The elder son of count of Toulouse–Lautrec and countess Adèle–Zoé–Marie–Marquette Tapié of Céleyran, Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse–Lautrec–Monfa was born on 24th November, 1864 in Albi, France. Literally born with a silver spoon in his mouth, Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse–Lautrec–Monfa or Henri de Toulouse–Lautrec had many advantages bestowed on him through his birth in a wealthy, aristocratic family. Yet, time would reveal a very different journey strewn with tragedy for him.
A younger brother was born to Henri in 1867 who died the following year. At this juncture his parents separated and Henri was left to be taken care of by his nanny. At the age of eight, Henri went to Paris to live with his mother. Fond as he already was of drawing sketches, Henri’s workbook overflowed with sketches of animals, particularly horses, and caricatures. René Princeteau (July, 1843 – July 1914), a revered artist and friend of Henri’s father, came to visit young Henri often and used to share his precious experience with the child. Henri also started attending school at Lycée Fontanes where he befriended Maurice Joyant, his first biographer.
Signs of congenital health issues that would plague Henri for the rest of his life started becoming to be evident. His concerned mother consulted many doctors. Henri was prescribed regular baths at the spa in Amélie–les–Bains and he returned to Albi in year 1875. At 13 Henri fractured his right thigh bone and at 14 his left. None of those healed properly due to a genetic disorder similar to pycnodysostosis as later day researchers would come to consider. This severely crippled him and his limbs cease to grow.
Already growing apart from formal studies Henri’s poor health confined him to his house for most part during 1857 – 1878. He started utilising this time in extensively reading, drawing and painting. He spent the winter of 1880 in Nice and encouraged by his uncle Charles he dedicated himself completely in honing his skills.
In July, 1881, Henri failed his baccalauréat in Paris but was eventually granted admission in Toulouse for the October session. It is at this point that he decided to become a fulltime artist and with support of Princeteau and his uncle Charles made his mother agree to the proposition.
After spending the entire winter in Albi and Céleyran, Henri left for Paris in March, 1882 to further his studies in art. To begin with, he worked in Princeteau’s studio and later on joined Léon Bonnat’s studio on Princeteau’s recommendation. Later in the same year he started working in Ferdon Cormon’s studio at 10 rue Constance. Henri came in close association with Emile Bernard and Vincent Van Gogh in Cormon’s studio. For next two years Henri studied the work of Cézanne, befriended Edgar Degas and also started working with Rachou at his studio.
It was imperative that Henri would be drawn to Montmartre. Ridiculed as he was by the society for his physical deformity he found solace in mingling with other social misfits of the time. He started taking part in the many activities of Société des Artistes Indépendants with such stalwarts as Paul Cézanne, Paul Gauguin, Camille Pissaro, Albert Dubois–Pillet, Odilon Redon, Georges Seurat and Paul Signac.
Between, 1887 – 1891, Henri was always accompanied by his resident doctor Henri Bourges. During this time he took part in a number of group exhibitions in Toulouse under a pseudonym ‘Treclau’, anagram of his family name Lautrec. His works were exhibited in Brussels and Paris where Vincent Van Gogh and Anquetin also participated in. Théo Van Gogh, Vincent’s brother, also happened to purchase one of his work of art Poudre de Riz for Goupil & Cie gallery. Henri produced a series of outdoor paintings in Père Forest garden in Montmartre.
As Moulin–Rouge opened he became a regular visitor and his works were also showcased there. Moulin–Rouge became a regular subject of many of his paintings. He also created a poster of Moulin–Rouge which traditional art connoisseurs of Paris did not appreciate much. At a different level Henri started developing an interest about Japanese coloured printing.
In February and May of 1892, Henri’s works were displayed in Brussels and London. He designed prints for Divan Japonais and for Bruant as well. The following year Henri’s first private exhibition was organised at Boussod–Valadon Gallery by his friend Boyant.
Henri got acquainted with Oscar Wilde and Whistler as he travelled to London with Boyant in May, 1895. Henri had a deep appreciation for both Oscar Wilde and Whistler, a gesture that both the men reciprocated. When Wilde faced imprisonment Henri was quick to support his friend and painted a poster of Wilde during the trial. His excursions in Madrid and Tolède proved to be specially rewarding as he got know the works of Vélasquez, Goya and Le Greco from close quarters.
1896 had Henri showcase his talent through his second major private exhibition in Paris. He also took part in the poster exhibition at Reims. And as he was introduced to the world of bicycle racing by T Bernard, he based the theme of his next project of printing on the same topic.
Bouts of depression which sustained in him ever since his early teens started taking over his life. He succumbed to alcoholism and as his anxiety disorders were becoming acute by the day, he was admitted to a mental hospital in Neuilly. His mother who was busy tending her own ailing mother at that time was forced to leave Henri alone. His mental state worsened gradually. Paul Viaud was appointed to take care of him. Such was the condition of his health that he adjudged the poster competition held at Universal Exhibition in Paris on wheelchair.
In 1901, Henri attended several theatre productions and dedicated six paintings to Messaline. But amidst all these his health condition was in steady decline. A cerebral haemorrhage in March the same year left his weak limbs completely paralysed. On 15th July he left Paris with Viaud first to Arcachon basin, then to Taussat. In middle of the following month he suffered the agony of another stroke that paralysed half his body. His mother took him to Malromé where his life was extinguished in the early morning of 2nd September at an age of 36. His friend Oscar Wilde was correct in saying, ‘The heart was made to be broken’.
One of his last two paintings was an ode to his friend, Paul Viaud, named as ‘L’Amiral Viaud’.
On his son’s death Henri’s mother provided funds for housing his works in Albi, his birthplace. The Toulouse–Lautrec Museum owns the largest collection of work by Henri the painter, printmaker, draughtsman and illustrator.