The scene Lautrec stepped into was in the working-class district known as Montmartre, notorious for its thieves and brothels as well as its hangouts for avant-garde artists and literary anarchists. In 1884 Lautrec was a 20-year-old student in the atelier of the painter Fernand Cormon. At the time, the French art world was divided between academic painters like Cormon, who exhibited their work at the Salon des Artistes of the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture, and the upstart Impressionists and other radicals, who showed their paintings at the new Salon des Indépendants.
The radicals had been attacking official French culture for a generation, ever since poet Charles Baudelaire urged painters to depict modern life and painter Gustave Courbet declared that “art must be dragged through the gutter.” Lautrec’s teacher, Cormon, painted large tableaux of the Stone Age, but he knew his students were drawn to the street life beyond his atelier, and he tolerated their forays into the “gutter.” Soon enough, Lautrec was painting by day and carousing by night, sketch pad in hand. Within a decade he would be famous for his spectacular posters of the Moulin Rouge and other Parisian dance halls. More than a century later, his black-stockinged, high-kicking dancers with their layered petticoats and plumed hats remain among the most popular and striking images of modern art.
With an aristocratic pedigree, Lautrec lived off his family’s diminishing feudal income from land in the Languedoc region of southern France. He was 4 feet 11 inches tall, having been born with a disorder—most likely from family inbreeding— that gave him a normal torso but shortened legs. He quipped that he could get falling-down drunk without harm, being so close to the floor.
Witty and gregarious, Lautrec liked to be the center of attention. But his heavy drinking and often outrageous behavior caused one close friend, fellow artist François Gauzi, to comment, “Lautrec is seen only as a midget . . . a drunken, vice-ridden court jester whose friends are pimps and girls from brothels.” His reputation was hardly redeemed by his friendships with such other social outcasts as Vincent van Gogh and the anarchist writer Felix Fénéon, who had bombed a café in Paris. But Lautrec chose his society with an eye on posterity, and posterity has returned the favor. His life was romanticized in John Huston’s 1952 film Moulin Rouge, with José Ferrer as Lautrec, and laid bare in Julia Frey’s 1994 biography, Toulouse Lautrec: A Life. His world and his wild palette were evoked again in Baz Luhrmann’s 2001 film, also titled Moulin Rouge.His art is currently on display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in the exhibition “Toulouse-Lautrec and Montmartre,” which runs through June 12. The exhibition drew more than 9,000 visitors on opening day, March 20—the gallery’s largest first-day attendance in 20 years. Co-organized by the Art Institute of Chicago, where it will be on view July 16 to October 10, the show, sponsored by Time Warner, brings together more than 250 works by Lautrec and his contemporaries.
Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Montfa was born on November 24, 1864, in the provincial town of Albi in southwestern France. His father, Alphonse, le Comte de Toulouse-Lautrec, and mother, Adèle Tapié de Céleyran, were first cousins and descendants of one of the oldest and most prestigious families in France. Alphonse, a passionate hunter and flamboyant eccentric (he once showed up in a tutu for lunch at his parents’ chateau), was a notorious womanizer, who had little time for his wife or son. But Lautrec, an only child (a younger brother died in infancy), was doted on by his devoutly religious mother, and he would remain dependent on her—and resentful of her—for the rest of his brief life. As an adult living in Paris, he often dined with her before heading off for a night of drunken revelry. Among friends he called her “my poor sainted mother,” but when she told him that she’d heard he had been dining with a woman of some elegance, he rebuked the “stupid mistake,” assuring her that “the girl in question is nothing but a tart.”
Lautrec’s father and uncle were talented amateur painters who preferred art that portrayed the animals they hunted and the horses they rode. After some early training in sporting art and a brief, unhappy stint with a master of high-society portraits, the Lautrec who entered Cormon’s atelier showed little sign of originality or greatness. At most, a series of sketches he made for a story by a young friend displayed an eye for telling detail. “I have tried to draw realistically and not ideally,” Lautrec wrote the friend. “It may be a defect, for I have no mercy on warts, and I like to adorn them with stray hairs, to make them bigger than life and shiny.”
As Lautrec became part of the Montmartre scene, he began to be influenced by Impressionism.Atelier students, in fact, often rubbed elbows with the Impressionists and other avant-garde artists at local cafés. Degas, Pissarro, Manet and Cézanne, for example, could be found drinking and arguing at establishments like Le Rat Mort (The Dead Rat) or Le Chat Noir (The Black Cat). But making a mark in a world of such original painters was no easy prospect. Lautrec greatly admired the work of his neighbor Degas, but the elder artist took only passing notice of him, saying some of Lautrec’s studies of women in a brothel “stank of syphilis.”
Lautrec picked the painting of another neighbor, Renoir, to redo in his own fashion. The subject was the Moulin de la Galette, a dance hall at the top of Montmartre’s hill, where shopgirls and laborers showed off their finery and fancy footwork (and pimps and prostitutes lurked in the shadows). Renoir had painted the scene in dazzling Impressionist light, brushing away the Moulin de la Galette’s grimmer realities. For his more realistic Galette (below), Lautrec made sketches at the hall, then painted the final canvas in his studio. It was immediately reproduced as an illustration in Le Courrier français, a popular Paris newspaper, and exhibited at the 1889 Salon des Indépendants. Théo van Gogh, an art dealer, wrote to his brother Vincent about the show: “There are some Lautrecs, which are very powerful in effect, among other things, a Ball at the Moulin de la Galette, which is very good.”
Three years earlier Vincent had briefly studied beside Lautrec in Cormon’s atelier and the two had become friends. Vincent invited Lautrec to take part in an exhibition of new artists in a working-class restaurant in Paris in 1887. On Lautrec’s advice,Vincent left Paris for Arles shortly after, and Théo soon became Lautrec’s first art dealer. (The three, in fact, lunched together in Paris just three weeks before Vincent fatally shot himself in 1890.)
In a letter to Théo from Arles, Vincent had compared one of his own portraits to a Lautrec portrait of a woman in thick white face powder for the stage. The Lautrec (Poudre de Riz, or Rice Powder), he suggested, “would appear even more distinguished by the mutual contrast and . . . my picture would gain by the odd juxtaposition, because that sun-steeped, sunburned quality, tan and air-swept, would show up still more effectively beside all that face powder and elegance.”