Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

French Painter

Born: November 24, 1864 - Albi, France
Died: September 9, 1901 - Paris, France
"Bonnat tells me, 'Your painting isn't bad, it is chic, but even so it isn't bad, but your drawing is absolutely atrocious.' So I must gather my courage and start once again..."
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Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec Signature
"Love is when the desire to be desired takes you so badly that you feel you could die of it."
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"Of course one should not drink much, but often."
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Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec Signature
"A professional model is like a stuffed owl. These girls are alive."
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Toulouse Lautrec on women in the brothel
"I have tried to do what is true and not ideal."
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Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec Signature
"I paint things as they are. I don't comment. I record."
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Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec Signature
"When a figure painter executes a landscape he treats it as if it were a face; Degas' landscapes are unparalleled because they are visionary landscapes."
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Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec Signature
"Only the human figure exists; landscape is, and should be, no more than an accessory; the painter exclusively of landscape is nothing but a bore."
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"In our time there are many artists who do something because it is new; they see their value and their justification in this newness. They are deceiving themselves."
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Summary of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

In addition to being the artist who designed the Moulin Rouge's legendary posters, Toulouse-Lautrec was an aristocrat, dwarf, and party animal who invented a cocktail called the Earthquake (half absinthe, half cognac). His favorite pursuits were dressing up (geisha girl and clown get-ups were among his more memorable party outfits) and frequenting Parisian brothels, where he was a V.I.P. Like insects trapped in amber, his paintings, drawings and of course his famous posters preserve the swirl of energy, mix of classes and cultures, and the highs and lows of urban life in 19th-century Paris.


  • Toulouse-Lautrec was the first artist to elevate advertising to the status of a fine art. This is an extraordinary shift in the history of art, obliterating the boundaries between high (painting, drawing, sculpture) and low (posters, logos and other forms of visual culture) art. Acknowledging that some of his greatest masterpieces were posters for nightclubs does not in any way diminish their value. On the contrary, it set the gold standard for great commercial artists from Alphonse Mucha to Andy Warhol.
  • In contrast to nearly all of the other artists in his circle, Toulouse-Lautrec had no trouble making a living. This is chiefly because Parisian business owners realized they could make money from his unique (modern) vision. In contrast to artists who worked for private collectors, galleries or the government, he worked for the entertainment business, where selling drinks and tickets was the bottom line. Jane Avril, one of his closest friends and one of Montmartre's most beloved cabaret dancers, later wrote: "It is more than certain that I owe him the fame that I enjoyed dating from his first poster of me."
  • Thanks to his childhood tutor - also an art therapist - who encouraged him to shift his energy from riding to drawing (a safer pursuit for a child struggling with illness), Toulouse-Lautrec's early passion for physical activity was channeled directly into his art. The breathless excitement and athleticism of his sinuous line is like muscle memory - physical energy transposed into art.
  • By sheer force of will, Toulouse-Lautrec turned his disability into a superpower. At a time when the only acceptable designation for persons with disabilities was freak, Toulouse-Lautrec used his unique appearance to his advantage. It allowed him to disappear into a crowd or the corners of a bedroom, seeing others without being seen.
  • Toulouse-Lautrec's remarkable observations of people on the margins of society almost certainly stems from his status as an outsider. The crooners, dancers, acrobats, and prostitutes with whom he socialized were his adopted family. He identified with them, and there is every indication that he saw them as equals.
  • More than simply a brilliant advertiser and artist, Toulouse-Lautrec was an important informal visual historian of urban life in Belle Époque Paris. The film "Moulin Rouge" and other period pieces based on the Belle Époque, are heavily informed by his posters, prints, and paintings.

Biography of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Detail from <i>Maison de la rue des Moulins, Rolande</i> (1894)

Toulouse-Lautrec may be best remembered as the master of Art Nouveau posters, but this curious individual stood at just 5’ high, was a party animal, a brother regular, an occasional cross-dresser, and a good friend to marginalized people of all sorts - from “circus freaks” to homosexuals to prostitutes.

Important Art by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Progression of Art
Self Portrait in Front of a Mirror (1882)

Self Portrait in Front of a Mirror

This is one of few self-portraits Toulouse-Lautrec painted, as he was incredibly self-conscious about his appearance, and the only one in which the artist is the sole focus. In it, he uses peinture a l'essence (oil paint, thinned with turpentine), applied directly onto cardboard to create a loose, sketchy effect. He would continue to use this technique throughout his career, adapting it to his sensibilities as a mature artist. Here the artist is both literally and figuratively emerging: the looseness of the brushwork makes it evident that he has studied Impressionism, but there is a darkness here, perhaps even a hint of the sinister, and a depth to the composition that departs from the buoyancy of the Impressionist palette and mood.

