Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is regarded as one of the most innovative artists of all time. He broke the social boundaries of what a proper subject could be by beautifully depicting working-class women that filled the Parisian nightlife. According to Edward Lucie-Smith, a Lautrec scholar, “A few artists have found a place in the popular consciousness...because of the legend created by their lives. Van Gogh and Gauguin are two of these, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is a third.”
Born in 1864 to an aristocratic family in the
Midi-Pyrénées region of France, Lautrec’s parents had ambitions of their only living son maintain the family legacy of avid sportsmanship and be heir to the family title of
Comte de Toulouse-Lautrec. Young Lautrec, however, was a frail child who never demonstrated a penchant for athletics. When he broke both his legs in adolescence, they ceased growing altogether. With an adult torso and child-like legs, Lautrec only grew to 5’ 0“ and developed other physical abnormalities that are now attributed to the rare condition
Pycnodysostosis — now commonly called “Toulouse-Lautrec syndrome” in honor of the afflicted artist.
In lieu of vigorous physical activities, young Lautrec immersed himself in artistic studies. His progress in painting and drawing impressed Rene Princeteau, the well-known sporting artist and family friend, who persuaded Lautrec’s parents to allow him to return to Paris and study under the painter
Léon Bonnat. When Lautrec’s talents were affirmed by both his teachers and peers, his mother had high hopes that her son would become a fashionable and respected painter. In pursuit of artistic prestige, she used their family's influence to gain him entry to the famed Bonnat's studio. T
o the disdain of his mother, however, Lautrec was not attracted to a life of refinement. Lautrec was popular with his fellow students who appreciated his cheerfulness and the fact that he was free with his money. Instead of dwelling with the Parisian elite, Lautrec was drawn to
Montmartre, the area of Paris known for its bohemian lifestyle and the haunt of artists, writers, and philosophers.
Lautrec immersed himself in the Montmartre neighborhood at the time of its greatest glory and remained there for the rest of his life. Whereas the neighborhood had started off as a kind of rustic resort where Parisians went for a change of scenery, by 1880, the year Lautrec moved there, it attracted marginalized creatives and outsiders. Lautrec
broke the social boundaries of what a proper subject could be by beautifully depicting the working-class women who filled the Parisian nightlife. Due to his physical disability, Lautrec shared a common sense of marginalization with his painting subjects, allowing him to better grasp the alienation of the working class in late 19th-century Paris.
The most famous of Lautrec’s oeuvre belongs to a period of intensive study on the subject for which Lautrec is renowned: female performers and prostitutes, whom he documented with his signature naturalistic style. Lautrec’s works were not patronizing or judgmental, and he spent many hours observing his subjects within brothels and barrooms to give his works their truthful edge. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Lautrec never sought to instruct his subjects, he simply presented their lives as he observed and appreciated them.
Despite his short stature, Lautrec was known for his enormous energy and ability to subside on minimal sleep. Unfortunately, both his affection for nightlight and reliance on alcohol quickly took a toll on his health. His career was relatively short-lived, and he died in 1901 at age 36, leaving behind an impactful yet small artistic legacy. Lautrec is a highly celebrated Post-Impressionist artist, with his works appearing in prestigious collections around the world. This colorful, fully-finished painting rivals works by Lautrec from this same period held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Guggenheim in New York, and the Getty Museum in Los Angeles
. In a 2005 auction at Christie's auction house, La Blanchisseuse, his early painting of a young laundress, sold for US $22.4 million — a new record for the artist for a price at auction. Throughout his two-decade-long career, Lautrec was enormously prolific and created 737 canvases, 275 watercolors, 363 prints and posters, 5,084 drawings, some ceramic and stained glass work and an unknown number of lost works. Undeniably, Lautrec helped set the course of avant-garde art and modernism well beyond his short career.