A French aristocrat and his real twist on the decadent life

Today’s art column focuses on a very special French artist — Henri Toulouse Lautrec, born at Albi in Southern France in 1864. Among his most unique features is his highly aristocratic lineage. Born into a family that never needed to work, Henri is probably the only real aristocrat listed among the world’s most famous artists. He is best known for the posters he created for Moulin Rouge, making the performers of this rather notorious nightclub into celebrities.

In 2005, Christie’s sold his canvas depicting a laundress for $22.4 million. Since there are very few artworks by the artist doing the rounds, bidding is usually brisk at auctions whenever his work is on sale. Lautrec’s posters are cheaper, but are much in demand and not everyone can afford to buy one. At the Heritage Auction in June, a particularly attractive Moulin Rouge poster depicting an Englishman with two performers was sold for $50,000, however later this year, at Bonham’s Auction in November at San Francisco, a Lautrec remained unsold. It was estimated between ¤1,969 and ¤2,757 — perhaps, the time was not right or the price too high.

Lautrec is considered among the finest French craftsman of the 19th century and has been compared with writer de Maupassant: “Each in his own medium, was harsh, honest and totally devoid of sentimentality and each reported French manners courageously”. Lautrec’s models were, for the major part, people from a degraded world. He gave them their due respect and if not for him, they would have all been forgotten — La Goulou, Jane Avril, Yvette Guilbert, Chocolat and the stylish Aristide Bruant. These are names that all art lovers and collectors are familiar with.

Henri’s father, Count Alphonse de Toulouse-Lautrec-Montfa, traced his ancestry to the noblest families of the 13th century and his mother Adele was no less. Henri was brought up in an atmosphere of ‘cultivated arrogance’ and inherited some of his father’s favourite pastimes. He loved horses and outdoor sports, but two accidents at a young age broke his legs one after the other, making participation impossible and turned Lautrec into an artist-spectator. Thereafter, due to a strange ailment in his bones his legs stopped growing while the rest of him grew to a normal size. As an adult, Henri Toulouse Lautrec was only five feet and one inch in height.

To have such an oddity as a son must have been a real blow to his rather handsome father. However, despite his physical disabilities, Henri artistic abilities continued to grow. His early works were true to life depictions of horses. Even in his later years, he found time to visit the race courses to draw the jockeys and their race horses. But he needed more interesting models and found them among the lower

strata of society.

By the time he was 23, he had managed to work out a deal with his family whereby he received a private income and set up a studio among the Paris artist fraternity in Montmartre. Mentally superior to his peers, Henri could have chosen to hobnob with the elite, but instead chose to mix with those connected with night clubs, dance halls, music halls, circuses and the underworld. As a companion, he had his mother’s cousin, a doctor, tall and lean. They frequented night clubs and dance halls and together the two made a very strange couple indeed. Henri would sketch wherever he went and these sketches were later enlarged into bigger works.

The peak of his career came when he was around 28. This was when Lautrec created his ‘incomparable posters, oils and lithographs of Montmartre’. However, his lifestyle was telling on his health and his drinking was slowly, but surely killing him. In his last few years, Henri returned to his mother in Bordeaux and died there at the age of 36. His mother who doted on her only son, built a museum at Albi, located at the Lautrec family estate Malrome. This is where the best collection of the artist’s work can be seen. Lautrec’s work is also better documented than most — in his 20-year career he created 737 canvases, 275 watercolours, 363prints and posters along with 5,084 drawings.

(The writer is a winner of many advertising design awards and a painter of repute)

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