Forty-nine years ago last September there died, at the Chateau of Malromé in southern France, a painter who was best known then—and is widely and unjustly known still—for the excesses of his life. He was Henri-Marie-Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa, one of the great and most individual figures in the story of nineteenth-century French painting. Time has dimmed the irregularity of his life; it was lived in another epoch and two brutal wars have intervened. What remains is his art, to which he was passionately true, and it is in a group of his most characteristic paintings and drawings that his acquaintance will be made at the Art Institute during the next three weeks. The exhibition, the first to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of his death, was assembled by the Knoedler Galleries in New York from the collections of the Albi Museum, for whose benefit the exhibition is being held. This private museum, housed in an ancient episcopal palace, contains a large and representative collection of Toulouse-Lautrec’s work.Toulouse-Lautrec’s illustrious name, one of the most ancient in France, would have been weighty one for anyone to bear; it was especially so for Lautrec, whose dwarfed and grotesque figure shut him off from his own world and sent him to another—the gaudy, disenchanted half-world of night clubs, cabarets, bars, and brothels that was Montmartre at the end of the century. Perhaps it was because the artist felt its burden too heavy upon him that he was known in his new life as Lautrec, a short name that has in it the crispness and understatement of his work. He did not forget his noble lineage, although he never boasted of it, and his conduct was in all respects compatible with it. Those were the days of a rigid double standard and men of his own class were also habitués of Lautrec’s Montmartre.His choice of the area in which he was to fight his battle against the cruel trick that life had played upon him was a natural one. Born of a long line of horsemen and hunters, he had been destined by his eccentric, sporting father to follow in the traditional footsteps of his family. He might have done it, too, if it had not been for the accidental breaking of first one leg and then the other when he was a child; he loved horses and his homeland. But he never had to make the choice between art and the life his father expected him to lead; physically, it was made for him; spiritually, the fact that he was gifted in drawing, even as a child, and that he loved life and movement turned him to the only life left to him—painting. After some formal training in the studios of Bonnat and Cormon in Paris, he took matters into his own hands and rented a studio in the Rue Caulincourt in Montmartre. He didn’t join the artist’s colony there as a protest against the stupidity and stuffiness of academic painting; he seems never to have concerned himself much about such matters and was indifferent to the opinion of all his contemporaries except Degas, whom he revered. He sought it rather as a refuge. Ugly, embittered, and profoundly sensitive concerning his appearance, he felt himself less a freak among other freaks. It is also possible that with his heritage, his intelligence, and his flashing wit he felt himself less ignoble in the presence of those more ignoble still. This, were it true, would have remained his own most secret recompense for the humiliation of his dwarfed and comic body.His tiny figure soon became a familiar one at the Moulin de lad Galette, the Moulin Rouge, le Mirliton, and other spots frequented by men and women in search of pleasure. He was enraptured by the movement and life of the people he encountered: La Goulue, Valentin le désossé, May Belfort, Loie Fuller, Jeanne Avril, and the incomparable Yvette Guilbert—the belle laide
who threatened to sue him until she realized how famous his caricatures had made her.Lautrec brought to the practice of his art great gifts; a penetrating eye, and acute awareness of form, miraculous draughtsmanship, a love of movement, and the savoir vivre
with which he was born. To these was added the compulsion to see everything, to probe to the depths of whatever captured his interest. He learned other things, some of them from Degas: unexpected arrangements, economy of means, the importance of selected detail. These two aristocrats had much in common. They loved the same subjects: horses and women and movement captured in flight. But Lautrec was in no sense a follower of anyone. He was an original artist with a highly individual style that stemmed from the past and thrust forward to the future. He admired Paolo Ucello, Velasquez, El Greco, and Goya, and envied a little, perhaps, the cool perfection of Piero della Francesca. He was excited by Japanese prints, in which he found a fleetness of line and a knowing use of space that prompted him to experiments of his own. His handling of color and his reduction to the minimum of pictorial elements point toward the future.The qualities of caricature and satire predominant in his work are considered by some to be a cruel retaliation on his subjects for his own unhappy fate. He was certainly ruthless and embittered, often malicious and sometimes brutal, but that he was taking revenge upon his models is open to doubt. In such questions there is only one answer to the artist’s intention: his work. And it is hard to find any instance of deliberate cruelty in the gallery of portraits—for they are all portraits—which create Lautrec’s Paris for us. If they are brutal it is with the brutality of life; the life that absorbed the artist to the exclusion of almost everything else. He was haunted by the necessity to reflect its every aspect in his work. That it was not pretty, however exhilarating it may have been, is a concomitant of Lautrec’s life. He was engrossed by the tragedy and sober beauty that lay often beneath the surface of his most degraded subjects. He knew them to the core, with that terrible, all-pervading knowledge which Degas exhibited, and he depicted them almost as impersonally. There is just that shade of awareness of degradation and abysmal tragedy that he, in his own wretchedness, could not fail to impart. He is said, once his interest in someone was aroused, to have followed the subject unceasingly, making