How Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec Took 19th-Century Paris by Storm—and Went Down in History

2/6/2021


The image of a late 19th-century white male French painter often conjures a penniless genius, a tortured recluse, or some combination of the two. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec different from his contemporaries in that he was neither of these things. He became massively successful during his lifetime, unlike Vincent van Gogh, who sold only a fraction of his numerous paintings while he was alive. Toulouse-Lautrec was at the center of Paris’s vibrant arts scene, unlike Paul Gauguin, who fled the country for Polynesia, where he painted images of Tahitian women. Toulouse-Lautrec also did not craft images of nature en plein air, the way that Claude Monet did, nor he did not devote himself to still lifes free of people, the way that Paul Cézanne largely did.

All of this makes Toulouse-Lautrec, who died at just 36 years old in 1901, an eccentric figure and somewhat of an outlier among his peers. His art, which focused largely on bars and dance halls in Paris and the people who frequented them, looks quite unlike the landscapes his Impressionist and Post-Impressionist colleagues produced, and his bombastic sensibility often imbued his work with a theatricality that ran counter to the era’s dominating styles. And yet, Toulouse-Lautrec’s work continues to fascinate, partly because it provides such a clear window into life in late 19th-century France.

With a Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition featuring 215 of the artist’s most famous prints due to open at the Polk Museum of Art in Lakeland, Florida, next week, below is a look at the French artist’s life and work.

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