TOULOUSIE -LAUTREC Henri De
Henri de ( 18641901). French painter, born in Albi; died at the Château de Malromé at Céleyran, one of his childhood haunts. Lautrec was the descendant of a family that traced its origin back to the Counts of Toulouse, defenders of the Albigensian Cathari, and the Viscounts of Lautrec. Count Alphonse, his father, was an original personality, passionately fond of falcon hunting, exotic weapons, horses and carriages. His disguises and games, carried out with the unalterable seriousness of a totally assured man, foreshadowed the wry humour of the painter, his absolute straightforwardness to the point of violence, his stubbornness of will, his wholehearted participation in every act of life. Lautrec's childhood was quite normal. Except for a short period of schooling at the Lycée Condorcet in Paris, it was spent in his family's country house. His studies were directed by his mother. He began drawing very early, filling the margins of his copybooks with caricatures of his parents, his teachers, his cousins, the animals he observed; he showed a special predilection for horses and applied himself to drawing whole sequences of the same subject, to study its variations and different aspects. Two falls, at Albi in 1878, and at Barèges in 1879, in which he broke both legs, left him after months of immobility, completely deformed, his torso supported by two weak and shortened legs. From his convalescences came letters and travel notebooks addressed to cousins or friends, whose gaiety reveals a moving self-control. Not only did he not complain, he even stressed his disability, as if to discourage all compassion in advance. He made every effort to behave like a normal man. In his drawings, based upon remarkable observation, he showed great interest in the vitality and movement of people. Acting upon the advice of the animal painter René Princeteau, a friend of his father, he began painting and discovered a new medium in colour. The influence of this first teacher lasted for two or three years, and in many respects was decisive. Being affected himself by a physical handicap -he was a deaf mute -- Rent Princeteau presumably brought a special comprehension and attention to the formation of the young cripple. In his first works, Artillerymen and Cuirassiers on Horse- back, reminiscences of manœuvres that had taken place near his family's estate, Lautrec made use of an abbreviated and flexible technique of small divergent brush strokes, borrowed from his teacher, which was far from the systematic disintegration of tones of Impressionism, but which lent itself to improvisation. In 1882, having received his family's permission to devote himself entirely to painting, he came to Paris to complete his training. He worked at first in the studio of Princeteau and underwent the influence of John Lewis Brown and Forain. In 1883 he entered the École Nationale des Beaux-Arts in the studio of Cormon, a mediocre painter who did prehistoric reconstructions, but was of a tolerant mind, and with whom he worked intermittently until 1885. It was in this studio that he met Emile Bernard, Anquetin and Van Gogh, who impressed him deeply. In 1887, having already lived two years in Montmartre, he set up his studio in the Rue Caulaincourt, on the corner of the Rue Tourlaque. He was next door to the Goupil (*) print shop, where he encountered Maurice Joyant, his former schoolmate at the Lycée Condorcet, who became the chief defender of his work. Lautrec frequented the ballrooms and cabarets of Montmartre, in particular the 'Mirliton', where Bruant sang his social ballads and greeted his clients with offensive remarks. Lautrec illustrated Bruant's most famous songs: At Betignolles, At Belleville, At Saint-Lazare; on the walls of the cabaret he painted dancing scenes, in which La Goulue appeared for the first time; finally, under the influence of Bruant and Raffaelli, he executed realistic works: Gueule de Bois, posed by Suzanne Valadon, and A la Mie.
