Self portrait in a crowd – Toulouse-Lautrec

When I was younger, I wondered what it would have been like to have been one of the artists that hung around in bars at the turn of the last century. I was mesmerised by paintings of the Moulin Rouge, with the vibrant girls and what seemed to be a dramatic and enticing scene. Now I have got older, I realise that while the paintings give a snap shot of a moment in time, those artists were struggling and probably alcoholics, which then give the paintings a tinge of sadness.

Toulouse Lautrec (TL) was one of those artists, so well known for his paintings of the Moulin Rouge and the Folies Bergère, excelling in capturing the decadence and finery of the world around him, but his life was one of simply trying to find his place.

This self portrait of him in a crowd, shows him in a group, smiling, not obvious that he had any physical defects, as women around him loiter and taking in the social scene.

What you don’t see is his need for acceptance. Much like Van Gogh, TL had a difficult upbringing which is maybe what drew them together, finding the common ground of misunderstanding.

TL was born to Count Alphonse and the Countess Adèle, first cousins, and a lot of his physical defects are attributed to the inbreeding within the family. He was a sickly child, had a speech impediment and reportedly had life long sinus conditions and drooled. At the age of 13 he broke his right femur, the at 14 he broke the left one. The breaks never healed properly and at this stage stop growing, meaning the TL had an adult torso, but child like legs. He needed a cane to walk with from this point. While this sounds a terrible tragedy as it mean mo this of recovery and little interaction with other children, it is probably what cemented his love of art. His parents spared no expense at trying to resolve matters, but it’s noted that “even electro shock therapy” didn’t fix things….I’m not surprised really.

Despite all of this, it didn’t stop TL following his dream and at the age of 18 he moved to Paris. He hung out with Degas and Van Gogh and developed his unique style, quickly earning a small following of fans and making his name by creating posters for the surrounding venues. Not long after, people were happily buying his paintings and when he landed his first Moulin Rouge job, the people of Paris were stalking the poster hangers so that they could steal them for the iconography.

Sadly with notoriety and money came the socialising and alcoholism, just starting on wine and beer TL developed a dependency, this lead to hard liquor, and he is reported as creating the drink ‘earthquake’ which was half absinthe half cognac in a wine glass. He hollowed out his cane so that he could fill it with drink, less he be without one.

As his dependency to alcohol grew, his physical and mental health deteriorated, eventually being dragged out of Paris by men paid by his mother to a private asylum. This just lead to notoriety for TL and grew his name. TL suffered a series of strokes and remained in the asylum convalescing, but was soon back to his old habits once released. He died of a stroke at the age of 36.

Through out his life, TL visited prostitutes, and found an affinity with them, and they penetrate his art work.

It’s important to understand TL’s life as that is what he painted, the life around him. The nightlife and girls around him which gave his life colour and meaning.

There is so much more that I could write on this very interesting artist, but hopefully this has given you enough background to truly appreciate his artwork.


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