Toulouse-Lautrec and the Spirit of Montmartre

 

4.Troupe de Mlle Églantine, commissioned by cabaret dancer Jane Avril to advertise her appearance at the Palace Theatre in London (1896)
Troupe de Mlle Églantine, commissioned by cabaret dancer Jane Avril to advertise her appearance at the Palace Theatre in London (1896)

“Bohemia only exists and is only possible in Paris.”-Henry Muger, French novelist and poet

When Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec moved to Montmartre in 1884, he found himself at the epicenter of a bohemian renaissance. Between 1880 and 1900, artists of all sorts—painters, sculptors, writers, musicians, and intellectuals—descended upon the raucous Parisian neighborhood of Montmartre to revel in its vibrant, unbridled creative energy. Set atop a hill away from the city’s center, Montmartre’s dance halls, cabarets, cafés, and brothels created a racy, rebellious atmosphere that attracted the upper and lower classes alike. Artists the likes of Edgar Degas, Henri Matisse, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Salvdor Dalí, Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, and Claude Monet called the neighborhood home, and drew inspiration from it in their work. Toulouse-Lautrec in particular became synonymous with the Parisian neighborhood, and his work is known for chronicling the dizzying excitement of the era.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901)
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901)

Toulouse-Lautrec was born in 1864 in Albi, France to an aristocratic family. Though he had great economic privilege and was a duke three times over, his life was exceedingly difficult. His parents, Adele and Alphonse, were first cousins, and Toulouse-Lautrec was born with a congenital bone disorder that physicians believe to be the result of inbreeding. When he was in his early teens, he fractured both of his femurs beyond repair, and his legs ceased to grow.  For the remainder of his life, he walked with great difficulty using a cane, and suffered painful toothaches and facial deformities.  His adult-sized torso and child-sized legs made him the subject of tremendous scorn and mockery. He immersed himself in his art, taking up sketching and painting during long periods of recuperation.  Though he was exceptionally talented, his father never supported his decision to become a professional artist, and shamed him throughout his life. His career was, however, championed by his mother, who supported his move to Paris in 1882 to study under the acclaimed painters Léon Bonnat and Fernand Cormon.  When Toulouse-Lautrec moved to Montmartre a few years later, he found himself surrounded by outsiders, rebels, and misfits like himself. It was these people—the prostitutes, cancan dancers, performers, lowlifes, and bourgeois escaping to Montmartre for divergence—that quickly became the subjects of his paintings. He lived among them, loved them, and painted them without judgement. Toulouse-Lautrec called Montmartre home for most of his adult life, and he threw himself into the raucous bohemian culture, drinking heavily and spending his nights in cabarets, cafés, and brothels.

2.Toulouse-Lautrec’s first cabaret advertisement, Moulin Rouge: La Goulue (1891)
Toulouse-Lautrec’s first cabaret advertisement, Moulin Rouge: La Goulue (1891)

As Montmartre’s cabaret scene grew in popularity throughout the 1880s and 1890s, establishments such as the Chat Noir and Moulin Rouge became a gathering place to exhibit new work for avant-garde artists, intellectuals, and musicians. Toulouse-Lautrec was famously commissioned to create his first poster for the Moulin Rouge in 1891, which became an instant popular and critical sensation, making poster advertisements into an art form. He became known as the iconic poster artist of Paris, and was commissioned to advertise famous performers including nightclub owner and performer Aristide Bruant and cancan dancer Jane Avril. Yet, his interest in Montmartre culture was not limited to advertisements: he also created large-scale paintings with nuanced colors and textures depicting the more degenerate aspects of Parisian life. While his work conveys the sexual freedom and spectacle of the era, his paintings of prostitutes and dance hall performers are each created with deep compassion and humanity.

Ambassadeurs: Aristide Bruant dans son cabaret by Toulouse-Lautrec (1892)
Ambassadeurs: Aristide Bruant dans son cabaret by Toulouse-Lautrec (1892)

Toulouse-Lautrec’s time spent carousing in cafés, cabarets, and brothels adversely affected his already fragile health. Though witty and socially dexterous, he was mocked throughout his life and suffered greatly from his physical ailments, and drowned himself in alcohol and sex. He became enamored with a particularly potent cocktail of absinthe and cognac, and even hollowed out his cane so he was never without it. He contracted syphilis from spending years in and out of brothels, which further compounded his health problems. He had a nervous breakdown in 1899, and was committed to a sanitarium.  He died in his mother’s arms in 1901 from complications due to alcoholism and syphilis, leaving behind over 700 canvas paintings, 350 prints and posters, and 5,000 drawings, among other works: a brilliant artistic record of the bohemian spirit of Montmartre.

– Christine Scarfuto

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