The French artist Henri de Toulouse Lautrec was small in stature but was a giant of an artist. He was born in Albi, in the Midi-Pyrenees region of France, on 24 November 1864. He was the firstborn child of Count Alphonse and Countess Adele de Toulouse-Lautrec. They were an aristocratic family – descendants of the Counts of Toulouse with an ancestry stretching back almost a thousand years. Ironically, Toulouse Lautrec’s family background was the opposite of the poor, working class life he would lead in Paris as an artist. Yet Lautrec became one of the most influential post-impressionist artists of the late 19th century.
Famous for his humanistic portrayals of sex workers that reveal an uncommon sensitivity, perhaps motivated by a sense of identification with the socially marginalized, due to his own physical issues. And also, for his highly individualized poster portrayals of Montmartre entertainers, cabaret dancers and singers such as Jane Avril and Yvette Guilbert. His famous paintings have a great sense of immediacy, but they were carefully prepared. Lautrec always carried a small sketchbook wherever he went. The thousands of rapid drawings and jotting that survive tell us he drew frequently, and how he developed his great paintings from quick visual impressions.
He created just 30 posters, all lithographs, all of which are now regarded as iconic images. For the first time in history, he elevated the medium of advertising to high art, instinctively grasping the concept of celebrity and by interweaving commercial and fine art prefigured many of the ideas of Andy Warhol. Although Toulouse Lautrec produced many wonderfully inventive artworks, his short life was also the story of a battle with disability, ridicule, disease and alcoholism.
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