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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec is one of the most famous post-impressionist painters from the late 19th century. Famous for his vibrant paintings and illustrations of dance halls and brothels, Henri spent his entire adult life in Montmartre among the prostitutes and dancers that he loved to paint.

Due to profound congenital birth defects and the effects of very fragile bones, Henri suffered from limited mobility and did not grow to adult height. He was rejected by his father and most of his own class, so he was delighted to find acceptance among the revellers of Paris nightlife. Born in 1864 in France to aristocratic parents, he lived a wild but short life dying in 1901 at the age of 36 from complications of alcoholism and syphilis.

Despite being shunned and dismissed by many he made a good living as an illustrator for the nightclubs he frequented. However, as with so many of his contemporaries, it was not until after his death that people realised his genius. Today his paintings and posters fetch tens of millions of dollars at auction, not bad for a 'misfit'.


Toulouse-Lautrec's physical limitations meant that he was unable to participate in outdoor activities as a young boy, so he turned to painting. It didn't take long before his talents became clear. He moved to Paris at the age of 16 and began to study with private tutors. He mingled in very artistic circles and became friends with many of the greats that we know today; from Emile Bernard to Vincent van Gogh. However, it was his association with Edgar Degas that had the most influence on him by far. Degas' work fascinated Henri and he longed to be able to express movement with the same eloquence.

Ultimately, while Degas relied on anatomical correctness, Toulouse-Lautrec found that he could achieve the same results by using colour, angular lines and exaggerated shapes. Degas' impact on Henri's work was also apparent in the subject matter he chose to paint; both artists had a voyeuristic quality to many of their works amongst dancers of different disciplines.

Of course, the greatest influence on Toulouse-Lautrec's work was Montmartre itself. Due to Henri's physical condition, he was considered somewhat of an outcast of good society, he therefore felt that he had found his place amongst the marginalised night-time people in the neighbourhood; as he partied with the performers and prostitutes they became his friends and he felt accepted. This connection with the subjects of his work meant that he was able to honestly chronical their lives through his paintings because he completely understood who they were.

Post-Impressionist Style

The post-impressionists were not a structured artistic movement per se, but the commonality of their work prompted critics to differentiate between them and the impressionist painters who came before. The Impressionists had pushed traditional boundaries of classical painting to include the realism of everyday people and their activities. They had also developed realistic techniques of applying colour to express light and emotions never seen before. The post-impressionists, however, began to expand on this use of colour, layering on vivid, almost unreal hues of paint in exaggerated shapes to express the feelings evoked by their work.

These post-impressionists also took the mundane subject matter a step further and began to depict the working classes in an effort to journal the truth of life in 19th century France. Paintings like “At the Moulin Rouge: The Dance” (1890) by Toulouse-Lautrec show the seedier side of Paris night life in an unapologetic scene of a dance hall in vivid colour. This post-impressionist classic use of excessive colour and distorted shapes highlight the gaiety and raucousness of the occasion while at the same time conveying the frenzy and depravity of the scene. Henri was, of course, fascinated by the baseness of the working classes of Montmartre.

Posters and Illustrations

The name Toulouse-Lautrec is almost synonymous with the illustrations and advertisement for the dance halls in the Montmartre area of Paris. In fact, he was the first painter to use his talents to promote businesses, most famously the Moulin Rouge cabaret. Prior to his posters, adverts had been very stayed and formal affairs, but Henri’s vibrant colours changed all that. His deft use of lines meant that people could identify even the profiles of the most famous dancers and singers. Jane Avril, one of the most popular dancers of the time was quoted as saying that she owed at least half of her success to Henri and his posters.

Most Famous Works

Without doubt Toulouse-Lautrec is best known for his paintings and prints of prostitutes and performers. In 1890 he painted “Street Walker” (Le Casque d’Or). It was not unusual for prostitutes to be included in paintings, but it was ground-breaking to them to be depicted as individuals with personality and dignity. This painting is completely typical of Henri’s humanizing treatment of the working women of Montmartre. Today it is housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Another excellent example of Henri’s desire to make human the impoverished people of Paris is, “The Laundress” (1886). This is a painting of prostitute, Carmen Gaudin, posing as a washer woman doing her work. Toulouse-Lautrec wanted very much to show the reality of hardship, but he also uses great delicacy and tenderness in the rendering, displaying the affection he feels for the model. Degas’ influence is clear in this early work as he has created a very natural and realistic scene. This painting is in private collection.

Certainly, Henri’s most recognisable works are his posters which he produced as lithographs and then had them printed. His main clients for his posters were the Moulin Rouge and Jardin de Paris to promote their big stars such as Jane Avril and Louise Weber. One of the most famous posters is “Avril” (1893). The poster is simple in its design and it shows Avril doing the can-can with a phallic neck of a cello from the orchestra in the for ground. It is suggestive and bawdy and exactly what the Jardin de Paris needed to draw a crowd. Today this poster’s lithograph can again be found at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

No list of Toulouse-Lautrec’s work would be complete without mentioning the poster which adorned many 1980’s teenagers’ walls, “Ambassadeurs – Aristide Bruant” (1892). Perhaps one of his most copied and commercially traded today, this poster depicts the famous cabaret singer, Aristide Bruant in his ubiquitous red scarf and is one of the only male artists for whom Henri create posters. This poster too is housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The Legacy of Toulouse-Lautrec

Toulouse-Lautrec was a great artist and he loved his work. Although he died at thirty-six and had been painting for less than twenty years, he left behind a huge body of work; over 700 paintings, 275 watercolours, 363 prints and posters and innumerable drawings and sketches. His love of people and the human condition was clearly visible in all of his posters and paintings, most especially the many crowd scenes at which he excelled. We can be grateful, also for his accurate and unflinching chronicling of life in 19th century Paris.

However, artistically, his most profound legacy must surely be the elevation of advertisement and the establishment of posters as a bona fide art form. It is reasonable to assume that he, in fact, lay the groundwork for the Pop Art movement of the late 20th century bringing us greats such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. However, perhaps Henri’s most poignant and lasting legacy is his strength of spirit. This man, born with extreme physical limitations and rejected by his own family, found a way to live his life and express his artistic talents that was as unique as he was, surely that is a lesson for us all.