Toulouse Lautrec, like no other nineteenth century artist was deeply influenced by Japanese woodblock prints. Just like the exuberant life of the amusement quarters of the Japanese Edo period, it was the nightlife of Montmartre in Paris, which inspired the works of this incredible artist. And like the great Ukiyo-e artist Utamaro, Toulouse Lautrec not only painted the world of brothels, but was a frequent guest himself.
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Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa was born as the son of an aristocratic and rich family in the South of France. Maybe enhanced by his fragile health, Henri developed a passion for drawing and painting. He received painting and drawing lessons by a professional artist, Rene Princeteau.
At the age of 12 and 14, the young Henri broke both his legs. This stopped the growth of his legs while the rest of his body continued to develop normally. Toulouse never managed to cope mentally with this disability.
The young Henri went to Paris in 1882 to attend different, conventional painting studios where he met the artists Emil Bernard and Vincent van der Gogh. Soon he is more attracted by the Impressionist artists like Edgar Degas than by the conventional painting style and gives up the lessons in the studios.
Lautrec lived in the Montmartre section, the nightlife quarter of cabarets, cafes, restaurants, sleazy dance halls and brothels. He soon emerged into this world and became a part of the bohemian community.
In the evenings, he could be seen chatting with friends and drinking, and at the same time drawing sketches on paper. Then the next day, he would transform the sketches into paintings and lithographs.
Toulouse Lautrec exhibited his first works in the cafes and restaurants of Montmartre. His paintings soon attracted general attention and he received his first commissions.
As his fame grew, so did his consumption of alcohol. But he managed to keep up his passion for painting and printmaking at the same time. He had a few exhibitions in galleries, acquired general recognition and was flooded with commissions.
The lithographs of Lautrec show the famous personalities of the French Belle Epoque. Lautrec knew them all personally - singers and dancers like Yvette Guilbert, May Belfort, Jane Avril or the poet Aristide Bruant. Many of these lithographs were commissioned by these artists for posters or theater billboards or as illustrations for magazines.
The artist created his first lithograph in 1891. His involvement in the actual printing process was not very close. For the best known lithographs like Le Divan Japonais, he prepared one or several drawings and sketches. It can be assumed that the transformation on a lithograph plate was performed by a professional printer.
Edition sizes and the papers used, vary widely. Small editions were made in 50 or 100 copies, sometimes in different versions, on Velin or on Japan paper. Aside from the regular editions, also hors de commerce copies can be found. Small editions are mostly numbered and some were signed personally by Toulouse Lautrec.
For the popular large editions, poster paper was used. The edition sizes were not documented. They are guessed as something between 500 and 3,000 copies. They are all unnumbered and unsigned - of course. But they have either his signature or his initials HT or a stamp mark engraved on stone.
The graphic work of Lautrec consists of a total of 351 lithographs and 9 drypoint prints.
The impressionists saw Ukiyo-e art (Japanese woodblock prints) and were impressed. And like so many other artists of the late nineteenth century, Lautrec had started collecting Japanese art. At that time, everything Japanese was en vogue - very fashionable.
Japanese printmaking had a very pervasive influence on his style. For Toulouse Lautrec movement and forms were important. His compositions, unusual perspectives and the use of large areas of flat color are undoubtedly inspired by Japanese woodblock prints.
It is not only the form of his designs. It is the same environment in which both his works and the art of the great Ukiyo-e artists were created: The world of the pleasure quarters, restaurants, actors, theaters and brothels.
And it is this same world out of which the commissions came - prints and posters as an advertising medium for theater plays or newly opened tea houses, respectively bars.
After 1897, the artist spent his time more in the bars than in his studio. In 1899 he has a severe nervous breakdown and is confined to a clinic for three months. He tries to recover his health during stays at sea resorts in the Normandy and at the Atlantic coast. But he cannot get rid of his alcohol abuse.
His health is completely ruined. He is getting a stroke with a subsequent partial paralysis and is taken to the castle residence of his mother on August 20. A few days later, on September 9, Henri de Toulouse Lautrec died at the age of 36.
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Author: Dieter Wanczura