TOULOUSE-LAUTREC: GIANT OF LITTLE-KNOWN FACTS
We all know his short physique and his art. But here’s what you may not know about Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.
1. Was his stunted growth caused by a riding accident when he was young?
No. It was a trifecta of bad luck. 1) By no fault of his own, his parents were first cousins, leaving him with genetic issues and bad health. 2) At thirteen, a fall left him with a broken thighbone. 3) At fourteen, another fall broke his other femur and his legs stopped growing. He topped out at four feet eleven.
2. How was he introduced to the bohemian world of Montmartre, the setting that inspired his art?
Homework. After 17-year-old Toulouse-Lautrec moved to Paris to study art, his teachers sent him to the nights spots up on Montmartre to sketch the patrons. Montmartre not only became the young Lautrec’s garden of earthly delights, it became the Eden from which this misshapen Adam plucked a rib from his side, spun it into a paintbrush, and created a cast of debauched Eves.
3. Was he a well-regarded painter?
Not at all. He was a lowly poster artist doing work for the clubs on Montmartre. His first notoriety came in 1891 with a poster for the Moulin Rouge featuring one of its most notorious dancers, La Goulue (the Glutton). When it came to “bottoms up,” La Goulue double dipped. When she danced, she not only liked to grab patrons’ drinks and drain them, she sometimes chose not to wear undergarments.
4. What did Lautrec hide in the cane that helped him walk?
He hollowed his cane out and filled it with his go-to drink, absinthe. The hallucinogenic alcohol eased his physical and psychological pain. Not only did he have a “crutch” that did double duty, this bad Adam’s cane made him able.
5. Who was Lautrec’s greatest “Eve” and muse?
The unsmiling and enigmatic Jane Avril was compared to a governess who had accidently stumbled into the Moulin Rouge. Under a prim and prudish expression, she could dance like a woman possessed. Her nicknames:“Crazy Jane” and “Le Mélinite” (French dynamite) were well earned.
6. Why did Lautrec paint Jane Avril so much?
Besides being close friends, they had a bond; they were both damaged goods. While Lautrec was a misshapen misanthrope, Avril had been constantly beaten by her mother and at thirteen had contracted St. Vitus Dance, afflicting her with facial tics and spasms in her limbs. Despite being “cured” in a mental hospital, the illness inspired her dancing style. In an age that celebrated the grotesque, Lautrec and Avril were a perfect match.
7. Of all Lautrec’s lines—drawn, painted, or spoken—what was his most truthful?
When one of his Eves, Yvette Guilbert, complained about his minimal style of rendering her, Lautrec replied, “Ma chere, I don’t detail you, I totalize you.”