Lautrec’s Bitter Theater

The Letters of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

edited by Herbert D. Schimmel, Introduction by Gale B. Murray
Oxford University Press, 444 pp., $59.00

Toulouse-Lautrec 1991–January 19, 1992 Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, February 21–June 1, 1992

an exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, London, October 10,

Toulouse-Lautrec Yale University Press

catalog of the exhibition by Richard Thomson and Claire Frèches-Thory and Anne Roquebert and Danièle Devynck
South Bank Centre/ Reunion des musées nationaux, distributed by, 557 pp., $65.00

Toulouse-Lautrec: The Formative Years, 1878–1891

by Gale B. Murray
Oxford University Press (Clarendon Press), 289 pp., $120.00

Nightlife of Paris: The Art of Toulouse Lautrec

by Patrick O'Connor
Universe Books, 79 pp., $25.95


When Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec died at the age of thirty-six in 1901 after a working life of less than twenty years, he left 737 paintings, 5,084 drawings, more than 300 prints, and 275 watercolors. Clearly the image that has come down to us of the highspirited genius who drank himself to death with the riffraff of bohemian Montmartre, and worked only fitfully, is inadequate.

It seems bound to change this year. A big survey exhibition organized by Richard Thomson continues to attract more than 20,000 visitors per week to London’s Hayward Gallery until January 19, when it will travel to the Grand Palais in Paris. Gale Murray’s meticulously researched study of the chronology of Lautrec’s early paintings has been published in time for the opening of the show, as has an edition of the complete letters, edited by Herbert D. Schimmel.1 Patrick O’Connor’s entertaining picture book on Lautrec and the night life of Paris rather naughtily crops details from the paintings to evoke an evening on the town, from the afternoon café concert to the late-night visit to the brothels.

Murray and Thomson ask how, when, and for what purpose Lautrec’s art was made. They show that far from being an outsider, he had a great success with the advertising and entertainment industries in Paris. Though admittedly his letters tell only part of the story, they are written not by a tortured romantic but by an ambitious, hard-working professional sustained by an affectionate family and by dozens of friendships, in the artistic and theatrical worlds.

Lautrec’s place in the history of art also needs rethinking. If he is regarded, as he often has been, simply as Degas’s most stylish follower, his importance for twentieth-century art is a little hard to gauge. But if he is seen as an artist consciously creating a fusion between the high and low arts of oil painting and popular illustration, who bridged the worlds of the art gallery and commercial advertising, then he anticipated, and with far more talent, the innovations of Andy Warhol and other pop artists.

None of the studies under review is particularly concerned with Lautrec’s difficult life, but we have to start with that life if we are to understand the career, and anyway, his story is full of psychological interest. Lautrec was born in 1864, the only surviving son of the union of two first cousins, Count Alphonse and Countess Marie Adèle de Toulouse-Lautrec Monfa. He grew up on the family estates near Albi but went to school in Paris, where he was treated to Punch and Judy shows, marionette theaters, and the circus.

Long before two slight accidents left his legs permanently stunted at the age of fourteen, his mother and father realized something was physically wrong with him. Medical experts now think that Lautrec suffered from a very rare bone disorder, pycnodysostosis, the result of his parents’ consanguinity. Though his body’s trunk was normal, the disease prevented the growth of his legs and left him…

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