Henri Toulouse-Lautrec

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec

Toulouse-Lautrec came from a wealthy, aristocratic family of standing in Albi.  His father  Count Alphonse de Toulouse-Lautrec married Countess Adèle Tapié de Céleyran. His parents were actually first cousins and some say this is where the artist’s problems began.

Lautrec had two unfortunate accidents when he was a young teenager which would change the course of his life.  Firstly, he fractured his left thigh bone falling off a chair in the family home of Château du Bosc.  Then, the following year, he broke his right thigh at the spa of Barèges in the Pyrenees Mountains.  He was bedridden for a time in Albi.

Lautrec’s stunted growth  would prove to be a debilitating and isolating physical condition for him for the rest of his life.  He turned to alcohol as a form of comfort and Montmartre was the perfect place to indulge himself.  As Montmartre was outside of the city walls (or the Farmer’s Wall as it was known) there was no tax on alcohol and it could be bought cheaply in the local bars and dance halls of Montmartre.

Lautrec sought solace for debilitating physical condition in art.  When he began to show some talent as an artist and his mother encouraged him by organising lessons for him with Rene Princeteau

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec (1864 - 1901)
Henri Toulouse-Lautrec (1864 – 1901)

When Lautrec decided to move to Montmartre in 1884,  his mother was horrified.  Back then Montmartre was known as a place where Bohemian life thrived and there were many ladies of disrepute and prostitutes in the area.

Between Place Blanche, Pigalle and the hill of Montmartre there was a whole Bohemian world which had evolved and Lautrec took to it like a duck to water.  As for the prostitutes, Lautrec befriended most of them and even lived amongst them.  He could identify with their outsider status.

Lautrec  enjoyed sketching the prostitutes while they were dressing and getting ready for an evening’s work.  His finished works were a breakthrough in terms of painting style.  He portrayed a human side to the prostitutes  so that they came across as being almost fragile or vunerable.


The Sofa by Toulouse-Lautrec (1884)
The Sofa by Toulouse-Lautrec (1884)

Lautrec pioneered the innovative techniques of using empty spaces and stark lines. Most of Lautrec’s drawings were of people he knew who, he would either invite to his studio, or pose them in a social context such as a street in Montmartre, a dance hall, a circus, a racetrack, in a sports arena or brothel of Paris.

Many of Lautrec’s subjects derived from the Parisian world of entertainment: cafés, brothels, music halls and cabarets and he became a well known figure at Le Chat Noir due to his conspicuous appearance and his ever present sketchbook which he carried around with him.

La Gouloue and her Sister by Toulouse Lautrec (1892)
La Gouloue and her Sister by Toulouse Lautrec (1892)

Like a lot of artists in Montmartre at the time, Lautrec was addicted to Absinthe which was made up of 72 degrees of alcohol and herbs.  Algerian soldiers used it during the first World War to ward off dysentery.  While previously it had been advertised as a glamorous alcoholic drink, it was later banned after the war.

Lautrec kept a flask of Absinthe in his cane and his mother, who doted on him, became worried.   She was so worried that she organised for a gentleman friend of the family to keep him company and take care of him but they both ended up drinking Absinthe together.

The Moulin Rouge

The opening of the Moulin Rouge on 5 October 1889 was a major event of the Belle Epoque in Paris.  It was frequented by the most aristocratic and royal families of europe.  The future Edward VII was a regular visitor.

Customers of the Moulin Rouge were provided with a  lounge bar, a garden and tame moneys  for their amusement and a huge papier maché elephant was erected to house the orchestra.

When Lautrec’s famous poster, “At the Fernando Circus: The Equestreienne”,  was hung up in the entrance hall he became a valued, and frequent guest of the Moulin Rouge.

At the Cirque Fernando by Toulouse-Lautrec 1887
At the Cirque Fernando by Toulouse-Lautrec 1887


Like many artists of the time, Lautrec became addicted to Absinthe and he also enjoyed the American style cocktail drinks which were very much the fashion at the time.  As a result, he had to be put in a sanatorium in 1899.

In 1901, at the age of thirty six, had an attack of paralysis and he died in his mother’s arms.


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