Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was a legendary, aristocratic, alcoholic, syphilitic dwarf; renowned for his groundbreaking depiction of the decadently debauched tragedy of Paris’ turn-of-the-century bohemian nightlife. Born of a consanguineous marriage between his aristocratic, first cousin parents, Toulouse-Lautrec was unable to participate in activities fitting of his class, such as horse riding, due to his physical disabilities. He substituted such activities with painting voraciously.
His artistic talent was consequential of Toulouse-Lautrec abandoning his privileged life for a hardened, seedy one in bohemian Paris. It was in the avant-garde Montmartre district that Toulouse-Lautrec developed his Post-Impressionist style, and refined his drinking habit; “Of course one should not drink much, but often.” Toulouse-Lautrec’s drink of choice was hallucinogenic absinthe, and the folkloric claim surrounding his life was that he hollowed out his cane in order to store alcohol inside. It was also in this ‘promised land’ that Toulouse-Lautrec discovered the colourful and provocative underbelly of glamorous French society, as he would prowl the alleys, bars and brothels for inspiration. Resultantly, Toulouse-Lautrec’s art began to chronicle the Parisian demi-monde who had eluded him in the grand hotels and refined chateaus particular of his class.
As Toulouse-Lautrec’s artistic reputation grew, many haunts would commission advertising posters from him. Subsequently, two of the foremost developments in Western culture coincided within his career: the birth of modern printmaking, and the explosion of nightlife culture. Through his posters Toulouse-Lautrec transformed the courtesans into cabaret celebrities, elevated the advertising lithograph to the realm of high art, and funded his lifestyle of paintings and prostitutes. The cabaret most entwined with Toulouse-Lautrec, was the equally fabled Moulin Rouge. In addition to contracting his posters, the hall would display his paintings and leave a reserved table for him.
During the late 19th century, prostitution was prominent socially and artistically, and in both regards Toulouse-Lautrec was highly active. Due to the embarrassment that his physical appearance caused him, Toulouse-Lautrec would frequent the houses of tolerance (a regulated, if not archaic, form of legalised prostitution) for sexual activity. He found the dissolute nature of the brothels appealing, along with the prosaic manner of the transactions and the naturalness of the prostitutes. It was from their tragic beauty that Toulouse-Lautrec found his most moving inspiration; “I have tried to do what is true and not ideal.”
This documentarian view of the prostitutes was enabled by the fact that Toulouse-Lautrec was recording the life he shared with them. He would take up tenancy in the brothels; not least of all for the shock he gave his acquaintances when they learned of his place of residence. Within the brothel he was more than a customer, he was accepted as a fellow outcast, and permitted to paint freely. This was aided by his close relationship with the prostitutes, which allowed an incomparable insight into their lives. The most intimate of his works would depict them in private moments, such as lesbianism between the prostitutes or whilst they were preparing for clients. So whilst they facilitated his, what would otherwise have been solo erections, Toulouse-Lautrec immortalised the prostitutes in all their ugliness and beauty, with immense honesty and dignity.
Dignity was one word that would never have been used to describe prostitution. Through his sketches of everyday tasks undertaken by the prostitutes, Toulouse-Lautrec placed them in the penumbra of what society considered them. For his blunt, non-idealised depiction of prostitutes, Toulouse-Lautrec inadvertently made himself more of a feminist than most modern-day so called ‘feminists.’ His work embodied the primary point of feminism; that women should be allowed to live their life how they choose and free of judgment. This is an idea which, in between the Suffragettes, the bra burners and Germaine Greer, has been completely lost. Instead feminism has just become another measure for society to judge women, along with their life choices, against.
The directness and honesty of Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings also testifies to his love of women; “Love is when the desire to be desired takes you so badly that you feel you could die of it.” Whether the prostitutes were fabulous or fallen, Toulouse-Lautrec demonstrated a generosity toward them. His paintings were personal and humanistic, revealing the sadness and humor hidden beneath the gaslights of Montmartre. He also had an uncommonly sympathetic propensity for the most marginalised women within society. This humanity was most likely imbued in him by virtue of his own physical disabilities, as well as a seeming rejection of the aristocracy from which he came.
He died at 36 from complications of alcoholism and syphilis; despite a short life, Toulouse-Lautrec is highly regarded for his insightful depictions of the extraordinary bohemian characters who inhabited the late-1800s Montmartre social scene. His modern subject matter of prostitutes as figures of empowerment rather than degradation remains unmatched, and helped define artistry as a profession of moral critics of conventional society. Ultimately though, whilst his unexpected destiny of a sleazy life resulted in his early death, it also inspired Toulouse-Lautrec’s genius and allowed his immortality.
Words by Georgia Riessen