While Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec chose to live his life far from bourgeois ideals, he was a member of the French aristocracy by birth. The son of first cousins, Lautrec was born in 1864 with a hereditary bone disease. At age 13, Lautrec broke his femur in one leg, followed by the other femur one year later. He recovered from the accidents, but his legs never grew again, and the artist measured 5’1” at his full height. During his recovery, he spent his time drawing and working with watercolors. Lautrec was naturally talented and began formal artistic study with René Princeteau.
In the 1880s, he left the comfort of his aristocratic upbringing in Albi, a small town in the south of France, for the entrancingly gritty Pigalle, a neighborhood on the outskirts of Paris. He studied painting in several different Parisian studios, befriending many leading artists of the time. Lautrec was not simply an observer of the Parisian demimonde, but a key member of the community. He published his first illustrations in montmartrois journals, while his paintings adorned the walls of the popular haunts of the 18th arrondissement. In 1882, Harry Humphrey Moore introduced Lautrec to a small album of Japanese woodblock prints. He was smitten.
Lautrec released his first lithographic poster in 1891, La Goulue: Moulin Rouge. Lautrec’s lithographs celebrated and publicized the clubs and performances of his friends from the demimonde, integrating a muted color palate, bird’s eye perspective, flattened spaces and colors, raking diagonals, truncated objects, and complex composition into his already vibrant style. In 1892, Lautrec began signing his works with his initials, “HTL,” compressed into a circle. This emblem was inspired by designs found on tsuba, or Japanese sword hilts. In 1899, Lautrec suffered from syphilis and growing alcoholism. Institutionalized in Neuilly, he was released after several months of treatment. In 1901, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec suffered a stroke and died on September 9th at the age of 36.