Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

French Painter

Movement: Post-Impressionism

Born: 24 November, 1864 - Albi, France

Died: 9 September, 1901 - Paris, France

Important Art by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

The below artworks are the most important by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec - that both overview the major creative periods, and highlight the greatest achievements by the artist.

Self Portrait in Front of a Mirror (1882)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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)

Artwork description & Analysis: While images of working class people and prostitutes certainly existed before the nineteenth 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 - Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Bed (Le lit) (1893)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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 - Van Gogh Museum

At the Moulin Rouge: The Dance (1890)

Artwork description & Analysis: In this painting, Toulouse-Lautrec captures the exuberant energy and seedy underbelly of Paris night life. 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 night life, 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 nineteenth 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 - Philadelphia Museum of Art

Moulin Rouge: La Goulue (1891)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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 wood block 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)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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 - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Femme en Corset (1896)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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 - Museum of Modern Art, New York

At the Circus: The Spanish Walk (1899)

Artwork description & Analysis: 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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Related Art and Artists

Manao Tupapau (The Spirit of the Dead Keeps Watch) (1892)

Artist: Paul Gauguin

Artwork description & Analysis: One of Gauguin's most famous works, Manao Tupapau is an excellent example of how Gauguin relished combining the ordinary with suggestions of the extraordinary in a single canvas, thus leaving all final interpretation open to debate. As he relates in a period diary, the actual scenario was inspired by his return home late one night and finding his wife, depicted here naked in the tropical heat, suddenly startled by his strike of a match in the all-enveloping darkness. Gauguin captures the luminous, unreal look of the sub-equatorial interior, here decorated by floral textiles, or batiks, along with other earthy materials, all suddenly illuminated by a momentary chemical combustion. At the same time, Gauguin introduces a ghostly depiction of a "watching" female spirit, seemingly harmless, at the foot of the bed, a direct reference to a local folklore describing how such spirits roam the night and forever share the world of the living.

This same painting also illustrates well how Gauguin remained forever a child of the 19th century, while nonetheless functioning as a bellwether, or beacon, to a younger generation. Most of his work remained rooted in the natural world around him, a legacy of his roots in Impressionism. But in some instances, Guaguin even speaks to the work of a former master, such as in this work, which for many eyes continues a precedent of the everyday, un-idealized nude set by Edouard Manet's Olympia (1863). Yet Gauguin's work finally suggests, like that of his even more Symbolist contemporaries Odilon Redon and Gustave Moreau (both were more closely aligned than Gauguin with French Symbolist poetry of the day), that underneath the world of "rock solid" appearances lies a parallel realm of eternal mystery, spiritual import, and poetic suggestion.

Oil on canvas - The Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, NY

Artwork Images

President Elect (1960-61)

Movement: Pop Art

Artist: James Rosenquist

Artwork description & Analysis: Like many Pop artists, Rosenquist was fascinated by the popularization of political and cultural figures in mass media. In his painting President Elect, the artist depicts John F. Kennedy's face amidst an amalgamation of consumer items, including a yellow Chevrolet and a piece of cake. Rosenquist created a collage with the three elements cut from their original mass media context, and then photo-realistically recreated them on a monumental scale. As Rosenquist explains, "The face was from Kennedy's campaign poster. I was very interested at that time in people who advertised themselves. Why did they put up an advertisement of themselves? So that was his face. And his promise was half a Chevrolet and a piece of stale cake." The large-scale work exemplifies Rosenquist's technique of combining discrete images through techniques of blending, interlocking, and juxtaposition, as well as his skill at including political and social commentary using popular imagery.

Oil on masonite - Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris

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Edited and revised by Ruth Epstein

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Edited and revised by Ruth Epstein
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