Today is the birthday (1864) of Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa usually known as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, French painter, printmaker, draughtsman and illustrator whose immersion in the colorful and theatrical life of Paris in the late 19th century yielded a collection of exciting, elegant and provocative images of the modern and sometimes decadent life of those times. He is among the best-known painters of the Post-Impressionist period, much of his work instantly recognizable.
Toulouse-Lautrec was born at the Hotel du Bosc in Albi, Tarn in the Midi-Pyrénées region of France, the firstborn child of Comte Alphonse Charles de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa (1838–1913) and wife Adèle Zoë Tapié de Celeyran (1841–1930). His aristocratic family were descendants of the Counts of Toulouse and Lautrec and the Viscounts of Montfat. A younger brother was born in 1867, but died the following year. After the death of his brother, his parents separated and a nanny ended up taking care of him. At the age of eight, Henri went to live with his mother in Paris where he drew sketches and caricatures in his exercise workbooks. The family quickly realized that Henri’s talents lay in drawing and painting.
At the age of 13, Toulouse-Lautrec fractured his right thigh bone and, at 14, the left. The breaks did not heal properly and his legs ceased to grow, so that as an adult he was extremely short – he stood 4 ft 8 in (1.42 m) – with an adult-sized trunk and child-sized legs. Because he was physically unable to participate in many activities typically enjoyed by men of his age, Toulouse-Lautrec immersed himself in art. He became an important Post-Impressionist painter, art nouveau illustrator, and lithographer, and recorded in his works many details of the late-19th-century bohemian lifestyle in Paris. Toulouse-Lautrec contributed a number of illustrations to the magazine Le Rire during the mid-1890s.
After initially failing college entrance exams, he passed at his second attempt and completed his studies. During a stay in Nice his progress in painting and drawing impressed Princeteau, who persuaded his parents to let him return to Paris and study under the acclaimed portrait painter Léon Bonnat. Toulouse-Lautrec’s mother had high ambitions and, with the aim of her son becoming a fashionable and respected painter, used the family influence to get him into Bonnat’s studio.
Toulouse-Lautrec was drawn to Montmartre, the area of Paris famous for its bohemian lifestyle and the haunt of artists, writers, and philosophers. Studying with Bonnat placed him in the heart of Montmartre, an area he rarely left over the next 20 years. After Bonnat took a new job, Henri moved to the studio of Fernand Cormon in 1882 and studied for a further five years and established the group of friends he kept for the rest of his life. At this time he met Émile Bernard and Vincent van Gogh. Cormon, whose instruction was more relaxed than Bonnat’s, allowed his pupils to roam Paris, looking for subjects to paint. In this period Toulouse-Lautrec had his first encounter with a prostitute (reputedly sponsored by his friends), which led him to paint his first painting of prostitutes in Montmartre, a woman rumored to be called Marie-Charlet. During this time, he discovered the intimate relations many of these sex workers had with one another. Depictions of these relationships become a focus of his work for a brief period.
With his studies finished, in 1887 he participated in an exposition in Toulouse using the pseudonym “Tréclau”, the verlan of the family name ‘Lautrec’. He later exhibited in Paris with Van Gogh and Louis Anquetin. The Belgian critic Octave Maus invited him to present eleven pieces at the Vingt (the Twenties) exhibition in Brussels in February. Van Gogh’s brother, Theo, bought ‘Poudre de Riz’ (Rice Powder) for 150 francs for the Goupil & Cie gallery.
From 1889 until 1894, Toulouse-Lautrec took part in the “Independent Artists’ Salon” on a regular basis. He made several landscapes of Montmartre. At this time the ‘Moulin Rouge’ opened. Tucked deep into Montmartre was the garden of Monsieur Pere Foret, where Toulouse-Lautrec executed a series of plein-air paintings of Carmen Gaudin, the same red-headed model who appears in The Laundress (1888). When the Moulin Rouge cabaret opened, Toulouse-Lautrec was commissioned to produce a series of posters. His mother had left Paris and, though he had a regular income from his family, making posters offered him a living of his own. Other artists looked down on the work, but Toulouse-Lautrec ignored them. The cabaret reserved a seat for him and displayed his paintings. Among the well-known works that he painted for the Moulin Rouge and other Parisian nightclubs are depictions of the singer Yvette Guilbert; the dancer Louise Weber, known as the outrageous La Goulue (“The Glutton”), who created the “French Can-Can”; and the much more subtle dancer Jane Avril.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s family were Anglophiles and although not as fluent as he pretended to be, he spoke English well enough to travel to London. While there, he was commissioned by the J.& E. Bella company to make a poster advertising their confetti, (which was later banned after the 1892 Mardi Gras) and the bicycle advert ‘La Chaîne Simpson’. While in London he met and befriended Oscar Wilde. When Wilde faced imprisonment in Britain, Toulouse-Lautrec became a very vocal supporter of his. Toulouse-Lautrec’s portrait of Wilde was painted the same year as Wilde’s trial.