Oil on cardboard - Musée Toulouse-Toulouse-Lautrec, Albi

The Laundress (1886)

The Laundress

One of a series of portraits of Carmen Gaudin done by Toulouse-Lautrec during his Paris years, The Laundress is meant to expose the raw, somber and gritty world of the working-class. Toulouse-Lautrec poses the prostitute - one of his favorite models - as a laundress, taking a break from her physically intensive and exhausting work. And while Toulouse-Lautrec was famous for wanting to expose the hardship of Parisian life, there is a subtle delicacy and warmth to this work that belies his affection for this woman and her toils. This naturalism and painterly style is a cornerstone of Toulouse-Lautrec's earlier works, once again calling forth Degas' influence.

Oil on canvas - Private Collection

The Streetwalker (Le Casque d'Or) (1890)

The Streetwalker (Le Casque d'Or)

While images of working-class people and prostitutes certainly existed before the 19th century, these subjects were almost invariably portrayed as types, not individuals. Though not alone in his quest to make portraits of working-class individuals (his friend Vincent Van Gogh was at this very moment working on a similar project in the South of France), Toulouse-Lautrec's approach to the subject is part of this revolutionary shift in art. At first glance, this is a rather conventional portrait of a woman seated in a garden. In brushy strokes, Toulouse-Lautrec describes the outdoor setting and long-sleeved button-down dress fastened high at the chin. Almost all of his concentration is focused on her distinctive features - the face, with its sharp features, whitened by rice powder, thin red lips, and red gold hair, piled high on top of her head. A slight smile plays at the corners of her eyes and mouth, as if the artist has just made a joke. The only visual hint at a departure from convention is the sitter's fully confrontational pose. She sits right at the edge of the frame, squares her shoulders, and looks out directly, a bit too close for polite comfort. What makes this portrait truly radical is, of course, its subject, a prostitute. Her street name was Le Casque d'Or (the Golden Helmet -a reference to her distinctive hair). Toulouse-Lautrec portrays this would-be scandalous subject, in a matter-of-fact, overall quite dignified manner --truly a radical departure from the norm.

Oil on cardboard - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The Bed (Le Lit) (1893)

The Bed (Le Lit)

In this remarkable painting, two women lie gazing at one another, their cheeks flushed with the glow of intimacy. Toulouse-Lautrec frequented the houses of prostitution in Paris, and he admired the unguardedness of the women: "who stretch themselves out on the divans...entirely without pretensions." Some were lesbians who agreed to let him watch (for a fee, of course). Toulouse-Lautrec was by no means unique in being interested in girl-on-girl action. What was different was his interest in portraying it with subtlety and psychic depth, as opposed to lascivious spectacle, and an unprecedented degree of tenderness. Toulouse-Lautrec's enlightened position on homosexuality is well-documented. A staunch defender of gay rights, he stood by his friend Oscar Wilde throughout the writer's harrowing trial in Britain.

Oil and pastel on cardboard - Musée d'Orsay, Paris

Portrait of Vincent Van Gogh (1888)

Portrait of Vincent Van Gogh

This painterly pastel, made well before Toulouse-Lautrec or his famous sitter were well-known, depicts Van Gogh seated pensively at a Montmartre café table. In front of him is a glass of absinthe, and he leans forward intently as if he has just spotted someone he knows. Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh were friends, bonding over their passion for absinthe (also known as "the green fairy") which they viewed as a gateway to inspiration, and as both struggled with intense bouts of alcoholism. Paul Signac (another artist in their circle) remembered, "absinthes and brandies would follow each other in quick succession." Visible in this relatively early composition is Toulouse-Lautrec's command of color and line (evidence of his solid, traditional art school background). What makes Toulouse-Lautrec unique is also present here, he zeroes in on the visible traits (in this case, Van Gogh's sunken cheeks, heavy brow and anxious, forward-leaning pose) that capture the essence of a person.

