The headline to this blog would’ve been the perfect title to Henri de Toulouse Lautrec’s autobiography if he had written one. His paintings were risqué and “in your face”, yet those were the paintings his sorrows hid behind. Lautrec is a perfect example of a complex person with a contrasted life, and I hope you enjoy reading the following post as much as I did writing it.
From the setting of the room to the colorful characters depicted, At the Moulin Rouge is a piece that is unlike any other. The oil on canvas painting, created from 1892-1895, hangs at 4’ x 4’7”, and depicts nightlife in Paris (like most of Lautrec’s paintings).
Not many people who view the painting know this detail, but At the Moulin Rouge is considered a self-portrait. Looking toward the back of the composition, Lautrec is standing next to a taller man with a top hat (his cousin, Gabriel Tapie de Celeyran). When I first looked at this painting, I thought he disproportionately painted himself in or was sitting at a table like the other people in the painting. As I continued to do more research, Lautrec was a shorter than the average man. His height ranged from 4 feet, 8 inches to 5 feet (according to different sources). Other than himself, Lautrec wanted to include the people he admired or had a friendship with. The list: La Goule, La Macarona, Jane Avril (speculated) and May Milton (woman with the blue/green colored face depicted in the foreground), Maurice Guibert (winemaker), Paul Sescau (photographer), and Edouard Dujardin (writer). Not only did Lautrec capture his friends and favorite entertainers in the portrait, but the particular piece captured the atmosphere of Parisian nightlife; showing us that the man behind the painting had more depth and meaning behind his works of art.
Due to Lautrec’s height, he was ridiculed and wasn’t accepted into high society; which he was born into. He used art as an outlet to a lot of the suffering he had been through with his family and with his personal image. Although he found comfort and acceptance in Paris nightclubs, he suffered a great deal. According to Biography.com, it states, “Though presenting himself as a witty, fun man about town, Toulouse-Lautrec suffered greatly due to his physical ailments as well as past family trauma, with his father never accepting his son’s decision to become a professional artist. He had also contracted syphilis, which further impacted his health. As he had for much of his adult life, Toulouse-Lautrec turned to alcohol to deal with his pain and would ultimately drink himself into oblivion. He had a nervous breakdown in 1899 after his mother, whom he was close to, decided to leave Paris, and the artist was committed to a sanitarium for several months.” His paintings showed a perspective that was frowned upon in high society, but he ultimately found himself and genuine friendships at the Moulin Rogue. To Lautrec, being frowned upon from “his crowd” was worth it.
The Post- Impressionist painter was rich enough to do what he wanted and hang out with whomever he pleased. So when he started to hang out at Parisian nightclubs, one of the owners of the Moulin Rouge made an agreement with Lautrec to paint pictures of the nightclub to capture the essence of the environment and entice more people to “join in on the fun.” Lautrec was pretty well off and could have easily rejected the offer, but because the Moulin Rouge became an escape from criticism and disapproval of his personal life, he happily agreed to the deal and hung out there all the time. From an economic circumstance, most of his work wasn’t done for money; it was done for the place he called a second home. Being that he was an artist for the Moulin Rouge.
I don’t think his decisions were based on his political, economic or social stances. Instead, based with what he wanted to do. One of the attributes I loved about Lautrec was that he didn’t care about what others thought about his artwork. He made pieces that made him and his friends happy. I wonder, if he carried that same outlook into his personal life, would he have had a longer, happier life? Then again, syphilis.
Lautrec’s social circumstances led him to make the choices he made during his life as an artist. He did the things he did according to how he felt, not because it was right or wrong. Ultimately, he did what he wanted to do, hung out with performers, prostitutes, drunks, etc. and that’s how he loved to live his life. Additionally, that kind of attitude was reflected in his paintings, such as At the Moulin Rouge.
He never depicted his subjects as something they weren’t or in judgement due to his status. Lautrec candidly painted them for who they were. I found that perspective extremely refreshing. Coming from a generation where being Photoshopped in a magazine is the norm or being manipulated into an image that is acceptable on social media, there is a lack of authenticity in today’s society. I think the goal is to boldly and unapologetically be yourself wherever you go. Lautrec did exactly that with his art! With that said, I truly believe the genuineness from his art left a huge impact in the creative world and paved the way for artists and designers who came after him.