He is reputed to have started drinking heavily because of mockery over his physical appearance, eventually becoming addicted to absinthe. The cocktail “Earthquake” or Tremblement de Terre is attributed to Toulouse-Lautrec: a potent mixture containing half absinthe and half cognac (in a wine goblet, three parts absinthe and three parts cognac, sometimes served with ice cubes or shaken in a cocktail shaker filled with ice). To ensure he was never without alcohol, Toulouse-Lautrec hollowed out his cane (which he needed to walk due to his underdeveloped legs) which he filled with liquor.
By February 1899, Toulouse-Lautrec’s alcoholism began to take its toll, and he collapsed due to exhaustion and the effects of alcoholism. His family had him committed to Folie Saint-James, a sanatorium in Neuilly for three months. While he was committed, Toulouse-Lautrec drew 39 circus portraits. After his release, Toulouse-Lautrec returned to Paris studio for a time and then traveled throughout France. His physical and mental health began to decline rapidly due to alcoholism and syphilis which he reportedly contracted from Rosa La Rouge, a prostitute who was the subject of several of his paintings.
On 9 September 1901, he died from complications due to alcoholism and syphilis at the family estate, Château Malromé, in Saint-André-du-Bois at the age of 36. He is buried in Cimetière de Verdelais, Gironde, a few kilometres from his family’s estate. Toulouse-Lautrec’s last words reportedly were: “Le vieux con!” (“The old fool!”). This was his goodbye to his father. Although in another version he used the word “hallali”, a term used by huntsmen for the moment the hounds kill their prey, “I knew, papa, that you wouldn’t miss the death.” (“Je savais, papa, que vous ne manqueriez pas l’hallali”).
Besides being a renowned artist Toulouse-Lautrec was noted for his adventurous cooking and lavish dinner parties. You can find many of his recipes collected in The Art of Cuisine. Poet Paul Leclercq wrote, “He was a great gourmand… He loved to talk about cooking and knew of many rare recipes for making the most standard dishes… Cooking a leg of lamb for seven hours or preparing a lobster à l’Américaine held no secrets for him.” He enjoyed both outlandish cooking techniques and unusual ingredients. For example, one recipe calls for three sirloin steaks which you slather with Dijon mustard, pile one on top of the other on a grill heated by a vine wood fire, and cook until the outsides are blackened. Then throw away the top and bottom steaks and eat the one in the middle. His recipes call for heron, squirrel, kangaroo, and the like.
This is perhaps his most famous recipe:
Having killed some marmots sunning themselves belly up in the sun with their noses in the air one sunrise in September, skin them and carefully put aside the mass of fat which is excellent for rubbing into the bellies of pregnant women, into the knees, ankles, and painful joints of sprains, and into the leather of shoes.
Cut up the marmot and treat it like stewed hare which has a perfume that is unique and wild.
For the less adventurous, here is his sole with white wine.
500g/1lb whole Dover sole
knob of butter
500g/8oz mushrooms, sliced
500g/8oz shelled shrimp
120ml/4fl oz white wine
fresh parsley, chopped
salt and pepper
In a well-buttered, enameled earthenware dish lay out a handsome sole, belly upwards. Dot with butter. Garnish with mushrooms sautéed in butter, half a pound of shelled shrimp, a litre of mussels, half a litre of cockles – previously well washed, cooked and removed from their shells.
Reserve the liquid from the mussels to boil with the shrimp shells and some water to create a stock. Pour a good glass of white wine over the sole and then cover with the strained stock. Put it on the fire and let it simmer uncovered for 20 to 40 minutes, according to the size of the sole, and let the sauce reduce. At the last moment, dot the sole with butter, sprinkle with breadcrumbs worked with parsley, salt, pepper; use very little salt because of the salted liquid of the mussels.