innumerable sketches showing every gesture or hint of gesture, before undertaking his picture in his studio. He knew that every element of a human being plays its own subtle part in creating the whole that makes the individual from the type. The nape of a neck, the way the hair grows, the turn of a hand, the manner in which a hat is worn or a skirt lifted, come to spell one person in the endless parade of figures which make up his world.There is, for example, that little scrap of Jeanne Avril, seen, bonneted, from the rear. To one who ever saw her, or who had come to know her through Lautrec’s work, recognition is immediate. There is the magnificent sketch of Yvette Guilbert in her white gown accented with two crisp little wings of black tulle, the inevitable black gloves on the wickedly spread hands, and the naughty expression of the ravaged face. This may be a caricature, but it is done in the grand style.There is, finally, the celebrated painting, Au Salon,
done in one of the brothels of the time where Lautrec lived for the express purpose of giving a true picture of another side of life. Here the unknown emerge as individuals through Lautrec’s genius for capturing the essence of a human being. Seated on red couches that stand out massively against the pale walls, the girls wait, each in an attitude that sets her apart from the others as definitely as do the clashing colors of the négligées. It is a mournful scene that conveys accurately the monotony of empty hours, the latent uneasiness of pause. With his depth of vision, his bold use of color, and his arrangement of figures, Lautrec has made real and immediate a subject as old as man.The underlying sense of sadness, weariness, and boredom in this painting is characteristic of most of Lautrec’s work dealing with the Montmartre figures catering to those in search of pleasure. The smile that must be worn, the dance that must be performed in a hilarious fashion, the song that must be sung provocatively, the clown who must laugh, the coquette who must flirt; all these reveal Lautrec’s acute awareness of the unhappy lot of those paid to amuse.The same adherence to truth is to be found in his portraits, less widely known than his dancers, clowns, singers, circus people, and prostitutes. They present him in a sober vein, however, and convince the doubting more easily of his genius than the Montmartre subjects. They reveal, too, the tenderness and respect he had for many women. His portraits of his mother, who supported him and believed in him to the end, and of his friend Mlle. Dihau, are beautifully organized compositions with a somber harmony that reveals a new facet of Lautrec’s character. His portraits of men are no less brilliant. Those of Louis Pascal and G. Tapié de Céléyran are magnificent characterizations of the man of the world, each with his own characteristic stance or expression and each drawn with a flourish that was Lautrec’s alone.It will be seen that Toulouse-Lautrec was a realist. Both his choice of material and his impersonal treatment of it associate him with that group of writers and painters who believed that the most legitimate aim of art was the portrayal of life. Because of its impersonality, Lautrec’s portrayal, like Degas’, was nearer to truth than the painting of his contemporaries. This despite the fact that he did not work from life. He gathered his material in cabarets and bars, making innumerable rapid sketches from which, with the aid of his prodigious memory, he later fashioned his pictures. He preferred to work on cardboard, which he found sympathetic to his style, or on paper. He made a first draft with his pencil, laying in the outline with his nervous, sparkling, inimitable line. An examination of his drawing shows him moving now easily and smoothly, now hesitating over a nuance of expression as a writer might hesitate over a word or a musician over a note. No one speaks more clearly than he, and it is this very personal articulation of his language that gives his work its dazzling style. Everything unnecessary is trimmed away, yet the statement is never ambiguous. His gifts of drawing and organization are perhaps even clearer in his lithographs, which are among the most masterly in that field and are to be seen in the current exhibition in a group from the collection of Ludwig Charell.Lautrec’s hectic and dissolute life took its toll when he was thirty-seven years old. His pause at bars became more prolonged, despite the efforts of his friends to turn his interest in new directions and so relieve him of the compulsion to alleviate his growing misery through alcohol. After a particularly dangerous collapse he was forcibly removed to a sanitarium, where he remained for several months. His cure was fairly rapid and when he was released he appeared to be much his old self. The necessity to blot out consciousness of his personal feeling of inadequacy was so persistent, however, that he soon returned to drink. His painting at this period took on a new character, seen in one of his last pictures, Aux Courses,
in which he returns to his early love of horses. The style is more solid, the paint used more lavishly than was his custom, but the sparing use of means, the personal manner of speaking, announce Toulouse-Lautrec and no other.The painter dies quietly at Malromé in 1901, leaving behind a prodigious body of paintings, drawings, lithographs, posters, menu and music covers that give him a sure place among great painters. Out of a world that, in a less gifted artist, might have impelled purely topical pictures, Lautrec created works of universal value and beauty—a record of the last carefree days the modern world was to know.Referenced Works of Art
- Yvette Guilbert. Sketch for a poster that was never executed.
Toulouse-Lautrec, French, 1864-1901. The Albi Museum.
- Countess A. de Toulouse-Lautrec. This portrait of the artist’s mother was painted in the salon of the Chateau of Malromé in 1887.
- Chocolat dancing in Achille’s Bar. Humorous drawing done in 1896.
- Au Salon de la Rue des Moulins, 1894. The largest and most important of Lautrec’s Maisons Closes series.
- Jeanne Avril, seen from behind. 1893
- At the Races, painted in 1899, the year of Lautrec’s breakdown, reveals the more solid style in which the artist had expressed interest.