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)

Martin Heard
Independent Art Historian
Accredited NADFAS lecturer
Tel: 01322 381565