Comte Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa (1864 – 1901) was a painter, printmaker, caricaturist, and illustrator whose total immersion in the nightlife of late-19th century Paris brought him the inspiration to produce enticing, elegant images of the decadent affairs of the era.
Toulouse-Lautrec is usually placed as one of the great artists of the post-Impressionist period, along with Paul Cézanne, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, and Georges Seurat.
Christie’s auction house sold his early painting La Blanchisseuse, his early painting for $22.4 million in 2015, setting a record for the artist at auction.
Born into the aristocracy, Toulouse-Lautrec broke both his legs when he was youth, and because of a mysterious medical condition, he grew to be quite short as an adult with undersized legs. He was mocked for his short stature and physical appearance, which may have contributed to his love of alcohol, especially absinthe. The cocktail “Tremblement de Terre” (Earthquake Cocktail) is attributed to Toulouse-Lautrec. It is a potent mixture of half absinthe and half cognac served in in a wine glass. Because of his legs, he walked with a cane, which was hollowed out and kept filled with liquor.
Toulouse-Lautrec frequented prostitutes. He was fascinated by their lifestyle and the lifestyle of the “urban underclass” and incorporated those characters into his paintings. Painter Édouard Vuillard said of Toulouse-Lautrec:
“…the real reasons for his behavior were moral ones. Lautrec was too proud to submit to his lot as a physical freak, an aristocrat cut off from his kind by his grotesque appearance. He found an affinity between his condition and the moral penury of the prostitute.”
The women in brothels inspired Toulouse-Lautrec. He would frequently visit one located in Rue d’Amboise. He created 100 drawings and 50 paintings inspired by the life of these women. In 1892 and 1893, he created a series of two women in bed called Le Lit.
“A model is always a stuffed doll, but these women are alive. I wouldn’t venture to pay them the hundred sous to sit for me, and god knows whether they would be worth it. They stretch out on the sofas like animals, make no demand and they are not in the least bit conceited. I have found girls of my own size! Nowhere else do I feel so much at home.”
He was friends with Oscar Wilde. When Wilde faced imprisonment in Britain, Toulouse-Lautrec became a very vocal supporter of him, and his portrait of Wilde was painted the same year as Wilde’s trial.
By 1899, Toulouse-Lautrec’s alcoholism began to take its toll. His family had him committed a sanatorium for three months. While he was committed, he drew 39 circus portraits. After his release, he returned to the Paris studio.
In September 1901, he died from complications from alcoholism and syphilis at his family’s estate, Château Malromé. He was just 36 years old. His last words were “Le vieux con!” (The old fool!). The syphilis was contracted from a favorite prostitute who was the subject of several of his paintings.
In Popular culture, Toulouse-Lautrec was portrayed by José Ferrer in the film Moulin Rouge (1952).
In the James Bond spoof Casino Royale (1967), Peter Sellers dresses as Toulouse-Lautrec for the amusement of Ursula Andress. And in Revenge Of The Pink Panther (1978): Inspector Clouseau (Sellers again) disguises himself as Toulouse-Lautrec.
Toulouse-Lautrec is a French biopic where he is played by Régis Royer.
In Moulin Rouge! (2001), in which the artist is a supporting character, he is portrayed to perfection by John Leguizamo. And in Midnight In Paris (2011), he is again a supporting character, this time portrayed by Vincent Menjou Corte.
The Musée Toulouse-Lautrec owns the most extensive collection of his works.