Toulouse-Lautrec and Bohemian Paris – lecture synopsis
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) is one of the most popular French painters of the late nineteenth century. It is his art that illustrates and epitomises the compelling image and 'Bohemian' lifestyle of the Belle Époque period of 1890s fin-de-siècle Paris. He had an extraordinary capacity for observation and facility for the realistic and imaginative treatment of many diverse subjects. Arguably, his tragic early death at the age of 37, from the effects of alcoholism, robbed us of the greatest modern master of his period.
He was born in Albi in southern France, the scion of a minor aristocratic family. Childhood illness and injuries prevented him from undertaking customary aristocratic rural vocations, steering him instead towards being an artist: his mother hoped he would become a society portraitist. Formally trained at the Paris ateliers of Leon Bonnat and then of Fernand Cormon (where he met and befriended Vincent van Gogh), Toulouse-Lautrec was very popular with his fellow students, with whom he frequented the bars, cabarets and cafés-concerts of Montmartre. He later had his own studio in this district of Paris and became one of the recognisable ‘Bohemians’ who frequented the area.
Despite his infamously hedonistic lifestyle, his output as an artist was prodigious, and he worked hard to become a master of many different techniques and media (most notably that of colour lithography). In his hands, advertising posters were raised to high art, and he portrayed the nightlife and demi-monde of Paris — circuses, cafés, dance halls and brothels — with clear, bold colour and a certain seamy panache that is instantly recognisable.
The lecture discusses aspects of Toulouse-Lautrec’s private life and, in context, the ideal of the Bohemian Paris that he inhabited. The lives and depictions of certain colourful characters, such as the can-can dancer La Goulue, and the singer and poet Aristide Bruant are discussed. The establishment of the iconic palace of entertainment, the Moulin Rouge, is looked at in detail. Toulouse-Lautrec’s illustration of the degradation and false glamour of prostitution and brothels is also reviewed.
Lecture synopsis – sections and discussed topics
(Please note that, for reasons of brevity, the dancer and performer Jane Avril is not discussed)
- Introduction - Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa – the aristocrat from southern France
- Parents and family life
- Genetic disorder (Pycnodysostosis)
- Distinctive appearance and myths about his height
- Early work as a teenager – joins studio of Leon Bonnat and subsequently Fernand Cormon
- Bohemian Paris
- The Bohemian lifestyle – a manufactured ideal from fiction and the world of entertainment; Henry Murger and the influence of his Scènes de la vie de bohème.
- The new Paris of the 1880s & 90s – Haussmann boulevards and the working-class districts.
- Montmartre as the centre of Parisian popular culture
- Some notable ‘Bohemians’ and places of entertainment
- The circus and dance halls – depictions of the Cirque Fernando and Moulin de la Galette
- The Café Cabarets – Chat Noir and Aristide Bruant
- Official ‘counter-culture’ – the 1889 Exposition Universelle
- The Moulin Rouge
- La Goulue
- Prostitution and brothels
- Influence on Picasso and the Montmartre based artists of the early 1900s.