The World of Toulouse-Lautrec
At 17, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec declared that an artist should show “what is true, not what is ideal.” He devoted his talent to portraying the world of Montmartre’s cafés and cabarets in the 1880s and ‘90s.
From childhood, Lautrec had a genius for representing people. He would rarely paint any other subject. When he looked at a person who caught his interest, not only their appearance, but seemingly also their personality would magically flow from his hand, fixing a moment of their life, and his, on a piece of cardboard or canvas.
True to his early credo, Lautrec did not glorify his subjects. He painted them as they went about their lives – sometimes performing, at other times sprawling exhausted on a chair, or simply lost in thought. No matter their status, he painted them honestly and with dignity.
Lautrec sometimes finished his paintings with care, but it is always apparent that he worked quickly, with sweeping contours and brushstrokes. The speed of his execution animated his drawings and paintings. His genius allowed him to capture a likeness with just a few strokes. But no matter how simple, his drawings never descended into caricature. His subjects might be engaged in carefree activities, but his images of them were always done with utmost seriousness: always the truth.
Lautrec’s intuitive understanding of personality made him a master of atmosphere. He brought the excitement and energy of Montmartre’s dance halls to life in the posters of the performers he loved watching – Yvette Guilbert, La Goulue, May Milton, and his favorite, Jane Avril. Always the realist, he painted these cabaret stars not as slender young ingénues, but as they were in fact, with beauty that came not from physical perfection, but from the skill and elegance with which they performed.
Toulouse-Lautrec created a vivid portrait of the world he knew. Walking through his current exhibition at Paris’ Grand Palais takes us into that world, allowing us to see it through his eyes. The experience is both intense and beautiful. Lautrec’s life was neither long nor happy, but in a span of less than two decades he made a body of work that will give pleasure to art lovers for centuries.