Poor Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Not literally— the storied French painter and lithographer of the nineteenth century was born a dot on a line of formidable counts stretching back, uninterrupted, to Charlemagne. But a silver spoon hardly ever glanced his fleshy lips; his origins in ancestral chateaux were the opening of a condemned circle which looped Toulouse-Lautrec from a wobbly start, to offbeat success, to raw burial in an early grave.
Toulouse-Laurtrec took a nasty fall at fourteen, splintering the bones in his left leg. A year later, the seemingly healthy teen tumbled again, gravely fracturing his right leg. The youngster’s lower extremities were stunted before he began to really develop, and although his torso grew to adult-sized proportions, Toulouse-Lautrec’s height peaked at a not-so-whopping 149 cm (4′ 11″). He further suffered agonising toothaches which rendered his face puffily deformed. Rooted more deeply than in mere clumsiness and growing pains, his structural defects were a dolorous manifestation of a genetic bone disease (commonly known as Toulouse-Lautrec Syndrome today) inherited from his parents, who happened to be the latest pair of two first cousins slapped together to consolidate a family fortune relished since the Crusades.
Runty, crooked noblemen do not excel at shooting stags, stamping out fanciful dressage steps or wooing beauties of the court. And so Henri was largely excluded from the world of sporting, riding and chasing mistresses inhabited by his father, the robust Comte Alphonse de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa. Yet Henri benefitted from the dotings of his demure, pious mother, Adèle Tapié de Celeyran, who took notice of the merits found in her son’s early drawings of equestrian activity. His father and grandfather had dabbled as gentlemen-draughtsmen, and it was not thought below the family’s honour to employ an art instructor to further eke out the sickly scion’s talents.
The marriage of Toulouse-Lautrec’s parents gradually dissolved, and he moved to Paris with his mother, where she appointed the likes of Léon Bonnat and Fernand Cormon as Henri’s mentors. Rather than remain snared in the abyss between his folks, where he never truly fit in anyway, the budding artist eventually took up residence in the most bohemian of Parisian quarters, Montmartre. There he mingled with a retinue of Post-Impressionists, especially Gauguin and Degas, and became fascinated with flat, stylised Japanese prints which invaded Paris during the 1870s. There he also found genuine acceptance in the crusty, glittering corners of the city’s underbelly. The quirky little artist was welcomed warmly into the disreputable sphere of prostitutes and their pimps, compromised cabaret girls, strung out gamblers, absinthe addicts and other equally freakish untouchables of the Belle Epoque.
He slipped comfortably into a cycle of creative zeniths and depressive collapses. The café-concerts and bordellos of Montmartre kept Toulouse-Lautrec steadily employed, designing posters for balls and swinging soirées of dance and music with paint-faced starlets and suggestive chanteuses. He blossomed into the prolific artist we justly exalt today; the master of voyeuristic, flattened space, bold blocks of colour and dashing curved silhouettes— a genius utterly of his time. The café-concerts and bordellos of Montmartre also kept Toulouse-Lautrec steadily supplied with ulcerating booze and fast encounters with hired lovers. He eroded into a perfect alcoholic, prone to gross outbursts and complete with a nagging case of VD; a ragged man jilted by the polite society of his time.
By his thirties, Toulouse-Lautrec was back living with mom after letting his substance abuse and syphillis-related symptoms go completely unchecked. His erratic drunken behaviour worsened, rustling many feathers in the family tree; his father harshly reduced his income, and one uncle even set fire to several of Toulouse-Lautrec’s canvases in storage at a manor house in Albi. The melodrama that had become his life left Toulouse-Lautrec’s art in a state of transition. A looser, more florid style focusing on circus spectacles emerged when the artist’s mother tenderly chose to place him in a sanatorium for three months, yet his output, like his health, continued to rapidly decline.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec died at the age of thirty-six, the causes should by now be evident. Lying weakly in the comfort of his mother’s estate, his last words are often quoted to be, “Je savais, Papa, que vous ne manqueriez pas l’hallali” (I knew, Papa, that you wouldn’t miss the kill), a hunting metaphor and chiding goodbye to his father. Toulouse-Lautrec was dealt a most harrowing hand of cards— a brief sprint from familial disgrace and disease to profound artistic skill, from noxious success and camaraderie to total disintegration. However, he is more than his undoing, more than a sad ending to a sad beginning.
In terms of legacy, he’s rather more a mythological hero. The graphic arts as we see them today would not be without Toulouse-Lautrec, and his perennial drawing of curiosity and praise is well deserved. As so many retrospective exhibitions, academic journals and casually-hung posters in dorm rooms can attest, it was realised acutely after his death that he always was, and will be, one of us. And may emancipation lie in his immortality.
Source: Julia Bloch Frey, Toulouse-Lautrec: A Life