Recently, I was fortunate enough to visit the Kemper Art Museum on the campus of Washington University in St. Louis and find myself in front a Toulouse-Lautrec lithograph the artist made of the dancer Jane Avril.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born into an aristocratic family in the south of France in 1864. He suffered from a genetic condition that prevented his bones from healing properly. As a young boy he broke his legs and both ceased to grow while the rest of his body continued to grow normally. At maturity, he was only 4 1/2 feet tall. This misfortune may have been a sort of blessing in disguise. After his accidents he was no longer able to follow in the typically aristocratic pastimes of riding and hunting. Instead, he focused on sketching and painting.
As a young man, he lived in the Montmartre section of Paris, the center of the cabaret entertainment and bohemian life that he loved to depict in his artwork. Toulouse-Lautrec was very much an active part of this community. Often he could be found sitting in a crowded nightclub making swift sketches. In his studio, he would expand the sketches into brightly colored paintings or use them to make lithographs.
Toulouse-Lautrec is now widely known in the art world as the archetypical bohemian artist of the belle époque, the "beautiful era" in Paris in the last decade of the 19th Century. He captured the spirit and emotion of the era in his posters and portraits. His unique condition made it difficult for him to live up to the status quo for a well born aristocrat. Nevertheless, he clearly shared in the joie de vivre of the time. Sadly, he died at the age of 36, but today his legacy can be viewed in some of the great art museums and art collections of the world.
You might say he was a victim of circumstances. But then again you might say that it was because of the circumstances he is the acclaimed artist even today – more than one hundred and ten years after his death. He was blessed with great talent. We are blessed by his legacy and his influence.