Nevertheless, he did not give in to the sentimentality of the slums. He was so intensely interested in the character of his models, whoever they were, that he gave them a remarkable dignity. In the garden of Père Forest, neighbouring his studio, he painted a series of portraits of women out of doors, from Montmartre models and prostitutes whose names or nicknames are barely known: Hélène V., Augusta, Gabrielle, the policeman's daughter, Berthe the Deaf, Casque d'Or, Honorine P., the woman with the gloves. These portraits, rich in psychological and human insight, enabled Lautrec to perfect his pictorial technique. Observing his model in the crude light of day, he accustomed himself to considering it as a whole, without any shadow whatever. He did not think, like the Impressionists, of studying the variations that the time of the day brings to things; he never resorted to chiaroscuro. For him, whose curiosity was concerned with human beings alone, light had only one rôle: to illuminate, not to alter vision or to make changing what is fixed and full. This is why he was led to create the cold and ideal light of which Pierre MicOrlan speaks, and which enabled him to search the face of man and to strip it of its secrets. Thus he presented the model in a sort of moral and psychological nakedness. He did not paint the representative of a profession or a class, but a being whose destiny appears unique in his attitudes and his face. He rejected everything inessential, sometimes setting the scene precisely, but without ever allowing the setting to capture attention and play more than the environmental rôle assigned to it. All the persons whose individuality he fixed can be found in the large compositions of dancing at the Moulin de la Galette and the Moulin Rouge. Here he tried to bring out the generic features of his models and to give a collective representation of a milieu. These works obey a rhythm that transfigures them, that of the dance, and the dance itself is personified by La Goulue or Jane Avril. These faces, which haunted him or were familiar to him, took on a special intensity as they touched common life. La Goulue, with her partner Valentin le Désossé, is one of Lautrec's most powerful creations and she inspired him to do a host of drawings and pictures. For Lautrec she represented the perfect identity between the human being and his function. But outside the temple where her cult was celebrated she was no longer anything and went from degradation to degradation. On the other hand the personalities of Jane Avril, Yvette Guilbert, May Belfort, May Milton, and later of the actresses Jeanne Granier, Marcelle Lender, Berthe Bady and many others, unfolded as their art evolved. Thus Lautrec attached himself to beings whom he found exceptional and applied himself to discovering their unique features. He was the first to follow the idolatrous cult of the star, an exceptional being, a superior animal who attracts all the interest in a show. He brought out her definitive features by emphasizing them; and one can see, for example, a great actress like Yvette Guilbert become the incarnation of Lautrec's representation of her, which deeply shocked her at first.
Even more personal were the solutions Lautrec brought to other spheres of plastic expresson. The appeal that theatres had for him caused him to execute, simultaneoualy with some theatrical settings that have not come down to us, programme covers, and more particularly posters. In these productions he was not less concerned with making a work of art than he was before a canvas. Advertising, which at the beginning resorted only to a rather crude form of art, thus passed to a higher level. Bonnard was the first to have achieved delicate harmonies of shades and subtle design, suggested to him by his taste for Persian fabrics. Chéret created illusion and obsession with lightness and verve. Lautrec's admiration for Japanese prints and the recollection of certain compositions of Degas enabled him to adjust even more completely to mural requirements. He broadened and deepened his pitiless drawing and made it more effective through the arabesque of his foregrounds. His few colours were clear, and applied boldly, and at once established the composition as a whole. Thus in an extreme simplification he gave the silhouette and the movements of his subject the greatest power. The pictures of La Goulue, Bruant, Jane Avril, and Caudieux resulted in a creation of types. The presence that commands attention on the wall with explosive force, Lautrec preserved even in his works of smaller dimensions, almost interior posters, like the pictures of May Belfort and May Milton, the Confetti poster, 'based upon Jeanne Granier's smile', and most of the lithographs in colour. In his black-and-white lithographs, on the contrary, he broke the line and produced a crumbling of form.
