The many facets of Henri Toulouse Lautrec

When we talk about the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, we often think of think of Monet, Degas, Van Gogh, Renoir, Picasso and the like.

But how often is the name of Henri Toulouse Lautrec rattled off in the list of 19th century French artists that immediately springs to mind?

I think it rarely comes up, and I wonder why that is? He was certainly very important in the Post Impressionist art world, and contributed greatly to the development of avant garde art. I wonder if it is because he had a sad life of physical deformity, alcoholism and self derision which we somehow don't want to think too much about?

Henri broke his left thighbone at age 13, and then the other one at age 14. This, and other congenital genetic factors, left him with abnormally short legs as an adult, and he only grew to 150 cm (5 foot) tall. Toulouse-Lautrec's parents were first cousins (his grandmothers were sisters), and his growth condition is attributed to a family history of inbreeding. (This recessive genetic condition is, to this day, called “The Toulouse Lautrec Syndrome", though it can manifest in a variety of different ways).

Photo of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec taken in 1894. Credit: Paul Sascau Public Domain

Henri himself was unable to come to terms with his physical deformity, and this influenced his whole life. Whilst he studied art under a portrait painter named Leon Bonnat, who was based in Montmartre, Henri was also very much drawn to the somewhat seedy side of bohemian life at Montmartre because it was there that he felt most comfortable and accepted. He reportedly said, "I have found girls of my own size! Nowhere else do I feel so much at home."

Yet these very factors of self loathing and self-deprecation resulted in a satiric yet perceptive depiction of the reality of life in the cafes, cabarets and brothels of the Montmartre district, and has earned him much fame and recognition as a result.

Even though he died at age 36, in a career of less than 20 years, Toulouse-Lautrec was prolific, creating:

• 737 canvased paintings
• 275 watercolors
• 363 prints and posters
• 5,084 drawings
• some ceramic and stained-glass work

Despite his troubled life and descendency into alcoholism, Toulouse-Lautrec is among the best-known painters of the Post-Impressionist period, along with Cézanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin.

There is much to know about Henri Toulouse Lautrec, but here are some facts you may not be aware of:

(*) He was born on 24th Novemember 1864 into an aristocratic, wealthy family, descended from both the Counts of Toulouse and Odet de Foix, Vicomte de Lautrec and the Viscounts of Montfa, in Southern France.

His younger brother was born in 1867 but died the following year. Both sons enjoyed the courtesy titles of Comte (Count). If Henri had outlived his father, he would have been accorded the family title of Comte de Toulouse-Lautrec.

(*) After the death of his brother, when Henri was only 3, his parents separated and a nanny took care of him till he went to live with his mother at age 8, in Paris. Because he was ridiculed and ostracised for his physical deformity, he turned to art, drawing, sketches and caricatures.

The long recovery from his two broken legs as a teenager further focussed his interest in drawing and art. The family had the means to foster his talent by engaging a number of art tutors, including a friend of his father, René Princeteau.

Many of Toulouse-Lautrec's early paintings are of horses, which were a specialty of Princeteau.

(*) His later tutelage under the portrait painter, Leon Bonnat, in Montmartre also influenced Toulouse Lautrec to create many portraits of both men and women.

(*) Toulouse-Lautrec met Vincent Van Gogh around the time of 1882, and he maintained a long association with him as part of a group of art friends, and they even exhibited together. There is a reported story that in 1890, Toulouse-Lautrec challenged the artist Henri de Groux to a duel, because he had criticized Van Gogh's works. Apparently, Paul Signac also stood up for Van Gogh's honour. De Groux apologized for the slight and left the group and the duel never took place.

(*) Toulouse-Lautrec was certainly influenced by some of the Impressionists, particularly the more figurative painters like Manet and Degas. Can you see similarities to Manet's famous painting A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, or to the behind-the-scenes ballet dancers of Degas?

(*) Toulouse-Lautrec’s style was also influenced by the classical Japanese woodprints, which became popular in art circles in Paris, and influenced many of the other Impressionists, particularly Monet, Cassat and Degas.

(*) When the Moulin Rouge cabaret opened in 1889, Toulouse-Lautrec was commissioned to produce a series of posters. These made him an overnight success, and we will return to look at this aspect of his work tomorrow.

(*) Toulouse-Lautrec enjoyed inventive cooking, and built up a collection of favourite recipes – some original, some which he had reworked. These were posthumously published as a cook book by his friend and dealer Maurice Joyant, called L'Art de la Cuisine. The book was republished in English translation in 1966 as The Art of Cuisine – a tribute to his inventive (and wide-ranging) cooking.1

(*) On 9 September 1901, at the age of 36, Henri died from complications due to alcoholism and syphilis at his mother's estate, Château Malromé, in Saint-André-du-Bois. He is buried at the Cimetière de Verdelais, Gironde, a few kilometers from the estate.

After Toulouse-Lautrec's death, his mother, Adèle Comtesse de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa, and his art dealer, Maurice Joyant, continued promoting 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.1

You can read more detail about the life of Henri Toulouse Lautrec and his artistic style if you click here. And tomorrow we will return to see a completely different side to his art......

We leave you with this 4 minute video from Arts&Emotions, which provides a wonderful summary of the diversity of Henri Toulouse Lautrec’s work. 2


  1. With thanks to Wikipedia
  2. With thanks to Arts&Emotions for sharing another of their wonderful videos with us.