I Knew About Toulouse-Lautrec’s Infatuation For Women–Not Dandies

Forbes Lifestyle 1 week ago

Wandering around the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris last week, I learnt of the artist’s infatuation with the English dandy. An eye-opener for me, for his most known artworks generally flaunt his besotted and sometimes bawdry life adventure with women, at brothels and cabaret clubs, and Moulin Rouge concert balls.

Think famous can-can dancers such as La Goulue (Louise Weber) and Jane Avril, raven haired courtesan Reine de Joie, and provocatively posed prostitutes in the Salon at the Rue des Moulins. These are the women he put in the spotlight in his work in the 1880s and 90s. The world seems divided between those who think he adored women, and put them on a pedestal, and others who feel his paintings reflect a misogyny and even sleazy voyeurism. 

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's famous painting La Goulue of French can-can dancer
Toulouse-Lautrec's painting La Goulue, of France's most famous can-can dancer, pictured at the ... [+] Moulin Rouge in 1892

After scrutinizing his works again at the ‘Toulouse-Lautrec Resolutely Modern’ exhibition, I firmly belong to the former camp, who see reverence for women in his powerfully expressive, humanist and realist visual tributes to them. So it would seem do the curators: historian and art critic, Stéphane Guégan from the Musée d'Orsay, and Danièle Devynck, director of the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec in his hometown Albi, southern France.

French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec with a model, and one of his famous paintings
French painter, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) in his Paris workshop with a model, standing ... [+] in front of his celebrated "Salon de la rue des Moulins" 1894

Fierce Naturalism On The Canvas Fueled By Lust For Life

“Toulouse-Lautrec translated his consuming passion for women into the remarkable series of portraits of young, unnamed ‘filles de joie’,” they write. “Ever the provocateur, he flaunted his frequenting of brothels, even setting himself up in them to work … and represented residents’ everyday lives in a manner untainted by generic voyeurism and fantasy, or by customary impropriety.”

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec delighted in female company, as he did in pretty much everything: “men, women, cultures, religions, sexualities”. With his penchant for buffoonery, cross-dressing and insatiable curiosity, “It was by living his life to the full,” say the curators, “that Lautrec created his art. And his expressive genius and sharp vision exceeded by far the limits of an existence given over to pleasure.”

Born in 1864 with crippling health issues, (which some link with generations of inbreeding in his aristocratic family), at 17 the novice had already declared his intention to depict “the real, not the ideal” ... “before developing his vigorous naturalism into an incisive and caustic style influenced by Japan, photography and the Impressionists”. 

French painter Toulouse-Lautrec wearing Japanese fancy-dress costume and carrying a doll.
Wrongly referred to as a dwarf, the French painter may have suffered from a rare bone disease caused ... [+] by a mutation in the gene, referred to as Toulouse-Lautrec Syndrome. He loved cabaret and fancy-dress. His debauchery caught up with him in 1899 when his family placed him in a sanitorium after a violent bout of delirium tremens. Released after achieving some 40 drawings to test his clarity, he died in 1901 aged 34 due to complications caused by alcoholism and syphilis.

Paris Boulevard Dandies With A Taste For London

Spread over two floors, the 200 works on show at the Grand Palais highlight a frenetic and proliferate art life. One room at least is dedicated to the dandy. “Drawn to London, and influenced by trends in interior decor from across the Channel, Lautrec made no secret of his taste for English culture,” say the curators. 

“This was evident in his powerful boulevardiers (or flâneurs) series of 1887-93, notably in his portraits of Gaston Bonnefoy, Louis Pascal and Henri Bourges. In them he makes his figures eloquent, whether seen from behind or the front, hands often plunged in pockets, hat and cane adding a kind of virile assurance.” 

A portrait of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's cousin Louis Pascal, dressed English dandy-style
The portrait of Louis Pascal (1864-1901), Toulouse-Lautrec's cousin, was one of a series depicting ... [+] his infatuation with the English-styled Parisian dandy

The remarkable 1893 painting of his cousin, Louis Pascal shows the rich, dashing banker wearing a polished top hat and long tailored coat. Looking insouciantly to the side, cigar in his mouth, he is carrying a cane under his arm. The contrived dandy appearance led one art reviewer of the day to mock the “snobbery of Parisian pseudo-boulevardiers, who get their laundry done in London”.

Commenting on his handsome cousin’s appeal in a letter to his grandmother, Lautrec teased impishly: “I am told you enjoyed my handsome friend Louis’s charming ways and patent leather shoes. You ought to find him an heiress and throw her into his arms. He’s not much good, I’d say, for anything else.”

Then again, do dandies need to be.

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