Lautrec, however, seemed driven to squander his glory by drinking himself into the grave. At the height of his success there were nights when he disappeared, eventually dragging himself back through the gutter as if taking Courbet’s prescription quite literally. In one macabre episode, he discovered Victorine Meurent, who had posed naked for Manet’s daring 1863 painting Olympia, living in abject poverty in a top-floor apartment down a Montmartre alley. She was now an old, wrinkled, balding woman. Lautrec called on her often, and took his friends along, presenting her with gifts of chocolate and flowers— as if courting death itself.
Toward the end, hallucinations and paranoia, induced by alcoholism and syphilis, overwhelmed him. On one occasion when he was visiting friends in the country, they heard a shot from his room, and found him sitting on his bed with a pistol, armed against “attacking” spiders. Eventually he was locked up in an asylum, where, like his friend Van Gogh, he continued to work; in a burst of artistic energy, he produced a brilliant series of circus drawings from memory to convince his doctors he was sane. After 11 weeks, he was released, but he was soon drinking again. He spent his last days in his mother’s garden, where he had often painted her, and died in her arms in 1901, shortly before his 37th birthday. In Paris, his spirit lived on. Picasso was making his own sketches of the singer Yvette Guilbert, and he had asked Jane Avril to reminisce about her friend Lautrec. Like him, Picasso was painting scenes of the brothel and the circus, and he was living in Montmartre.