Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri de

from The New Book of Knowledge®


The French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born in the town of Albi on November 24, 1864. He came from a noble family and grew up on one of his family's estates. His father was a great sportsman who liked riding horses and hunting falcons. But Henri was small and sickly, and took little part in the many social and sporting activities of his wealthy family. When he was 14 years old, Henri slipped and broke one of his thigh bones, and the following year, he broke the other one. Because of a bone disease, his legs never mended properly. They remained short and stumpy, while the rest of his body grew to full size. His deformed appearance affected him his whole life.

Henri had always liked to draw. After his accident he began to paint a great deal, and art became the center of his life. In 1882 he went to Paris to study. He rented a studio in Montmartre, a colorful section of the city filled with artists, musicians, dance halls, and cabarets. Among his friends were the poor entertainers who lived in the neighborhood and the very rich who went there to be entertained.

Toulouse-Lautrec was not interested in painting grandiose subjects, nor did he like to use posed models. He wanted to depict the life and the people around him. The cafés, dance halls, and theaters of Montmartre provided him with subjects for his paintings. He drew pictures of bartenders and customers, singers, dancers, clowns, and musicians. He used bright, flat colors and forceful, energetic lines to show the rhythm and excitement of Paris nigthlife.

When Toulouse-Lautrec made a picture, he was not interested in putting down the small details of his subject, but rather the most important aspects. He simplified forms, intensified colors, and emphasized lines. For him, line was never simply an outline but was important in its own right. It was decorative and expressive and suggested the movement of his figures.

The bold style of Toulouse-Lautrec was especially suitable for the design and printing of posters. One of the artist's favorite cafés was the Moulin Rouge ("Red Mill"). In 1891 the owner persuaded him to design posters advertising the place. These posters were a great success, and Toulouse-Lautrec went on to create posters for other music halls and cafés.

Beginning in 1898 Toulouse-Lautrec's health began to suffer because he drank too much liquor. While being cared for in a clinic, he made a series of circus drawings from memory. After his recovery, however, he began drinking again. When he died on September 9, 1901, he was only 37 years old. He left behind a vivid picture of life in Paris in the 1890's and raised poster making to the level of art.

Lynne Pudles
University of California, Berkeley

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