The Noble Dwarf
Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Montfa was born on a stormy night of 1864 in his grandmother's fortresslike old house which had grown over the centuries around a donjon of the medieval ramparts of the city of Albi.
Admiring relatives and servants made him aware from his earliest childhood that he was heir to an old and proud name in Europe. His ancestors had been counts of Toulouse, ruling over most of the South of France, inventing romantic love and entertaining troubadors at the most civilized court in Europe. A younger son of Count Raymond V had married the daughter of the Count of Lautrec in 1196, and an unbroken line had run from father to son ever since. The family glittered with diadems: dukes and counts without number, even a brother-in-law of Richard the Lion-Hearted. Henri Marie Raymond was to take a path of his own: he would lead a disorderly unconventional life and do things that would horrify his family, but in his way, down to his wretched end when he lay dying of alcoholism, syphilis and whatever else he could pick up on his primrose path, he never forgot family tradition. He was always an aristocrat, though an aristocrat built to his own specifications..
He was one of the cluster of French painters who at the end of the 19th century changed the world's way of looking at things and launched the adventure of modern art. He was a man of such penetrating eye and such vivid touch that he has impressed his own vision of Paris in the 1890s on posterity. It has all become so familiar that it takes a wrench to remember that, after all, this is only one narrow corner of Paris, that there were millions of people in the 1890s who never went to ogle the ladies at the Moulin de la Galette, who never saw Jane Avril dance or Yvette Guilbert sing at the Moulin Rouge, never visited the racecourse at Longchamps or the fancy brothels of Montmartre.
Lautrec never had to worry about money. His family had come through the French Revolution successfully by lying low, and had held on to most of their immense possessions of land. They had once been at the heart of the ruling class and filled prominent positions in state and church. But in 19th-century France they had nothing to do. French governments distrusted them, and besides, they regarded all French governments after 1830 as usurpers. They were waiting for the restoration of the rightful Bourbon King, the Count of Chambord, who the family thought should be crowned as Henri V (Lautrec was named for him.)
They might accept commissions in the armed forces, as did the painter's father, Count Alphonse, until his royalist principles and his total allergy to discipline led him to resign. For a man of his station, there was nothing to do afterward except look after his estates, hunt game and chase women.
Count Alphonse made a love match with his first cousin Adèle Tapié de Celeyran, who came of another landed and aristocratic family. Intermarriage was not uncommon in these families, and the results for their only surviving son (a younger brother, Richard, died a year after birth) were catastrophic. The parents blamed themselves for their child's afflictions, and modern medical opinion seems to hold that they were right. According to the latest study of the medical evidence, the boy suffered from a rare form of dwarfism called pyknodysostosis, which is more common in children of consanguineous parents than of others.
Bones of the arms and legs of those suffering from this condition do not have the spurt of growth common to other adolescents. The features of the face coarsen, the lips thicken and drool, the nose has a constant sniffle. All this was to happen to little Henri, who for the first 13 years of his life was known in the local dialect as Bébé lou poulit, the little beauty, the bright madcap child who was everyone's idol.
Life was a perpetual round of pleasures and excitements for him at the paternal Chateau du Bosc north of Albi, or the maternal estate, Celeyran, on the Mediterranean, or the beaches and harbors of the Atlantic coast. He was brought up surrounded by forests and gardens, grainfields and vineyards, kennels and stables. There were animals everywhere. His grandmother Lautrec often went walking with a monkey on her shoulder. There were hawks and hounds, ferrets and cormorants. Above all, there were horses.
"In our family," his father once said, "we christen a child at once, and then put him on a horse." One of the artists earliest memories was of his grandfather Count Raymond, known as the Black Prince, who was out hunting alone one winter day and rolled down a precipice, blew a blast on his horn with bloodied lips, and died.
The three sons of the Black Prince spent most of their lives on horseback; they could not wait till Henri was big enough to join the hunt. As soon as he could walk, he was riding a pony. Soon he was forming his swarms of little cousins into cavalry troops. He spent happy hours with the grooms in the stables. Later on in life, when they asked him what he missed most from the days before his debility, he answered, "Horses."
He was self-willed, mischievous, a leader in all the children's games. He designed the costumes and the disguises, he spoke all the voices in the Punch-and- Judy shows.
His parents, after the first flush of romance, found themselves totally incompatible in character and tastes, and it was not long before they were living apart, though Alphonse in his unpredictable way might turn up at any time for dinner and might stay on, unwelcome but irremovable, for months or years as part of the household.
