Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec an aristocrat artist in Montmartre
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was from an old aristocratic family in the South of France.
He had a condition that gave him brittle leg bones and stunted his growth which has become known as Toulouse-Lautrec syndrome.
Lautrec came to Paris, took lessons at an art academy where he met Vincent van Gogh and by 1884 was living in Montmartre.
Lautrec spots the artistic and commercial potential of Montmartre
The cabarets, cafés and dance halls of his new home must have been an alien environment for someone who had grown up in the provinces. Lautrec took it in his stride; he revelled in the nightlife of late 1880s and 1890s Montmartre and soon made friends with the showbiz celebrities of the day.
He developed a style that distilled the spirit of the age like no other artist. His paintings and prints set the pace for the image of Paris and Montmartre at the end of the nineteenth century.
Lautrec became famous — and forever associated with the Moulin Rouge — with the mass circulation publicity poster, Moulin Rouge: La Goulue which he created for the Montmartre venue in 1891. The poster is Montmartre’s defining image.
Bruant’s Mirliton, an apprenticeship for the Moulin Rouge
Before becoming an established artist Toulouse-Lautrec was friends with Aristide Bruant the Montmartre cabaret owner and performer. Bruant gave Lautrec wall space at his venue called the Mirliton.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s observations of performers and customers in the Mirliton may have set him thinking about the artistic and commercial opportunities in the Montmartre entertainment scene.
The Mirliton sharpened Lautrec’s eye and was a useful apprenticeship for his later Moulin Rouge work.
Lautrec’s artistic approach to Montmartre
His acute sense of observation
Art historians speak of Lautrec’s penetrating sense of observation. His incisive line manages to seize and represent the essential nature of his subject in a moment.
Toulouse-Lautrec uses caricature and heightened naturalism which borders on exaggeration in order to present the viewer with a lightening psychological snapshot of scenario and personality.
He may have had a reputation as a drinker — his cane was said to have a secret absinthe reservoir — but he was just as addicted to his work; his vision remained clear and his wit sharp.
The influence of Japanese prints
Vincent van Gogh and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec studied together at art academy and remained friends until Vincent’s death in 1890. Both artists admired Japanese prints; Vincent and his art dealer brother Theo were avid collectors.
Here is how the Vincent van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam resumes the essential stylistic characteristics of Japanese prints:
- An uncluttered empty middle ground in the painting
- Enlarged foreground subjects
- Cropping bringing the principal subject into dynamic focus
- No horizon
- Expanses of colour and flatness, “delineated by bold contours”
When advances in printing technology allowed clearer image reproduction and mass distribution, Toulouse-Lautrec was able to effectively adapt and incorporate many of these techniques when he turned his attention to publicity posters.
Caricature and ‘types’ for representing showbiz Montmartre
Toulouse-Lautrec shows us many of his subjects including his bourgeois male as a caricature or ‘type’. Types were artistic and cultural conventions for portraying and understanding contemporary society. The worker, the man of leisure, the courtesan, the dancer or the artist had a set of caricatural visual conventions that defined them.
One of the most recognisable was the bourgeois man about town.
The set of representational triggers that identified his ‘type’ was his top hat, cane, gloves, a dark frock coat or suit and waistcoat and a high starched collar and tie. Here was a man of substance, sober and responsible; a solid bourgeois.
Caricature reinforces stereotypes
The problem with portraying people as types — from our modern perspective — is that it tends to reinforce social stereotypes and facilitate simplified psychological type casting. Art that depends on caricature types helps entrench and authorise the dominant culture of the time.
Toulouse-Lautrec was from an aristocratic background and would have had no personal experience of economic hardship or barriers to social advancement that many faced in the conservative climate of late nineteenth century Paris.
The work that he produced did not challenge contemporary power structures, hierarchies or gender roles. There is no clear political viewpoint in Toulouse-Lautrec’s work.
Types and caricature were devices and conventions Lautrec used to catch the gaudy theatricality of Montmartre nightlife. They helped him to quickly represent and convey the exaggerated and artificial nature of the scene as he was experiencing it. Just like in a theatre they identified character and set expectation.
Let’s now look at some of his most famous works and link them, (by means of the infographic diagram), to the various different Toulouse-Lautrec addresses on the walk.
Where Toulouse-Lautrec lived in the Pigalle area of lower Montmartre
Route around the lower Montmartre Pigalle area
Point 10: 19, 19 bis and 21 Rue Pierre Fontaine
19, 19 bis and 21 Rue Pierre Fontaine — which I have gathered together as point 10 on this walk — are the three adjacent apartments where Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec stayed during his most creative period.
He lived between these three buildings from 1884 to 1893 or 4. Experts disagree as to whether he also worked here. To simplify I have preferred to situate his artistic work from 1886 to 1897 or 8 in the studio in Rue Caulaincourt, (see the upper Montmartre walk point 10), and from 1897 or 8 until 1901 in the studio in Avenue Frochot, (point 15 on this walk).
