Toulouse-Lautrec, emblematic figure of the Moulin Rouge
30 november 2021
But who is this strange character that you can see between the walls of the Moulin Rouge? Toulouse-Lautrec, a great admirer of French Cancan dancers and keen observer of society at the time, is famous for his artworks depicting the life of this Parisian cabaret established in 1889. Discover the biography of this 19th century artist.
An extraordinary destiny
There was nothing that anti-conformist and lover of life and women Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec disliked more than narrow-minded and prejudiced views. He was a free man, intent on leading a happy and fantastical life. While his unusual and eventful life was characterised by spells of conviviality and togetherness, it was also punctuated with periods of suffering and solitude.
Born on 24th November 1864, this man from Albi dedicated most of his life to drawing and painting. He didn’t always live in the south of France, though. When his parents – both aristocrats – separated several years after he was born, he uprooted to Paris with his mother in 1872.
But who really was Toulouse-Lautrec? It’s surprising, but at the time he wasn’t only known for his works of art – he was also known for his unusual appearance, which made a lasting impression on many members of the Moulin Rouge audience. Firstly, his size – this surprised a lot of people! He was 4’10” tall, crippled and had a limp. It was following an accident at the age of 14 that he found out he had a degenerative bone disease. As this meant he was unable to pursue horse-riding and hunting in the footsteps of his father, Count Alphonse de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa, horses became the source of inspiration for his watercolour paintings. He would stay at Château de Malromé and Celeyran on several occasions and produce various works with horses as the subject, including ‘l’Artilleur sellant son cheval’ (The mounted artilleryman saddling his horse), ‘Cheval blanc Gazelle’ (The white horse ‘Gazelle’) and ‘Cavalier Monsieur du Passage’ (Rider Mr. du Passage).
A memorable encounter
It was after failing his baccalaureate exams in Toulouse that young Henri, determined to become an artist, decided to return to Paris. His father introduced him to one of his friends, René Princeteau, a French painter known for his equestrian paintings. He became his first master and helped make his dream a reality. The time they shared left a lasting impact on both men’s lives and this would later be reflected in their artwork. It was in Montmartre, this hive of artistic activity, that Toulouse-Lautrec went on to meet other great creators such as Léon Bonnat and Fernand Cormon. This also gave him the opportunity to strike up friendships with several young painters, including one now recognised all over the world, Vincent Van Gogh. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec particularly enjoyed soaking up this Parisian atmosphere. He drew his inspiration from it, and his own personal culture continued to grow. He would read Balzac, wander the streets of Paris, visit museums and cafes and develop a fondness for an in-vogue movement at the time, Japonism. This artistic movement was first dubbed Japonism by art critic Philippe Burty. Indeed, Japanese objects and works of art were one of Toulouse-Lautrec’s main sources of inspiration.
A few years later he moved to the foot of the Butte Montmartre with two of his friends, where they took up residence at 19 bis rue Fontaine. From the age of 20, he became fully immersed in Montmartre life. The young artist wanted to shine a spotlight on life in this bohemian neighbourhood that inspired him so much. He made a point of capturing every moment with truthfulness. He frequented Parisian cabarets such as Le Mirliton, Le Chat Noir, Le Moulin de la Galette and L’Elysée-Montmartre. He enjoyed bringing out the different personalities around him in his artwork. It was during one of his café visits that he succumbed to the charms of a woman called Louise Weber, who also went by the nickname of La Goulue (The Glutton). From the moment the Moulin Rouge opened its doors, this dancer was an instant hit with the Parisian public. She was famous for her energetic French Cancan and for her habit of finishing customers’ drinks after every show. But she wasn’t the only one to catch the painter’s eye, with the Moulin Rouge itself fast becoming his muse. Each evening he would attend the performances there, capturing every moment with precision. He went on to create his first poster for the Moulin Rouge in 1891, which would become one of the most famous representations of the cabaret to date.
Did you know? Today the Moulin Rouge even has a lounge called the Salon Toulouse-Lautrec, in honour of the artist himself.
Toulouse-Lautrec, an exceptional observer
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was a free man who had very little care for following conventions. He was able to master all techniques: painting, drawing, lithographs, stained glass, ceramics and bookbinding. He received little appreciation for his artwork as a result of his lifestyle, viewed by some as depraved. Nevertheless, he produced a total of 737 paintings, 275 watercolours, 31 posters and more than 5,000 drawings. He was thus known for playing an important role in the post-impressionist movement.
His status of ‘poster genius’ was due in part to the Moulin Rouge. In 1891 the director of the Moulin Rouge, Joseph Oller, asked him personally to create a highly original poster. In the centre of the poster: La Goulue, dancing her famous chahut, meaning uproar or commotion. In the foreground is a shadow of Valentin Le Désossé. The lines, colours, silhouettes and lettering make this work a unique and impactful piece. An interplay of yellow lights highlights the Moulin Rouge’s carnival atmosphere, adding an extra hint of magic to this piece. Subtle Japanese-inspired touches linked to his fondness for the artistic movement also appear on the ‘Moulin Rouge – La Goulue’ poster. This work was an instant hit. A pretty successful first attempt, wouldn’t you agree?
This was followed by the release of several more posters. He was contacted by Aristide Bruant, singer and founder of the Mirliton cabaret, and produced the poster ‘Ambassadeurs-Aristide Bruant dans son cabaret’ (Ambassadeurs-Aristide Bruant in her cabaret). An overnight success, this artwork was plastered across the city. In 1893 he also created three new pieces: ‘Caudieux’, ‘Jane Avril – Jardin de Paris’ (Jane Avril – Garden of Paris) and ‘Divan Japonais’ (Japanese divan). Jane Avril, cancan soloist the Moulin Rouge, ended up being La Goulue’s main rival as well as Toulouse-Lautrec’s only real girlfriend. Mysterious, distinguished and intelligent, she was the subject of many of his works. He subsequently put an end to his hedonistic lifestyle with a political lithograph entitled ‘Babylone d’Allemagne’, one of his only politically engaged works. He made posters for singer and actress May Belfort as well as for a little-known dancer called May Milton. She inspired him and was his main subject for the poster ‘May Milton’ as well as for his painting ‘Au Moulin Rouge’.
When he died in 1901, his family wanted to donate his workshop collection to Parisian museums. However, the relevant decision-makers found his artwork controversial and shocking, unwilling to acknowledge the artist as a key player in the contemporary art scene. It was his life-long friend, Maurice Joyant, who suggested donating this collection to Toulouse-Lautrec’s birthplace, the town of Albi. After several discussions with official town members, Maurice Joyant persuaded them to create a museum in his name in Albi’s former bishops’ residence. The Toulouse-Lautrec Museum opened its doors in 1922, with the exhibition demonstrating all the power and freedom of artistic expression so championed by the artist. We’re pleased to say that the museum is still open to this day! It currently houses the world’s largest public collection of works by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. You can find 219 paintings, 563 drawings and 183 lithographs there.
For how to get there, the easiest way is:
Palais de la Berbie
Place Sainte-Cécile BP 100
81003 Albi cedex