Friday, August 19, 2011

Artist of the Week: Toulouse Lautrec

Toulouse Lautrec was a French painter, printmaker, draftsman, and illustrator, whose immersion in the colorful and theatrical life of fin de siècle Paris yielded exciting, elegant and provocative images of the modern and sometimes decadent life of those times. Toulouse-Lautrec is known along with Cézanne, Van Gogh, and Gauguin as one of the greatest painters of the Post-Impressionist period. The French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec depicted the Parisian night life of cafés, bars, and brothels, the world that he inhabited at the height of his career. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, a direct descendant of an aristocratic family of a thousand years, was born on November 24, 1864, at Albi, France, to Alphonse-Charles and Adèle Zoë. The Lautrec family was very wealthy and kept apartments in Paris as well as country estates around Albi, not far from Toulouse in south-west France. However, the child's aristocratic stock did him much more harm than good. Though his parents seemed complete opposites, his father, a wild eccentric hunter of women as well as animals; his mother, quiet and devout, they were in fact first cousins. And although he at first appeared a beautiful and healthy child, young Henri had inherited a congenital weakness of the bones. He was a delicate child, but led a normal life until he was fourteen. Then, in minor accidents, Toulouse Lautrec broke first one thigh bone and then the other. The bones did not heal properly due to a rare bone disease and when he could finally walk again, he had a normal torso with abnormally stunted legs. In spite of the popular legend that Lautrec remained a midget, he did in fact grow to over five feet tall. It was his large head and ill-proportioned body which made him appear dwarfish. Since Toulouse Lautrec had shown talent in drawing as a very young child, his parents encouraged him to take lessons with various teachers in Paris. Toulouse-Lautrec's father and uncle were accomplished draughtsman, and the young Henri seems to have received some encouragement from them. By the age of 14, he was being tutored by a professional artist, Rene Princeteau, a deaf-mute who specialized in horses and hunting subjects. In his late teens, Lautrec was honored to become a student of the artist Fernand Cormon, whose studio was located on the hill above Paris. He stayed in the Montmartre section of Paris, the center of the cabaret entertainment and bohemian life that he loved to paint. Circuses, dance halls, nightclubs, racetracks and Parisian brothels, all these spectacles were set down on canvas or made into lithographs. Toulouse-Lautrec was very much a part of all this activity. He would sit at a crowded nightclub table, laughing and drinking, and at the same time he would make swift sketches. Toulouse-Lautrec preserved his impressions of these places and their celebrities in portraits and sketches of striking originality and power. Outstanding examples are "La Goulou Entering the Moulin Rouge" ,(shown) "Jane Avril Entering the Moulin Rouge", and "Au salon de la rue des Moulins". Toulouse-Lautrec moved freely among the dancers, the prostitutes, the artists, and the intellectuals of Montmartre. From 1890 on his tall, lean cousin, Dr. Tapié de Celeyran, accompanied him, and the two, depicted in At the Moulin Rouge (shown here), made a colorful pair. Despite his deformity, Toulouse-Lautrec was extremely social and readily made friends and inspired trust. He came to be regarded as one of the people of Montmartre, for he was an outsider like them, fiercely independent, but with a great ability to understand everything around him. Among the painter's favorite subjects were the cabaret dancers Yvette Guilbert, Jane Avril, and La Goulue and her partner, Valentin le Désossé, the contortionist.

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