Edgar Degas also lived at 19 Rue Pierre Fontaine as the metal information panel in front of the door informs us. He stayed here before Lautrec (from 1878 – 1882) and produced the Little Dancer statue in the workshop in the courtyard behind these doors.
His greatest work was produced whilst he stayed in these apartments
The poster that made him famous Moulin Rouge: La Goulue was produced whilst he lived here.
His most penetrating portrait of the Moulin Rouge, the performers, the paying customers and the Montmartre entertainment scene, At the Moulin Rouge was also painted whilst resident here.
Toulouse-Lautrec would have known the small shops, cafés and incline of this street very well as he set out each morning on the short walk to his studio in Rue Caulaincourt. Through the windows of his apartment he would have heard the horses plodding up the slope dragging their carriages full of passengers and then trotting back down again; he would have opened and closed the doors to these buildings many times.
Two contrasting portraits: Hélène Vary and Paul Sescau
The attractive portrait of Toulouse-Lautrec’s neighbour, Hélène Vary, (in the Kunsthalle Bremen) from 1889 shows his assured draughtsmanship.
His clear line has caught her classical beauty and fine profile in a flash. She is posing in a wicker chair. The jumble of paintings and canvases which serve as a background and frame her harmonious features tell us that she is sitting in the studio at 21 Rue Caulaincourt (see point 10 on the upper Montmartre walk).
In another portrait from 1891 (in the Brooklyn Museum) Paul Sescau, a photographer and friend of Toulouse-Lautrec, who will regularly appear in other works, is also seen in the studio at 21 Rue Caulaincourt.
Whereas Hélène Vary is obviously posing, Paul Sescau is actively engaged, standing and examining the work in the studio. He’s dressed for a walk; top hat, shirt and tie, jacket and cane as though he has just wandered in or is he perhaps about to go out?
Hélène is sitting; she has a newspaper in her hand and she is dressed as though she has just come round from next door. Paul is dressed up and on the move, about to stroll along the boulevard, swinging his cane and tipping his top hat.
Lautrec has caught a simple but telling illustration of the roles French society expected men and women to play at the time.
I look more at the roles and expectations that late nineteenth century Parisian society mapped out for the sexes in the working women and bourgeois men page.
Where did Toulouse-Lautrec live in Montmartre?
Toulouse-Lautrec lived from 1884 to 1893/4 in three adjacent addresses in Rue Pierre Fontaine — 19, 19 bis and 21 — in the Pigalle area of lower Montmartre. He produced his greatest works whilst resident here. Masterpieces like Moulin Rouge: La Goulue or At the Moulin Rouge were painted at his studio in Rue Caulaincourt.
Toulouse-Lautrec addresses in the Pigalle area of lower Montmartre
- 19 bis Rue Pierre Fontaine, 1884 – 1887, point 10 on lower Montmartre circuit
- 19 Rue Pierre Fontaine, 1887 – 1891, point 10 on lower Montmartre circuit
- 21 Rue Pierre Fontaine, 1891 – 1893/4, point 10 on lower Montmartre circuit
- 21 Rue Caulaincourt, 1893/4 – 1895, point 10 on upper Montmartre circuit
- 30 Rue Pierre Fontaine, 1895 – 1897, point 9 on lower Montmartre circuit
- 5 Avenue Frochot, 1897 – 1898, point 15 on lower Montmartre circuit
- 9 Rue de Douai, 1898 – 1901, point 6 on lower Montmartre circuit
Where were Toulouse-Lautrec’s studios in Montmartre?
- 21 Rue Caulaincourt, 1886 – 1897/8, point 10 on upper Montmartre circuit
- 15 Avenue Frochot, 1897/8– 1901, point 15 on lower Montmartre circuit
Where to see the paintings
On the this page
On the Moulin Rouge page:
At The Moulin Rouge: The Dance is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art
The Performing Horsewoman at Fernando’s Circus is in the Art Institute, Chicago
Moulin Rouge: La Goulue, poster copies in museums throughout world, this one Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields
At The Moulin Rouge is in the Art Institute, Chicago
La Goulue Entering the Moulin Rouge is in the MOMA, New York
The Goulue’s Fairground Hut Decorations are in the Orsay Museum, Paris
On the celebrity posters page:
Jane Avril At the Entrance to the Moulin Rouge is in the Courtauld Institute, London
Jane Avril Au Jardin de Paris, poster copies in museums throughout world, this one the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Jane Avril the Divan Japonais, poster copies in museums throughout world, this one the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Aristide Bruant in His Cabaret, poster copies in museums throughout world, this one the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
All photographs © David Macmillan except: (1), (2), (3).
All Wikipedia photographic attribution courtesy of the Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons Attribution generator :
(1) Paul Sescau, Lautrec - Sescau, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons
(2) Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec creator QS:P170,Q82445, Helene Vary 1889 Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons
(3) Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec artist QS:P170,Q82445, Brooklyn Museum - Portrait of M. Paul Sescau (Portrait de M. Paul Sescau) - Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons