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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, by Claire Frèches-Thory, by Anne Roquebert, by 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

1.

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 with unusually small hands and feet, an overlarge cranium, receding chin, and slightly fleshy nose and lips. Full grown, he stood at 4 feet, 11inches high.

By conventional standards, then, Lautrec was an exceedingly ugly man, a fact which the caricaturist in him saw only too well. “Look at that shape absolutely totally lacking in elegance, that big behind, that potato nose….” Such self-deprecating jokes masked an undercurrent of permanent sadness:

When it starts to get dark I wait to find out whether Jeanne d’Armagnac [his cousin] will come near my bed. Sometimes she comes, and I listen to her speak, not daring to look at her, she is so tall and beautiful and I am neither tall nor beautiful.

In art he found relief from his physical and mental afflictions. After breaking his left leg in May 1878, he writes that he is drawing and painting so much that “my hand gets tired of it.”

Lautrec started his artistic career at the age of eighteen in the traditional way, by preparing for the entrance examination to the Ecole des Beaux Arts in the atelier of a highly respectable academic artist. After a brief spell with the portrait painter Léon Bonnat in the spring and summer of 1882, he spent nearly five years with Fernand Cormon, years during which, in his mother’s words, he worked “like a dog.” Along the way he lost interest in the Ecole des Beaux Arts and everything it stood for.

But not at first. Lautrec’s early letters give no indication that he was either aware of the Impressionists or went to their exhibitions. Nor did he show the slightest interest in avantgarde concerns such as the theoretical application of line and color or the painting of light. Instead, he painted in the wishy-washy juste milieu style of Jules Bastien-Lepage, constructing his paintings by the traditional method of transferring charcoal preparatory drawings to canvas by means of tracings.

According to Gale Murray, Lautrec’s gradual emergence as an avantgarde artist in the years 1885–1886 coincided with the “wind of revolt” from Durand-Ruel’s gallery, where the Impressionists exhibited. But elsewhere she makes it clear that the “wind of revolt” came from quite a different direction, one much closer to Cormon’s atelier in the working-class district of Montmarte. Lautrec was actually “discovered” (we can use the tired expression because he himself writes about a hoped-for “lucky break”) not by an art critic or gallery owner but by an entertainer. This was the singer Aristide Bruant, who in 1885 took over the premises of a dive called Le Chat Noir on the Boulevard Rochechouart in Montmartre, rechristening it Le Mirliton.

The songs that made Bruant famous were dramatic monologues rasped out in working-class Parisian slang to a mixed audience of local types, artists, writers, and journalists. “Bourgeois? We eat ‘em alive at the Mirli!” In his novel Paris, Zola described Bruant (“Legras”) singing at the Mirliton:

Gas jets without globes flamed, scalding the open air, furiously heating the thick, stagnant vapour, made by breath and the smoke from pipes. One could see through that blur flushed, sweaty faces, while the acrid odour of all those crammed-in people increased the drunkenness, the cries of which the audience whipped up each new season…

Legras had just appeared on the platform, and his repertoire, his flowers of the street, completed the explanation of his success, songs in which the excrement and the suffering of the lower depths, all of the abominable plague of the social hell, hurled and spit their evil in foul words of blood and fire.

As Zola goes on to describe in detail, Bruant’s songs were filthy—much more explicit than anything that would be widely acceptable today. They chronicle the lives and messy ends of pimps, prostitutes, and thieves in the Saint-Lazare prison or under the guillotine at La Roquette. A forerunner of Kurt Weill and Jacques Brel, he lived until 1925. His recordings are still available.

Murray convincingly demonstrates that there exists a close correspondence between many of Lautrec’s paintings and lithographs from the second half of the 1880s and Bruant’s realistic evocation of the miseries of proletarian life. The paintings Bruant bought for his own collection and then hung at Le Mirliton. The lithographs he used as illustrations in his house publication, also called Le Mirliton.

A Montrouge—Rosa la Rouge (1886, Barnes Foundation) illustrates Bruant’s tale of a red-haired street-walker who lures her victims into a dark doorway, then gives a whistle to her pimp, who steps out of the darkness to slit the client’s throat.

When she gets a “John” in a corner,
Me, I’m right there…not far at all…
Andthe next day the cop finds “red” all right,
At Montrouge.

Lautrec’s picture shows a depraved creature all the more frightening because her straggly orange hair hangs in front of her face as she looks over her shoulder to make sure her pimp is in position. We can point to visual precedents for such socially realistic themes in the work of other artists in Lautrec’s circle such as Theophile Alexandre Steinlen and Jean-François Raffaëlli, but Lautrec alone captures the low, angry growl of Bruant’s delivery.

What is more, Lautrec adapted his style of illustration to each song. In A Montrouge the paint is applied as hurriedly as the tale it is used to depict, while the delicately drawn lithograph illustrating the song “A Saint-Lazare” perfectly captures the wistful tone of the whore’s lament for her pimp.

Lautrec was not the first artist habitually to use the cheap industrial material of cardboard as a support, but together with his medium of pigment thinned with turpentine (“peinture à l’essence“) his method of painting has to be understood as a conscious alternative to the more expensive and more middle-class medium of oil on canvas. It was therefore ideally suited to his low-life subject matter.

A comparison between Lautrec’s Au Bal du Moulin de la Galette (Art Institute of Chicago) of 1889 with Renoir’s famous painting of the same subject thirteen years earlier underscores Lautrec’s commitment at this stage in his career to depicting the psychological reality of contemporary urban life. Both pictures show the famous Montmartre dance hall, and Lautrec obviously had the composition of the Renoir in mind when constructing his picture, but there the similarities end.

Renoir sets his scene on a summer’s afternoon in the garden. Radiant young men and women dance, talk, drink, and flirt together in a utopian vision of a working-class community. Lautrec, by contrast, shows the inside of the Moulin de la Galette in winter, late at night, when only the seediest types shuffle around the dance floor. No eyes meet. Women dance with women while predatory men scout their prey and a uniformed soldier from the Garde Municipale keeps some of the rougher trade in order.

This cold and alienated world is painted in sickly colors and thin, streaky paint, like rain on an unwashed window. We are a long way from the pop of champagne corks or the rustling petticoats of cancan dancers.

2.

In 1887 Lautrec published his lithograph “Sur le Pavé: le trottin” on the cover of Bruant’s Le Mirliton. Outside a pissoir a lecherous old man accosts a shopgirl whom he has been following, and the caption reads:

How old are you, little one?”

Fifteen, Sir…”

Hmm! already a little oldish looking….”

The enticement of very young working-class girls into prostitution by middle-class men is a theme that places Lautrec firmly among the social realists. And yet, only six years later, in 1893, in a lithograph for another cover of Le Mirliton entitled “Le petit trottin,” something has changed. The illustration shows the same situation—lecher meets shopgirl—but this time the encounter takes place on equal terms, carefree and lighthearted, of no more consequence than a wink and a giggle. What happened in between?

  1. 1

    This volume contains 608 letters, 300 of which have never been published before. The letters range from April 28, 1871, when Lautrec was six years old, to July 23, 1901, seven weeks before his death.

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