In their radically dissimilar ways, they both had a great influence on the little boy. Adèle, the mother, was quiet, pious, well-read, practical in money matters, straitlaced, narrow-minded, totally devoted to her son. She never really appreciated his work; when she was asked once to name her favorite painter, her reply was: "Certainly not my son." But she was fiercely proud of any success he had in his lifetime and fought fiercely for his fame after he died. She preserved every scrap of his work that he had not sold or given away. A selection was offered to the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris, which chose only one. She then gave the whole collection to the city of Albi, which now has one of the most popular provincial museums in the world.
Adèle always provided him not only with all the money he needed but with a home he might come back to anytime he was tired of his dissipations. She knew all about the dissipations, but she accepted with a steely resignation what she could see only as a deliberate destruction of body and soul. He was always glad to curl up in a chaise longue at her Paris apartment or at the Chateau de Malromé near Bordeaux, which she bought. "I can do anything I like," he used to say, "since Mama keeps nuns in our old castle of Boussagues [still another family estate] who have nothing to do but pray for the salvation of my soul."
Count Alphonse was quite another kettle of fish, an eccentric of almost English proportions, a big bearded man who on occasion danced around the living room with a knife between his teeth, who went out hunting in coat of mail and cowboy hat. He used to ride his favorite white mare in the Bois de Boulogne in Paris wearing an Uzbek helmet with a red pennant fluttering from it; he would rein in the mare halfway through the ride, dismount and milk her, drink the milk, remount and continue. This inveterate huntsman and womanizer lost interest in his son when he realized the child could no longer hope to mount a horse. He did pass on to him, however, along with a taste for fancy costumes and disguises, a talent for gourmet cooking. He evidently liked his steak rare. A family recipe for Steak à la Lautrec: "Grill three steaks placed horizontally on top of each other. Serve the middle one." He also passed on a passion for drawing.
Count Alphonse and his two brothers shared a traditional family fascination with art. They used to sit by the fire for hours after the hunt and draw or paint or model clay. Their mother said of them that when they hunted a game bird they got three pleasures out of it, shooting it, drawing it and eating it. The little Henri was watching and imitating them from the start. When he was taken, at age two and a half, to the christening of his brother, he asked to be picked up so that he could sign the register and, not being able to write, he announced that he would draw an ox.
The margins of Lautrec's schoolbooks were crammed with lively sketches of dogs, galloping horses and farm scenes. It has been speculated that he might have grown up as the family expected to be a country squire in the family tradition, who would have casually turned out some lively works of art for his cousins and friends. But his life was changed for good when two falls, at ages 13 and 14, condemned him to months of immobility, his thighs in plaster, confined to bed or a wheelchair. At first his parents believed that his increasing physical debility was the result of the falls. They could not believe that anything constitutionally was wrong and he was dragged for years from doctor to doctor and beach to spa, subjected to all kinds of treatments and relentlessly prayed for. At the age of 16, when his features had long since thickened as the disease dictated, his father did a drawing of him showing the traditionally lean, handsome face of a Toulouse-Lautrec.
Bébé lou poulit was not fooled. He could look in a mirror. His growth stopped at just under five feet, and he knew he would spend the rest of his life tottering around on stunted legs. "I am alone all day," he wrote in a letter. "I read a little but it gives me a headache. I draw and I paint, as much as I can, so much so that my hand gets tired and when it begins to get dark I wait to see if Jeanne d'Armagnac [one of the cousins] will come and sit by my bed. She comes sometimes and tries to distract me and play with me, and I listen to her speak without daring to look at her, she is so tall and so beautiful! And I am neither tall nor beautiful." It was the closest he ever came to complaining. Generally, he turned a resolutely cheerful countenance to the outside world.
Drawing and painting filled all his hours, and so they were to do when he could get around with crutches or a cane. He was a phenomenally hard worker. He studied with two fashionable Parisian painters and though they could never make a conventional painter out of him, he doggedly learned everything they had to offer. He had a sketchbook everywhere he went, and his pen or pencil was always running in fluid nervous lines through it, or on any other surface that was handy: tablecloths, menus, the plaster walls at Chateau du Bosc, where many of his sketches survive to this day. People who knew him could hardly count the hours he spent drinking at the nightspots and tomcatting through the sordid streets of Montmartre, and sometimes it led them to think of him as an amiable dilettante. But the sheer volume of his work is remarkable: before he died at 36, he had turned out more than 500 paintings, more than 350 lithographs and posters, more than 5,000 drawings.
