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Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

March 3, 2010

I’m in the middle of reading Moulin Rouge by Pierre La Mure, a novel based on the life of artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901). Of course, the Moulin Rouge has since become famous in film and in song, but away from the seedy glitz and glamour of the decadent club that is its namesake lies a story of a man confined to a handicapped body and extraordinary talent.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Public Domain.

Living in a city called Montmartre, a French town filled with prostitution and artistic abandon in that time, Lautrec struggled to claim acceptance. As a child, he suffered a debilitating illness that left him bed-ridden and very weak for years. Both of his legs broke while he was ill and did not heal properly, inexplicably ceasing to grow. Researchers speculate that his illness may been the result of inbreeding, as his parents were first cousins (a common practice during that time). Strangely, his upper torse grew normally, resulting in a very peculiar, man-child physique.

In the novel, his outer condition made him an outsider. While he did have friends and was a part of the lavish Montmartre nightlife, he suffered rejection from women and was left to mingle with prostitutes in order fulfill his desire for love. La Mure does a fantastic job of documenting his maturation, from that of a naive painter solely concerned with his canvas, to a distraught man left with relentless feelings of  repressed sexuality.

Art was his only lasting comfort. At first rejected by his teachers and peers, the work of Toulouse-Lautrec is vivid, animated and colorful reflections of the world that existed around him. He is now considered one of the great painters of the post- Impressionist period (along with Van Gogh), and is especially known for his poster art (particularly that of the Moulin Rouge).

"Moulin Rouge: La Goulue" by Toulouse-Lautrec. Public Domain.

Many of his work is filled with intense emotion, and suggests feelings of restless passion and despondency. Others showcase the exciting atmosphere of Monmartre life. These are some of my favorites:

Alone (Elles) by Toulouse-Lautrec. Public Domain.

La Clownesse by Toulouse-Lautrec. Public Domain.

The Laundrey Worker by Toulouse-Lautrec. Public Domain.

"In Bed" by Toulouse-Lautrec. Public Domain.

Sadly, Toulouse-Lautrec died at age 36 from complications to alcoholism and syphilis. Still, his work retains the excitement and passion he always wanted.

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