In this age of mass and digital media, a great artwork can often become so ubiquitous that it is nearly eclipsed by its own myriad gift-shop reproductions. Such a fate dogs the legacy of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, whose extraordinary evocations of fin-de-siècle Paris with its nightclubs and brothels, it racecourses and circuses, at times seems inoculated from its original perspicacity and becomes mere Bistro-dressing.
Lautrec has nearly become a victim of a process of which he was, himself, an early proponent. His poster lithographs, such Moulin Rouge, La Goulue (1891), raised the reproduced image to a new height and are among the first masterpieces of mass-produced visual culture. Yet beneath the veneer of over-familiarity, Lautrec’s genius remains dazzling. His was a pioneering project of Post-Impressionism — a candid reportage that defined how later generations would observe and depict urban life.
Born to an aristocratic and eccentric French family, Lautrec’s life has become as iconic as his art. He was the archetype of the fin-de-siècle libertine artist — a syphilitic spendthrift drunk, stunted and crippled by two accidents in adolescence, who died at 36 after a brief, raucous life spent holding court at the Moulin Rouge and the brothels of Montmartre.
Lautrec became commercially successful early in his career due to the popularity of his posters for Parisian nightclubs, influenced heavily by Japanese ukiyo-e printmaking. In his paintings, he left an extraordinary record of the glorious and sordid fringes of a great 19th-century metropolis depicted with profound pathos and humanism. His work would become so closely associated with the nightclub underworld of Paris that masterpieces such as At the Moulin Rouge, the Dance (1890) and At the Fernando Circus: The Equestrienne (1888) were exhibited during his lifetime at the Moulin Rouge itself.
By the late 1890s Lautrec’s fast living had gotten the better of him. By then he was living in brothels and in 1899, suffering from the effects of syphilis and alcoholism, had been institutionalized for some months. He died in 1901 at his mother’s house in the Gironde following a stroke.