He was 19 when he moved to Montmartre and plunged into the reckless, rowdy life of his bohemian artist friends. But he never cut himself off from his past. He went on visiting his mother regularly; he was unfailingly polite and affectionate with her. He was unfailingly polite and affectionate with all his family and with the servants back home in Albi. He could be a pleasant companion to everyone he chose to come in contact with. He never forgot, because he never had to remember, that he came from the top, the social pinnacle. The social distinctions which count so much in the lives of lesser people meant nothing to him. He found it perfectly natural to pass out at the opening of his show in London and snore through the visit of the Prince of Wales. The Prince, he was told, had insisted that he not be awakened. "A nice chap!" Lautrec commented, and went back to sleep. He was not impressed by being introduced to Milan, the former King of Serbia: "After all, you're only an Obrenovich." He had the same ready smile, the same barbed wit for everyone from the stuffiest members of the Jockey Club to the pimps and whores with whom he rubbed shoulders nightly in the back streets of Montmartre. With his fellow artists and with the nightclub performers he might dress like an apache and speak the fashionable underworld argot which in his time became a kind of parallel language for the French. When he went to dine with his mother, he wore natty evening clothes and he spoke the French of the Académie Française.
Lautrec kept his political opinions to himself and his religion was a duty he had learned as a child, the conventional Catholicism of the French nobility. When in his apprentice years in Paris his master picked him to collaborate on a big Biblical painting, his mother wrote home to Albi asking for a family Bible as it wasn't fitting for him to do his research in a Protestant version. When he lay dying, he asked for the priest who had been both chaplain at the Chateau du Bosc and family tutor.
The only thing he took seriously was art. "So cynical and foul-mouthed on all other occasions," said his friend Vuillard, "he became completely serious when art was mentioned." When he heard his friend Van Gogh being maligned by a Belgian painter at a banquet, he bounced up, waving his arms in the air, shouting that it was an outrage to criticize so great an artist and challenging the wretch to a duel. The wretch slipped ignominiously away
It was not the only service which Lautrec would render his friend. It was he who told Van Gogh, Go south, young man, to soak up the liberating light which would transform his painging..
Art for Lautrec meant life, the life of the world around him. He never looked for subjects. "I aim for the true, not the ideal," he said. He had come through the agonies of his adolescence stripped of illusion; he kept his big nearsighted eyes fixed coldly, dispassionately, relentlessly, on what he saw around him. The world he chose to see was naturally the one he felt at home in. It was, as he said, a double world. Half his time he was spent in the aristocratic life he had been born into, a life of elegant salons, racecourses, cruises, yachts. He always traveled first-class. He went home often to savor the life of the old-fashioned chateau, warm and easygoing, with all the servants who had brought him up running out to greet Monsieur Henri. The children loved him on these visits, he was their sizewhen he sat at the grownups' table, his legs dangled over the edge of his chair just like theirsand he spoke their language. But they couldn't help noticing how his eyes kept turning to the bottle of absinthe which was always somewhere nearby.
The absinthe was everywhere in his other world, the seamy world of Montmartre, then still partly country with its vineyards and gardens and its strange fauna of criminals, prostitutes, vagabonds, artists and well- dressed slummers. He wrote piously to his grandmother that he went there at first only out of a sense of duty to keep up with his fellow artists, but his dwarf's profile was soon a regular feature of the landscape. He was a familiar and welcome figure in all the cafés, the dance halls, the cabarets, the bars where he could keep drinking after the cabarets closed. It pleased him, too, he said, "to set up my tent in a brothel." There were any number of maisons closes in the neighborhood and Lautrec might move into one of them for months at a time, keeping a room to himself and using it as a temporary business address. He was Monsieur Henri, the painter, to these women, too; he took his meals with them and they cheerfully posed for him day or night. (Presumably it was during these years that he contracted the syphilis that was probably a contributing factor in his death.)
Lautrec had no moral or political ax to grind. He drew and painted his prostitutes just as he saw them while living among them, women going about a job, lining up for medical inspection, waiting in bovine repose in the parlor under the madam's prim eye, waiting for the American millionaire or Russian grand duke who would give the signal for the orgy to begin. When Van Gogh painted a prostitute, he labeled the picture Sorrow. When Lautrec did the same, he simply called it by the girl's nickname, Madame Poupoule.
Whichever of his two worlds he was in, Lautrec had the same eagerness to seize upon the men and women (and animals) who populated it, to strip them down to their essentials with a few sure strokes, show them unposed and unrehearsed, in the raw. He wanted the spontaneity of a snapshot and he cropped his figures, had them come ballooning out of the picture frame in startling ways. There was nothing slapdash about it, however. His effects of spontaneity were carefully calculated and he may have done six or eight complete versions of a subject before it came out with the look he wanted.
