Great Artists: France




His father was a direct descendent of the counts of Toulouse.  His mother, Countess Adele Tapie de Celeyran, came from the Aude region of France.  He, Henri Toulose-Lautrec, was born on November 24, 1864 in Albi at the family mansion du Bosc.

As a young boy, Henri enjoyed the privileged life of a nobleman’s son.   He was surrounded by aunts, uncles, and cousins, plus a staff of servants that took care of his needs.  Henri was an active, inquisitive and unruly child who loved to spend considerable time in the kitchens when not horseback riding or hunting.

At the age of 8, Henri became afflicted with fevers and severe headaches.  He was constantly  bedridden or seeking treatment at health resorts for his congenital condition .  At the age of 13, he fell from a chair and broke his left thigh bone.   A short time later, while in Bareges, he fell again and broke his right thighbone.  These injuries left him permanently disfigured and he stopped growing.  His height would never exceed 4 feet 11 inches.

His parents were devastated.   His father began to distance himself from the son who was so unlike him.  His mother became highly attentive to his physical and emotional needs.    For his part, Henri turned his complete attention to his greatest interest, drawing.   It seemed natural for Henri to be artistically inclined,  after all he had grown up in an environment where his grandfather, uncle and father were all talented amateur painters.

As art became Toulouse-Lautrec’s  passion, his parents grew less and less enthusiastic about their son becoming an artist.   Eventually, his father somewhat reluctantly, introduced  Henri to Rene Princeteau, a painter and a deaf mute.  Princeteau was so impressed with Henri's promise as an artist that he convinced his parents to enroll him in the studio of a well known master, Bonnat.

At 17, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec left home for the very first time.   For some reason, Bonnat developed a rather intense dislike for young Toulouse-Lautrec.  The discord became mutual and lasted a lifetime.  Indeed, until his death in 1922, Bonnat successfully prevented Toulouse-Lautrec’s works from becoming part of the national collections.

Toulouse-Lautrec then enrolled at the studio of  Ferdinand Cormon a talented artist with considerable ability as a teacher.  Cormon’s guidance had a great impact on Toulouse-Lautrec as well as another artist of the time, Vincent Van Gogh.

Under Cormon’s tutelage, Henri applied himself to his studies.  He visited gallery after gallery to study the techniques of other painters, especially the impressionists.  Cormon gave Henri a solid foundation in the techniques of painting in a formal style.  Yet as he turned twenty, Henri began to look for a different artistic direction.

Toulouse-Lautrec arrived in the Montmarte district of Paris in 1887.   Montmarte was home to workers and tradesmen as well as hoodlums, pimps, prostitutes and a bohemian crowd of artisans.  The area was rife with brothels, dance halls, cabarets and clubs.   This is where one found Le Chat Noir (the Black Cat), le Lapin Agile (the Nimble Rabbit), la Cigale (the Cicada), Le Moulin de la Gallete and Le Moulin Rouge.  Excesses of every type were commonplace.

Toulouse-Lautrec took a flat behind a cemetery on the Rue Ganneron.  From here he would become both observer and participant in the lifestyles of the area.  He would  prowl the streets and alleys, in bars and brothels in search of new subjects for his art as he chronicled an emerging culture.

Eventually women, food and alcohol took their toll on Henri’s fragile constitution.   Persuaded to do so by his family, he sought treatment for his alcoholism, but to no avail.  As his condition worsened he traveled to Bordeaux to the Chateau de Malrome where he died in his mother’s arms on September 9, 1901.  His last words were “you mother, none other but you”

The Artist's Work

Along with Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Rousseau, Toulouse-Lautrec was a post-impressionist.  Since his initial notoriety came from his posters, he was known first as an illustrator.   For this reason, he was not immediately taken seriously as a great painter.

He dabbled in numerous techniques and was influenced at one time or another by Japanese art, pointillism, or the Italian masters.   This is reflected in the prodigious amount of work he produced in just 16 years.  In all, Toulouse-Lautrec produced over 730 oils, 275 prints and 5,000 known drawings.

The Toulouse-Lautrec Museum

Toulouse-Lautrec’s life's work remained in his Paris studio long after his death.  His mother, wanting to perpetuate the memory of the son she loved so much wished for the entire collection to remain intact.   Yet museum after museum rejected the collection.

Then in 1922, Maurice Joyant encouraged the Countess Adele to offer all of Toulouse-Lautrec's works to the city of Albi.  In addition, family members who had inherited Toulouse-Lautrec artworks agreed to donate them to the city of Albi to enlarge the collection.

The offer was accepted and on July 30, 1922, the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum officially opened.  The place selected to house the collection was the Palais de la Berbie, an imposing 13th century brick fortress built by bishops of Albi next to the River Tarn.

The museum should be credited for creating an intimate atmosphere that encourages the viewer's  most introspective observations.   This is important because Toulouse-Lautrec’s work can easily draw upon the  emotions of the observer.   It is a moving experience to see the earliest paintings of his youth right up to his last work.  And, as you view the 1000 works on display,  you witness the transformation of Toulouse-Lautrec as an artist and a person.

Perhaps one of the last ironies of Toulouse-Lautrec's life, is that his work which so brilliantly captured a Parisian cultural phenomena, resides not in the Louvre or any of the capital's other museums, but in this lovely city in the south of France.

The Toulouse-Lautrec Museum also houses a collection of modern art works by friends or contemporaries of Toulouse-Lautrec: Bonnard, Vuillard, Valadon, and Serusier.

The Musee Toulouse-Lautrec is an experience we highly recommend.   In addition, the city of Albi has a considerable heritage which includes the magnificent fortified cathedral of St. Ceciles, Old Alby and a host of other interesting venues.

We gratefully acknowledge  The Musee Toulouse-Lautrec and The Albi Office de Tourisme for making this article possible.  The illustration on this page, and the April cover page is part of the Musee Toulouse-Lautrec Collection, all rights reserved.

For more information contact:

Musee Toulouse-Lautrec
Palais de la Berbie
81000  Albi
Office de Tourisme

Service Tourisme Mairie d’Albi