“To think I would never have painted if my legs had been just a little longer!”
If there is one attraction not to miss during a visit to Albi it is the Museum of Toulouse Lautrec.
left view of Albi, right the gardens of the museum of Toulouse Lautrec
Housed in a lovely building at the Palais de la Berbie it’s complete with stunning gardens overlooking the Tarn river. You can read more about the city of ALBI here.
Here is a very short history of a very short painter who left an amazing legacy in his short little life:
Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa was born in Albi in 1864. The Albigensian was an illustrator and painter who immersed himself in the underworld of Paris during ‘la belle époque’. He made elegant, provocative images of the divergent, decadent way of life during the ‘beautiful era’.
By the 19th century, the counts of Toulouse were no longer contributing much to society, but were living rather well, ‘high off the hog’ at their various homes in the south of France. They lived a life of wealth and leisure. As was the custom at that time, in order to keep family fortunes intact, relatives intermarried within the family, sometimes bringing about genetic problems with the arrival of children.
Count Alphonse de Toulouse-Lautrec married Countess Adèle Tapié de Celeyran in 1963. Their mothers were sisters, the count and countess were first cousins and their incestuous union was blighted from the beginning. The romance was short-lived and Henri was brought up by his mother who was deeply religious and ‘complicated’. Still, you have to cut her some slack; she married her cousin, things didn’t work out, her only other son died at four and Henri was very weak physically. He eventually he gave up his sheltered aristocratic background in favour of the bohemian lifestyle of Monmartre.
Poor health and a passion for drawing
His father rejected him because of his physically weak constitution which prevented him from becoming a hunter and a soldier. Henri broke one leg when he was 13 and the other at 14 which confirmed what they suspected. Henri suffered from a hereditary bone disease called pyknodysostosis. His legs stopped growing. He never grew taller than 152 cm; five feet 1 inch.
Luckily, Henri liked to draw and paint. He decided, after his exams at seventeen, that he wanted to be painter. He showed signs of a free artistic approach from early on. With family connections in the art world, his father helped him enter the Parisian studio of Léon Bonnat in 1882. After Bonnat took another post, Toulouse-Lautrec moved to the studio of Cormon in 1882 and studied for another five years and established a group of friends he kept for the rest of his life.
Although he didn’t have the physical strength for hunting and sports, he loved horses and animals in general. Many of his early paintings are of horses. He was known for his recreation of movement, especially later with his obsession with dance movements. He painted many portraits of people he knew, often of his mother Adèle.
He was influenced by the Impressionist painters Manet and Degas among others. His style was also influenced by classical Japanese wood prints, which became popular in art circles of Paris. He was particularly gifted at portraying people in their working environments, using colour and movement to depict the seedy nightlife without much glamour. He was a master at painting crowd scenes with individualized characters . Some of the individual figures in his larger paintings could be identified just by their silhouettes. Toulouse-Lautrec’s skilled depiction of people came from his linear, painting style emphasising contour. He often applied paint in long, thin brushstrokes, which would leave much of the board underneath showing through the paint.
When Henri was twenty three years old he found himself at a bar in Paris across from Vincent van Gogh. There he produced what has been described as the most sensitive and revealing portrait of the Dutch painter.
Van Gogh painted numerous self portraits but this pastel on cardboard by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is a masterpiece.
This portrait is in housed at the Rijksmuseum Vincent Van Gogh in Amsterdam
The two artists were from very different backgrounds and of very different temperaments. At one time they were together at the Cormon atelier, which was a centre of Post Impressionism, more precisely Cloisonnism, a technique involving highly abstract zones of colour often contained in dark outlines and clearly defined.
Cormon encouraged his pupils to roam around Paris looking for subjects to paint. Allegedly, during this period Toulouse-Lautrec had his first encounter with a prostitute which led him to create his first painting of a prostitute in Montmartre. He was said to be fascinated by their lifestyle and liked to feature them in his works. Cabaret life soon became his main subject.
left Jane Avril Jardin de Paris 1893 lithograph, middle Jane Avril dancing – study for poster
Divan Japonais – 1982/93 above right
This poster, commissioned by the owner of the club Divan Japonais, portrays two of Lautrec’s favourite models: Jane Avril, la danceuse, in front and Yvette Guilbert, la chanteuse, with her trademark long black gloves on stage. Behind Jane Avril is the literary critic Edouard Dujardin.
In 1885, Lautrec started to exhibit his work at the cabaret of the singer Aristide Bruant.
In 1888, the Belgian critic Octave Maus invited him to present eleven pieces at the Vingt Exhibition in Brussels in February. Van Gogh’s brother, an art dealer bought the painting Poudre de Riz for 150 francs, around fifteen pounds.
Of the post impressionist painters, he was among the most well known though he is possibly best known for his coloured lithograph posters.’ Les affiches’, or posters, were often advertising cabaret bars like le Moulin Rouge and le Divan Japonais in the Montmartre neighbourhood of Paris. One of the first and best known is this coloured lithograph.
Moulin Rouge – La Goulue, 1891
When the Moulin Rouge cabaret opened in 1889 Toulouse-Lautrec was commissioned to produce a series of posters. At the time, other artists looked down on his work but he was not bothered. He had a seat reserved for him at the cabaret and he loved the life.
La Goulue and Valentin-le-Désosse, the star attractions at the cabaret are dancing in the foreground with the customers as black silhouettes. When this poster went up in the streets of Paris, Toulouse-Lautrec became famous overnight. It is probably the most famous poster in art history. He was twenty seven years old.
Louise Weber known as La Goulue was a dancer who created the French can-can. Now there is a legacy!
Deteriorating health and a passion for drinking
At first he drank only beer and wine, but his tastes turned towards hard alcohol notably absinthe. A cocktail called earthquake ‘tremblement de terre’ is supposedly attributed to Toulouse-Lautrec : a mix of absinthe & cognac in a wine goblet. Yikes! Because of his underdeveloped legs, he walked with a cane, which he hollowed out and kept filled with liquor in order to ensure that he was never without.
The end of his short life
By February 1899, alcoholism began to take its toll and he collapsed from exhaustion. His family had him committed to a sanatorium for three months where he drew mainly circus portraits. After being released, he returned to Paris for a short while, then and travelled around France. His health, both physical and mental, ravaged from alcohol and syphilis, began to deteriorate.
On 9 September 1901, at the age of 36, he died at his mother’s estate, in Saint André du Bois, Nouvelle-Aquitaine in Southwest France.
After his death, his mother, Adèle and his art dealer, Maurice Joyant, continued to promote his artwork. His mother contributed funds for a museum to be created in Albi, his birthplace, to show his works.
The Musée Toulouse Lautrec owns the most extensive collection of his works.
He was prolific in his less than 20 year career and created many water colours, prints and posters, drawings as well as some ceramic and stained glass work.
La belle époque couldn’t possibly seem farther away from this moment in time. Without restaurants, bars and cafés, live music and theatre productions, museums or galleries life is short on culture. The date for the reopening of museums, places of culture and all other ‘non essential’ institutions is still unknown.
This museum doesn’t offer virtual visits. When the time comes for your visit to Albi you will be enraptured by this lovely city and the wonderful museum dedicated to its most famous artist.
I hope that you have enjoyed this post about Toulouse-Lautrec. Follow me to keep up with me on my travels around beautiful Occitanie.
A bientôt………………………. Christina
*All of the artwork by Toulouse-Lautrec in this post is from my own photographs. I believe there are no copyright issues. CKG