), made as the cabaret’s promotion.

“Divan Japonais” is dedicated to the night-spot featuring Lautrec’s favorite Montmartre stars, Yvette Guilbert and Jane Avril. Winding lines and flat color spots, which were the framebase of the poster, were also common for Art Nouveau. Yet the artist didn’t share aesthetics of this style, making his own visual language more rough, sharp and dynamic. All this traits Henri applied in easel painting as well, for instance, in one of his brilliant piece – “Booth of La Goulue at the Foire du Trone” (or “The Moorish Dance”, 1895). Among figures on the first plan the master showed his friends Oscar Wilde and Felix Feneon. Anyway, the artist’s painting methods were rather variable. Some of his compositions he built on combination of local color spots, creating a wonderful vibrating atmosphere using separate brushstrokes Henri had inherited from Impressionism (“La clownesse Cha-U-Kao”, 1895).

Last years

At certain moment Toulouse-Lautrec became alcoholically-addicted. His lifestyle of the last decade ruined his health and affected his character – sense of humor and cheerfulness changed into aggression nervousness, and canvases lost their unique poeticism. Despite health-problems, the artist didn’t gave up and continued working hardly, often simulating himself with alcohol. In such state he created near 60 lithographs, which were displayed at his solo exhibition in London’s gallery of “Goupil & Co.” in 1898. Once Henri even fell asleep because of the weakness during the opening ceremony, where King Edward VII was present.

Alcoholism made Lautrec almost invalid; what’s more he caught syphilis, suffered from insomnia, hallucinations and persecution mania. Shortly mother place him into sanatorium in Neuilly – a town near Paris. Henri stayed there between 27 February and 17 May 1899. After returning from the sanatorium, notwithstanding weariness, the author found powers to make a series of lithographs “Circus”, where he pictures virtuosity of circus actors. He used to refer to that subject before: the canvas “Equestrienne (At the Cirque Fernando)”, dated 1888, was the first one.

In following two years Henri Toulouse Lautrec’s paintings became more obscure and melancholic. Coloring gained dramatic tension, whereas line lost its fluidity and expressiveness. Most of the specialists believed these were signs of the creative decay. At that period Paul Viaud, the painter’s friend and distant relative, kept an eye on him.

In spring 1901, as if Henri had a presentiment of approaching end, the master put everything in order in his studio, finished sketches and signed all works that had been unsigned. At the beginning of summer his state of health abruptly deteriorated. Mother took him to the Chateau Malrome, where after a while the artist had a stroke that led to his death at the age of 37 on 9 September.