He was capable of all kinds of technical tricks, but he was not particularly interested in the painstaking construction of three-dimensional spatial illusion. He saw things up close. He was primarily interested in character and drama and the presence of living flesh, and he deliberately left his backgrounds vague and even confused. If he put a landscape behind one of his figures, it was often little more than a jumble of colored strokes. He did more than 30 paintings of the Moulin Rouge, creating an unforgettable gallery of human forms among the performers and the spectators, but it would be hard to get more than a sketchy idea from them of what the Moulin Rouge itself looked like.
During the 1890s he worked out his distinctive style and it hardly varied till he began to go to pieces at the end. Influenced by Degas and even more by the Japanese prints which were then all the rage in Paris, the style depended on broad areas of solid color bound by an elaborate network of lines. This is a style admirably adapted for printing by lithography, in which each color is applied to the paper by a separate stone, and Lautrec, a hard worker and a superb technician, rapidly became a great innovator in this fieldin the view of many, the greatest lithographer of all time. He had learned as a magazine illustrator the ways of getting a maximum of effect with a minimum of means. When, in 1891, the owners of the Moulin Rouge asked him to design a poster advertising the autumn season of the music hall, he knew just what to do. The resulting poster, which made him famous overnight, sums up all the possibilities of the medium. It is instantly legible, for posters are made so that he who runs may read; one look at La Goulue kicking up her skirts and Valentin le Désossé, her dance partner (he was also a wine merchant), identifies the place forever. And it is so expertly designed at the same time that it can be studied at length and with pleasure. In fact, people began collecting Lautrec posters as soon as they began to go up on the walls of Paris. What had previously been only a commercial medium was now fine art, fit for entry into museums. Lautrec himself made no distinction between fine and commercial art; he worked with the same zeal and competence on theater programs, book covers, magazine illustrations, calling cards, menus, invitations (there is one showing the little artist dressed as a cow- boy complete with spurs and a whip in his hand, standing before a very placid-looking cow and inviting his friends over for a glass of milk). He was a master of layout, blending text with eye-catching illustration, and advertising men have been in his debt ever since.
Lautrec himself was not given to esthetic theories.He went on painting what he saw around him, developing a passion, sometimes an obsession, for a single subject and then letting it drop abruptly. There are whole cycles of drawings, paintings and lithographs devoted to the circus, to the theater, to the singer Yvette Guilbert who at first liked them but whose friends thought he was making fun of her, to the operating room of the famous surgeon Dr. Péan, who was teaching Lautrec's "bony cousin" Gabriel Tapié de Céleyran, a young medical student who regularly accompanied the painter on his tours of the haunts of Montmartre at night.
All the while, he was more or less deliberately drinking himself to death. In 1898 he began to have convulsions and deliriums and had to be taken off to a clinic in Neuilly. The doctors were delighted to have a wealthy artist in their grip and might have kept him there indefinitely, but he was anxious to get out and stirred up his friends to demand his release. When he was sufficiently dried out, he asked a friend to send prepared stones and a box of watercolors with sepia, paint brushes, litho crayons, good quality Chinese ink and paper, and to prove that his hand and mind were still in first-class shape, he drew from memory a whole series of circus scenes. The doctors let him go and for a while he listened to their advice and stayed sober. But not for long. His friends had once given him as a joke a hollow walking stick which they said was used by Belgian smugglers bringing untaxed absinthe into France. He could use it now when the cousin who was supposed to be guarding him looked away.
In 1901 he suffered a couple of strokes, and knew that it was hopeless. He neatly signed and stacked all the works in his studio and went off to Malromé to sit and doze in the garden with a bottle by his side and his mother faithfully watching over him. "It's awfully hard to die," he said as he waited, and took a long painful time doing it.
Count Alphonse turned up unexpectedly. "Ah, Papa," said Lautrec to the old huntsman, "I knew you'd be in at the death." The old man wrote a grief- stricken letter about the "inoffensive child" who had never spoken a bitter word to him. He sat decorously with the mourners till he heard a strange noise upstairs. When they said it was some owls who had got into the tower, he rushed out to hunt down the owls. At the funeral the next day, he climbed up beside the driver of the hearse to make sure that he held the reins properly and that his son "could go to his last resting place in a manner befitting a gentleman."
©1985 Robert Wernick Smithsonian Magazine November 1985