Art History and Over Simplification

Post Impressionist Toulouse-Lautrec


French painter Henri Toulouse-Lautrec is most known for his paintings and illustrations of life during the Belle Epoch in Paris of the late 1800s. We are bombarded with images of his works portraying this decadent life of theater, drinking and women of the night. For these works he is best known, but I think it only fair to remind us all that no human is simply explained. The complexities that mold a life can be seen in this artists work if we dig a little deeper.


I have seen it all written of him. That he was grotesque, he led a life of debauchery, he had no soul, he had no friends. I kind of doubt most of this. If you spend time with his art, beyond the Moulin Rouge posters, I doubt anyone could question the depth of his soul. He painted beautiful portraits of soft moments of life and yes, love. He painted portraits of dogs and cats(!), and horses appeared as subjects of many of his serious works. Anyone who portrays horses with such power must have pondered the mysteries of nature.


Born to first cousins, with his two grandmothers being sisters, Henri was undeniably a product of inbreeding. And with this family history he suffered certain health problems attributed to being inbred. Evidently Lautrec's father (the Count) was a bit of a crack-pot. He was said to "disappear" for weeks at a time with no explanation we've yet heard. His wife, no doubt, knew more than history relates to us. But Henri painted several works of his father either on horseback or driving horses. The horses in these paintings are big and powerful, and  show an appreciation for the essence of equine.

My historian friend says Henri was so rich he could buy his "friends." And that at the time he was painting in Paris,  it really wasn't fashionable to be heir to riches in France. I maintain that his women of the brothels surely would have tired of him and stopped posing if they didn't like him at all. Or maybe he just bought the drinks and was tolerated for it.

His little short legs were the result of a bone disease and breaks he suffered at the age of 13, that didn't heal properly. Both legs had been broken at separate times and never grew. But I don't think he was all that bad looking. People probably were less tolerant of physical differences back then. The life of debauchery is probably true. He did indeed die at age 37 of alcoholism and syphilis. Below is a favorite of mine I think shows his great talent for capturing a moment of beauty of a woman, and below that, a little dog named "Margot," with a certain look of self assurance, I also associate with Monsieur Toulouse-Lautrec.