A Closer Look At…Toulouse Lautrec

Toulouse_lautrec_exhibition_canberra_figure_backPerhaps best known for his posters advertising the Moulin Rouge, artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec captured and immortalised the faded elegance of belle époque Paris. Heavily saturated with colour, his paintings have a hazy quality, as though seen through an absinthe-induced stupor. A post-Impressionalist, Toulouse-Lautrec was influenced by Degas and Manet, as well as holding admiration for friend and peer Vincent Van Gogh.

Whilst Toulouse-Lautrec’s work brilliantly captures the haunting glamour of bohemian Paris, it is his portrayal of real-life characters which give his paintings their magical quality. Often depicted on the margins of society with their faces obscured by darkness, the women featured in Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings are both mysterious and enigmatic.

One woman who repeatedly appears in his paintings and posters is the figure of Jane Avril, a famous performer at the Moulin Rouge and one of Toulouse-Lautrec’s closest friends. Flame-haired and waif-like, Jane Avril was unlike her fellow performers. She was renowned for her angular, eccentric movements which Toulouse-Lautrec enjoyed capturing, situating her as an emblem for the decadent nightlife of Montmartre. He insisted on featuring his favourite dancer at the centre of a series of 1890s posters, and was responsible for her ever-increasing fame. However, the painting Jane Avril Leaving the Moulin Rouge reveals a different side to her vibrant personality. Shown leaving the music hall and entering into the anonymity of the darkened streets, Avril is shown to look older than her years, with Toulouse-Lautrec situating her in a state of quiet reflectiveness. In removing the performer from the limelight he shows her as an individual, detached and alone on the streets of Paris.

What sets Toulouse-Lautrec apart from his peers is his ability to encapsulate the loneliness of the lost soul. Despite being surrounded by actresses, dancers and bon viveurs, Toulouse-Lautrec was a solitary figure and constant outsider throughout his life. At only 5 feet tall, due to a heredity disease which stunted his growth and left him in immense pain, he was often mocked and dismissed for his short stature. Taking refuge in his talent for art, it is his outsider’s perspective that gives his paintings their power. The intimacy displayed in his In Bed the Kiss, where a young couple are shown in a private embrace, is simple but emotive, conveying an affectionate moment between two people in love.

With a personal life overshadowed by illness and alcoholism, Toulouse-Lautrec died from syphilis aged just 36. Often criticised for the commercialism of his adverts and posters, these cartoon-like sketches would later define his style and artistic legacy. But it is his evocative paintings which show something of his personal perspective on life, a view from the margins which sets the outsider figure as the star of the show.

Image, courtesy of wikicommons, taken at the Henri Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition at  the National Gallery of Australia

Jessica Lane


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