Pastel on cardboard - The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

At the Moulin Rouge: The Dance (1890)

At the Moulin Rouge: The Dance

In this painting, Toulouse-Lautrec captures the exuberant energy and seedy underbelly of Paris nightlife. As if through an opening in the crowd, we glimpse the center of the Moulin-Rouge (a busy dance hall in the entertainment district of Montmartre). A dancer in mid-kick lifts her skirt above her knees (revealing much more leg than was considered ladylike), while a much more modestly dressed and apparently well-heeled woman with an upturned nose looks on, a hint of disapproval in her expression. Yet why is she in this space? What is she looking for? Toulouse-Lautrec, a great observer of nightlife, was familiar with Degas's depictions of the ballet. Here, he is giving a nod to the older artist, but has shifted the scene from the more regimented structure of the practice room (ballerinas were working-class in the 19th century, and many of them also worked as prostitutes) to the dance hall with its cast of characters: entertainers, dandies, and ladies of the night. The dynamic interaction between the pair of dancers at the center contrasts with the relative stasis in the rest of the crowd. The composition is like a spinning top with the female dancer at its center. Toulouse-Lautrec uses color to move the eye outward across the composition from right to left, from the pink dress to the red stockings, and over to a red blazer in the background, drawing us right into the action.

Oil on canvas - The Philadelphia Museum of Art

Moulin Rouge: La Goulue (1891)

Moulin Rouge: La Goulue

Toulouse-Lautrec's greatest triumph was in lifting advertisement, previously seen merely as a commercial and thus inferior path for artists, to the status of an art form. This six-foot-tall poster for the Moulin Rouge, the famous dance hall in the center of Montmartre, is the artist's most recognizable advertisement, and it made him famous in his own lifetime. The naturalism of his earlier Impressionist style gave way to these large swaths of flat color with strong outlines and generalized silhouettes. Toulouse-Lautrec collected and studied Japanese Ukiyo-e prints. These sophisticated, high contrast compositions contained large swaths of flat color with strong outlines and generalized silhouettes that inform his lithographs. There is also an Art Nouveau aesthetic at play with the graphic nature and suggested (rather than delineated) curves.

Printed color lithograph - Indianapolis Museum of Art

Avril (1893)


Jane Avril was one of the major starlets on the dance scene in 1880s Paris. This lithograph is an advertisement for Avril's major gig at the Jardin de Paris. Its aim was to generate excitement (and ticket sales) for an upcoming performance. On the left, Avril completes a high-kick, her eyes closed, transported by the passion of her own performance. On the right, a cello's neck, grasped by a man's hairy hand (and, yes, Toulouse-Lautrec fully intended the sexual innuendo here) rises from the orchestra pit, completing the border of the composition. In this daring work, Toulouse-Lautrec reveals his bawdy sense of humor, mastery of the medium, and true appreciation for Avril's mesmerizing talent.

Lithograph - The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Femme en Corset (1896)

Femme en Corset

Prostitution was an overarching theme in Toulouse-Lautrec's work. Over the course of his career, Toulouse-Lautrec made over 50 paintings of prostitutes, none of which were exhibited during his lifetime. What he did publish was a series of 11 lithographs, entitled "Elles" (roughly translated "them" but in French, the designation is feminine). These works detail with unprecedented frankness the daily life and operations of a Paris brothel. A book of prints was more discreet than a painting, and could be put away when the owner wasn't looking at it. In this lithograph from the series, a prostitute stands in her underwear, unbuckling her corset while a well-dressed client who has paid for her services looks on, grasping his cane in one hand (it is unclear what the other hand is doing). As a paying client himself, Toulouse-Lautrec does not appear to have seen prostitution as a problem and displayed an unusual capacity for empathy for the vulnerability of the sex worker. He shows this in visual terms: with the exposed nape of her neck and the contrast between poses (sitting vs. standing, dressed vs. undressed, and watching vs. being watched) he emphasizes differences in social standing, and the fact that his pleasure is her work.

Lithograph - The Museum of Modern Art, New York

At the Circus: The Spanish Walk (1899)

At the Circus: The Spanish Walk

Toulouse-Lautrec made this thoughtful and evocative drawing from memory at the end of his stay at a sanatorium in Paris. It was made for the express purpose of demonstrating his mental stability. He returns to a subject he had loved since childhood: horses. The circus, with its equestrian performers, held Toulouse-Lautrec's fascination throughout his mature career. This composition appears to have succeeded in convincing the doctors he had fully recovered his sanity. He was released.

Graphite, black and colored crayons, and charcoal - The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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Influences and Connections

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Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Ruth Epstein

"Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by The Art Story Contributors
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Ruth Epstein
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First published on 15 Jan 2016. Updated and modified regularly
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