No one more personifies the city of Paris than the artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, the vision he created in his intimate portraits of its amoral hinterland and the many posters he designed to promote its willingly indulged but often best forgotten nightlife is the Paris of popular imagination that endures to this day, through his work and that of a thousand imitators
Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec was born on 24 November 1864, the son of the Comte Alphonse Charles de Toulouse-Lautrec.
He was then a scion of the aristocracy and one born to rule – but it wasn’t to be.
Being from a world of privilege and opportunity did not protect the young Henri from the ravages of ill-health, disease, and disability.
He had a genetic disorder that stunted his growth and left him with the legs of a child and the body of a man, and standing at just 4’8” he was to become obsessed with what he considered his grotesque form, and in particular his over-sized genitalia.
Unable to participate in the manly and athletic pursuits of a young aristocrat, with the prospect of a good marriage slim and a career in the army out of the question he indulged his passion for art and the wonderful talent he had, acknowledged from an early age, for drawing and illustration.
By the early 1880’s he was living in Paris where his family connections had secured for him a place studying under the leading portrait artist Leon Bonnat and he studied long and hard but he had also been absorbed by the city being particularly drawn to the artistic milieu of South Bank cafe society and the nightlife of Montmartre which offered a world of fantasy and glitter, a theatre of non-conformity fuelled by alcohol and other stimulants.
He felt comfortable in the company of exotic dancers, drag queens, homosexuals, prostitutes and others shunned by society.
A place where a freak of nature, as he often described himself would be accepted with little said.
It wasn’t quite like that – the prostitutes he so adored often had fun at his expense but then they were all marked out for mockery and derision beyond the confines of their own existence.
They were freaks right enough, and those from respectable society who frequented their establishments and sought their interest, hypocrites.
He saw the moral bankruptcy of bohemian and hedonistic Paris not dissimilar to the physical deformity he had to endure, something that at its heart lay a thing of beauty.
Art and prostitutes were his life and alcohol the fuel that sustained it.
His love of the Green Fairy, or Absinthe, the supposedly hallucinogenic spirit is well known but he was no less fond of wine, whisky and beer, and he would drink throughout the day and long into the night even hollowing out the inside of his cane so he could have suitable libation with him at all times.
But his alcoholism did not seem to affect the quality of his art or slow his prodigious output and in 1891 he was commissioned to produce a poster for the recently opened Moulin Rouge featuring its star can-can dancer, La Goulue.
It was a success and similar commissions soon followed for the Folies Bergere and other cabaret venues and events around the city.
Indeed, it is his posters that captured so evocatively La Belle Epoque that Lautrec is best remembered today turning as they did the poster into an art form to be copied by his contemporaries and beyond making Paris the city of indulgence and love without parallel anywhere in the world.
Yet it is in his paintings so simplistic in their beauty that his true genius lay portraying with a light touch and delicate brushstrokes great sensitivity for his subjects in particular the intimate relationship of women to their bodies and each other.
Henri Toulouse-Lautrec died on 9 September 1901, aged 36, as a result of complications arising from syphilis and alcoholism.
But Paris remains eternal – the City of Light and the City of Toulouse-Lautrec.