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Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) came from an aristocratic background, having been born the son of an earl. Even as a schoolboy he showed a talent for drawing, covering every paper and book margin with subjects he knew, mainly farm animals, horses and riders. At 14, his family arranged for him to take lessons from animal painter René Princeteau in Paris. By this time, already, he had suffered two riding accidents, which eventually left him crippled for life.
At the age of 18, he made the final decision to stay in Paris and study art seriously. He found lodgings in Montmatre and mingled with its denizens, honing his craft among like-minded contemporaries; among them were Léon Bonnat, Fernand Cormon, Louis Anquentin, Emile Bernard, as well as Dégas and Van Gogh. He became a frequenter of the cafés, cabarets and brothels of the neighborhood, drawing from them inspirations for his artistic themes. Among his early patrons was Aristide Bruant, a rough-hewn entertainer who owned the Mirliton, one of Toulouse-Lautrec's favorite haunts; Bruant exhibited his work, published some of it in his magazine (also called Le Mirliton), and later gave him poster assignments. As the artist's stature grew, he found other magazines eager to publish his work, among them La Revue Blanche, L'Escarmouche and Le Rire. His subjects continued to be the types he came in contact during his rounds: many of them anonymous loafers, street girls, vendors and the like, but also some of the most famous music-hall artists who became his friends, such as the singer Yvette Guilbert, cancan dancers Jane Avril and La Goulue, stage stars May Milton, Yahne, May Belfort and many others. In 1896, he published a collection of lithographs, "Elles," with scenes from the local brothels. He became absorbed in the nightlife of Montmatre until he himself was an indispensable part of it.
From the beginning, his drawing showed an unerring eye for catching facial characteristics, expressions and mannerisms with deadly accuracy and yet with the most sparing of means, a few lines, a carefully chosen perspective, or an imperceptible emphasis that focuses our attention.
In 1891, Toulouse-Lautrec was greatly impressed with Pierre Bonnard's FRANCE-CHAMPAGNE poster and decided to investigate the potential of lithography. Working with Bonnard's lithographer Ancourt, he learned the craft from the bottom up - and within months, brought it to an unprecedented artistic zenith. He managed to cram some 400 lithographs into the remaining ten years of his life, 31 of which were posters, and all of which were the cream of graphic design. His masterpieces define the limits of poster style: where Chéret epitomizes a completely external, impersonal viewpoint, Toulouse-Lautrec is the embodiment of internal, personal vision with a point to make - not, to be sure, a moral judgment, but rather an amused, wry observation on the passing scene.
Virtually all posterists, then and since, have had to make their stance somewhere between these two poles. True, some may have tried a satirical bite more vicious than Toulouse-Lautrec's, or neutrality even more profound than Chéret's, but none could surpass the sheer mastery of the pioneers. The best proof is that a century later, their work still sparkles with all its force, inventiveness and beauty, and each in his way is more popular than they every were in their own lifetimes.
Toulouse-Lautrec's fame grew steadily during the 90s and his works were exhibited in galleries throughout Europe; often he traveled to other countries to accompany the exhibit. However, the years of nightlife and the excessive intake of absinthe began to take their toll, and his physical condition became very fragile. He had to be taken through the Paris World's Fair of 1900 in a wheel chair, and the following year he died in his country home.
His legacy in poster art continues to astound us. Despite the smallness of his output, as compared with the rest of his artistic œuvre, Toulouse-Lautrec proved himself to be a true genius of the poster, and his position in the poster pantheon has never been seriously challenged.
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