Updated: Jul 28, 2019
You have to go high up to get to the Lautrecs. No, I don't mean climbing the stairways of Montmartre (the Martyrs' Hill indeed when you hit about the 20th step).
No, all you have to do is go up to the top of the Musée D'Orsay, near the Café des Hauteurs with its classic 19th century clock. Up there you find not only the terrace outside the café, with its views across the Seine of the Louvre, to the west the Grand Palais, and in the far distance the white domes of Sacre Coeur, but also the Impressionists and wonderful softly lit rooms of delicately colored, light- sensitive pastels by Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.
When one mentions Lautrec, normally the thought is of those bright, rather bawdy posters of night life in Montmartre, like this one of Jane Avril dancing in the Jardin de Paris, 1893.
This image is full of the bright colors of stage costumes, designed to catch the eye and engage the viewers. Lautrec's use of a fuzzy white smears of paint captures the movement by outlining it. Lautrec turned his captured movement into a poster, which by force of printing had minimal colors, but kept his basic observation of the color, contrasted with grays and off whites, and the dance movement itself.
However, what captured my attention were his oil pastels like this one called Le Lit.
This work in oil pastels on cardboard has such an immediacy to it. The strokes seem rapidly applied, and even the fact that it is done on cardboard implies that it was sudden inspiration, unlike works done on primed canvas. The rich use of color to indicate the shadows and crinkles of the bedding involves unusual touches of golden orange and yellow, blues and pinks and greens. The warm colors of the bedding and the orange of the wall behind the bed give the feeling of warmth, coziness. The faces of the man and the woman are flushed in that warm golden light. Their hair is tousled, and if you look closely, you can see their barely opened eyes. This is my favorite of the pastels. I always go to see it when at the D'Orsay, and I always feel a stab of heartache when I see it. Lautrec lived mostly among the prostitutes of Montmartre, where his short height due to stunted growth and his other abnormality (a nude photo of him on a boat shows a rather - uh hmmm - long member) were accepted, as he was. However, the couple in this painting seem like more than a one-night stand. They lie with the covers cozily pulled up, facing each other as they wake, and all seems familiar, homey, and sweetly intimate. I have often mused as I looked at the painting on what was the first thing they said to one another. Then I wonder if this is from Lautrec's real life or just wishing it was?
Henri-Marie Raymond Toulouse-Lautrec decided to become a painter in 1882. In 1884 he moved from the south of France to Paris and took up residence in Montmartre, where he began enjoying the life of his "quartier" (neighborhood) with its infamous nightlife. He took up with the prostitutes who became a ready source of models, allowing him intimate contact with their lives. This allowed him to create such soft quiet pieces like La Toilette (seen below).
No photograph of this pastel or the one above due justice to the beauty of the actual colors in these pieces. That is why one must go to see the originals. Yet even here we get a sense of the softness of the skin, perhaps freshly washed and flushed pink by the scrub, and we see the vibrancy of the red hair with its highlights of orange.
Lautrec's familiarity with the ladies in the clubs allowed him to indulge his pleasure in drawing these long-legged dancers.
We see here one such sketch in gouache on cardboard of a woman pulling on her stockings. Again a quick treatment is recognized by the materials used and the fresh strokes used to capture the activity.
I have an early memory of Toulouse-Lautrec, which comes from a childhood viewing of the film, Moulin Rouge.
Normally when I went to the movies with my parents, I slept through the films, seeing only snippets. Among those was one from Moulin Rouge. As a child viewing the film, I was terribly sympathetic to this little man with short legs who so loved the women with long beautiful legs. In one scene he had decided to commit suicide. He closed the windows, turned on the gas, and ignored the knocking of one of his long-legged beauties. His final gesture would be to die, painting. So he began, but as any painter knows, there are always knotty, interesting passages in any painting. He came upon one that was more interesting to him than dying, so he opened the windows, cut off the gas, and got to work. That proves the old art promotion slogan, "Art Saves Lives" to be true.
There are a couple of other pieces I wish to point out that show things about Lautrec, beyond the posters. His early days in Paris came at a time when the Impressionists were showing their works. There was yet another group of painters, Gauguin, Cezanne, Van Gogh and a few others who were moving beyond impressionism. None had found great favor yet, and Lautrec associated with them, especially with a young Dutchman who seemed somewhat outcast, Vincent Van Gogh. Lautrec was 11 years younger than Van Gogh but was drawn to him. Here you see the pastel portrait he did of Vincent in 1887.
Again, it is quickly done in pastel on cardboard, obviously in a café by a window. An expanded version shows a full moon subtly present in the sky the window opens onto. It seems to complete some intuition Lautrec had about Van Gogh.
Lautrec suffered from his contact in the brothels, dying some say from complications of syphilis. He suffered financially because of his father's rejection of his son's chosen work and lifestyle, and this was done by a man who, himself, dressed up in costumes. His father appeared at his son's deathbed, prompting Lautrec's last words, "The old fool." Lautrec's mother, who had also disapproved of her son's chosen work, took it upon herself after his death to promote his work, even establishing the Musée Toulouse-Lautrec in Albi, the city of his birth.
One final image of Lautrec shows how advanced he was. Here a charming photo montage done in 1890 in which we see him painting himself and using his two names. Seems very now, doesn't it?
Which works by Lautrec do you prefer, the posters or the pastels? Why?
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My source for information on Lautrec's life was Toulouse-Lautrec by Matthias Arnold published by Taschen, 2004 (French language version)
Images of Lautrec's work are from public domain sources.