Right up to the time of his death, this clearsighted self-knowledge was typical of his attitude to life and to painting. His profoundly human and yet uncompromisingly truthful approach to his models-to prostitutes for instance-is characteristic of all his work. He is an extraordinarily perceptive painter; nothing about a person escapes him, whether it be his outward appearance and behaviour or his mannerisms, his habits, attitudes and gestures, in fact all the person's particular characteristics, whether inherited or acquired. His period pieces and scenes of contemporary life, as well as his actual portraits, are always strikingly convincing and true to life. He realised that a portrait, if it is to be not only a good likeness but also true psychologically, must not just be a kind of glorified photograph with the sitter posing selfconsciously and revealing nothing of his true self. A really good portrait must be an exploration in depth, both physical and psychological, of the model, an impression caught at the moment the person is least expecting it, so that he reveals his true character and not just the side he wants people to see, which is so often deceptive. The artist needs a keen eye and very great skill; he ought as well to be thoroughly imbued with the atmosphere or character his attemting to paint. With this in view Lautrec always made a large number of preliminary sketches and drawings. In this connection a comparison springs to mind with the great caricaturist Sem, a contemporary of Lautrec's. He had done a large number of caricatures in the papers of the Prince of Wales (later Edward VII), who very often went to Paris. One day he did a sketch of nothing but a circle and a cigar; no hair, no eyes, no ears, no mouth, no nose. But everyone in Paris recognized the extraordinary likeness to the Prince. We find something of this spirit of synthesis, concentrating on the essential, leaving out unnecessary detail, but underlining what is typical, in Lautrec's vigorous and witty portraits. For example, there is the nouveau-riche couple in the second row on the left in one of the decorations Lautrec did for La Goulue: La Goulue and double-jointed Valentin dancing. The woman is wearing a grotesque hat, with a feather boa tightly wound round her neck; her extremely common looking husband evidently wants to go one better than the Prince of Wales, who started the fashion of wearing a cornflower in his buttonhole, so he is wearing a whole bunch of cornflowers. Just this small detail pinpoints the man's character. Lautrec constantly does this, producing the maximum effect with the minimum of resources. He remained independent did not belong to any school of painting, but took what he wanted from various groups - from the Impressionists, the use of pure colours and brush-strokes in juxtaposition; from the Symbolists their flat colour-washes and their 'cloisonniste' technique. And like all the painters of his generation, he was influenced by the Japanese, with their taste for simplifying things and their bold composition.
Henri was born at Albi, and was the son of Count Alphonse de Toulouse-Lautrec-Maufra and Adele Tapie de Celeyran; he was thus descended from the Counts of Toulouse. He was always a delicate child and two accidents he had as a boy, in 1878 and 1879, left him with both legs broken; this arrested his growth and he remained a stunted dwarf all his life. He started drawing about this time, and went on to paint mostly horses and carriages-for instance his painting The Count de Toulouse-Lautrec driving his four-in-hand at Nice (1881), obviously influenced by the animal painter Princeteau; landscapes and portraits. In 1882 Lautrec decided to take up painting seriously, and went to live in Paris. He studied first with Bonnat and then in Cormon's studio where he met Van Gogh and was much attracted to his way of painting. He also admired Degas and Renoir. Towards 1885 he began going to the Mirliton, Aristide Bruant’s famous cabaret, and did drawings of the best-known of the songs. He also painted one of his most celebrated posters , Aristide Bruant at the Ambassadeurs (1892), and did a whole series of paintings inspired by the famous singer, with their shrewd criticism of contemporary life and conditions. He also painted portraits and occasionally got his models to pose out of doors. But one can hardly call these backgrounds 'out of doors', they are really more like stage sets, with all Lautrec's attention concentrated on the characters. Lautrec was now becoming the painter of 'la belle epoque', the Naughty Nineties that the film 'Moulin Rouge' has brought back into fashion. His subjects were the artificial, animated night life of circuses and bars, cabaret and music-hall-particularly the famous Moulin-Rouge - the world of the French Can-can, theatres and brothels with stage and music-hall personalities such as Jane Avril, la Goulue and double-jointed Valentin, Marcelle Lender and Cha-U-Kao the female clown, Miss May Belfort and Yvette Guilbert.
At the Cirque Fernando: the Equestrian (1888) and Au Bal du Moulin de la Galette (1889) are examples. Lautrec showed this last picture at the Salon des Independants, his first exhibit there. Among other paintings of this period are: Starting the Quadrille (1892), Dance at the Moulin-Rouge (1890) , At the Moulin-Rouge (1892), M. Boileau at the cqfe (1893), At the cap: the anaemic cashier (1898), Japanese divan (poster, 1892), Jane Avril dancing (c. 1892), Jane Avril leaving the Moulin-Rouge (1892), Jane Avril at the Jardin de Paris (poster, 1893) and Yvette Guilbert whom he drew and paintedseveral times. From 1892 onwards Toulouse-Lautrec's favourite subject was prostitution and most of his models were prostitutes. 'Ordinary models are always so stiff and stuffy,' he said 'but prostitutes are alive.' In 1894 he even went to board in a brothel in the Rue des Moulins, and while there produced a set of studies for his series of lithographs Elles which came out in 1896; examples of these are Woman putting on her stocking and Woman in a brothel (c. 1894) , and a large picture that sums up all he had seen there: In the parlour at the Rue des Moulins (1894). But Lautrec's health was getting very frail. His heavy drinking did not improve things, and at the beginning of 1899 his health became so much worse that he had to go into a nursing home; while there he worked at a series of fine lithographs, The Circus. In May he was able to leave, and lived partly in Paris, partly in Bordeaux, mostly painting portraits; one of the most striking is The English girl at the Star, Le Havre dated 1899. His last, unfinished work was Examination at the Faculty of Medicine (1901, now in the Museum at Albi); its disturbing quality reminds one of Georges Rouault's work. Lautrec died on 9 September 1901 at the age of thirty-seven, in the great family house at Malrome in the Gironde. His mother presented all the paintings and sketches he had left in his studio to the city of Albi, to found a Toulouse-Lautrec museum in the old Bishops' palace of La Berbie.
Lautrec was not in any sense a caricaturist, as his art is far above that level; he was not even a satirist. The brutal sincerity of his work and emphatic approach may appear painful and hurt people's feelings, but his is the response of an oversensitive wounded nature; he did not rebel against harshness and injustice, but tried instead to penetrate the poignant secret of the human soul.
Based on Phaidon encyclopedia of Impressionism, Maurice Serullaz, Phaidon, 1978