Lautrec's interest was not confined to the theatre, music hall, circus, ballroom and bar. With his cousin Gabriel Tapié de Céleyran, who was then a medical student, he frequented the hospital where the famous surgeon Péan operated, capturing his movements with a reporter's curiosity. A few years later, he developed a passion for sporting circles; he followed the training of champions at the Buffalo cycleracing track, operated by his friend the humorist Tristan Bernard, making sketches of this still unexplored world which he re-created in lithographs and posters. He attended the hearings of great trials. He was extremely fond of travelling and organized his tours with a personal and amusing touch, always dragging along some friend. To go to Bordeaux he embarked every year at Havre and took freighters going to Africa. Once, through admiration for a lady passenger, he went on as far as Lisbon, whence he returned via Toledo, discovering in El Greco the painter who impressed him most, with Cranach and the Japanese. During one of his numerous trips to England, he fell into the midst of the tragedy of Oscar Wilde, whose prodigious swollen night owl's face he drew with a few strokes. In the clearness of his vision, the courage of his analysis, Lautrec renewed all the themes he treated. Thus the world of prostitution, which had already inspired Constantin Guys and Degas, furnished him with a completely new repertoire of forms. Besides, he attached the greatest importance to this subject. But he was careful not to create a useless scandal and kept all canvases related to it secret. At his exhibition at the Manzi-Joyant Gallery in 1896, he assembled these pictures in a first-floor room to which he alone had the key, and he showed them only to visitors who asked to see them. Almost all of these works, which remained in his studio, are in the Albi Museum. In them Lautrec depicted the atmosphere of the houses with details of exact truthfulness, but as an almost normal and natural life. He was interested in prostitutes and their way of life, without ever alluding to the profession they exercised; he suggested nothing and dramatized nothing. He who hated professional models and their conventional poses found here an ideal subject of observation: the sight of nudes at liberty, unconstrained. He was interested in the types, the customs, the rules of this world situated outside common morality.
He enjoyed the company of this relaxed humanity offered to his analysis. He felt at home in these houses, readily established himself there for several days, receiving friends and working assiduously, living in fraternal sympathy with these beings degraded like himself and alive like himself. This part of his work, alien to all passion or spectator's emotion, is a faithful transcription, accurate beyond all picturesqueness. These personages transcend their condition and partake of the universal.
Beginning in 1898, Lautrec's health deteriorated. Over-indulgence in alcohol extinguished his prodigious vitality; his mood became irritable, the prey of horrible obsessions; he hardly worked at all. Once, after in especially serious crisis, he was taken to a nursing home in Neuilly for a cure. He could not bear the loss of freedom, and to prove that he was still himself, he executed from memory, by a tremendous effort of will, the series of coloured-pencil Circus drawings, a synthesis of his most precious recollection of the rings he had frequented passionately since his youth. Restored to normal life, he applied himself to perfecting his past work. In a final effort he undertook to renew his technique. Having started from analysis to develop a linear construction so expressive that it needed only a coloured drawing, taking advantage of the natural ground of cardboad or planes of highly diluted colours, in his last works he came to paint with thick pastes and construct large planes in conflict with each other.
Toulouse-Lautrec was above all an independent. He had friends but never tried to form pupils or disciples. He hated all artistic theories and participated in no movement; nevertheless, he was completely of his time and succeeded in seizing its fundamental problems by instinct. An implacable enemy of old techniques and traditional recipes, he gave a new vision of reality, in all freedom, unconcerned with influencing anyone, and he always considered young painters like Bonnard, Vuillard or Vallotton as his equals. While he admired Renoir and Monet, he felt infinitely closer to Degas and to Manet, who was more involved in the life of his time. For Lautrec, only the human figure counted, and he deplored Monet's early abandonment of the portrait. Later Gustave Moreau would urge his pupils to see a figure by Lautrec, 'all painted in absinthe'. This advice was followed, not only by the Fauves, who, after Lautrec's example, remembered that line is both drawing and colour, but also by a young Spaniard, Pablo Picasso, newly arrived from Barcelons, who would draw from the work of his illustrious predecessor examples to reinforce the melancholy and disenchanted vision he had then formed of the universe. While Lautrec is, then, in his whole work, inseparable from his time, in his last works he had a presentiment of the requirements of the new century, at the dawn of which he died, on September 9th, 1901, at the age of thirty-seven.
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