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Paris in the late 1800's was one of the most exciting places on earth. Art and culture reigned supreme. Painting was making daily breakthroughs. Household names today were still struggling, impressionable young art students, while many of the stereotypes we now associate with the city were original rather than tourist copies designed to recall this dynamic age. Perhaps the most popular of all these Parisian images was the nightlife, and the man most responsible for perpetuating it was something of a Paris original himself. He was young, aristocratic, wealthy, something of a playboy, frail of body, intelligent, and thoroughly enamoured with the wild and crazy times he depicted and publicised. His name was Count Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

Born in the south of France on his father's estate in 1864, he was a member of one of the wealthiest families in France. Suffering from a genetic bone defect, he was unable to attend regular schools much of his life. At age thirteen he broke first one, then the other leg, stunting his growth for life. Turning to art to fill his time, he eventually ended up in Paris amid the likes of Degas and van Gogh. But his first love was the Paris nightlife, so he combined this with his art - sketching nightly the performers at the famous Moulin Rouge. It was there he was commissioned to re-design a poster that would change his life. When Paris awoke one morning in the spring of 1891 to the presence of some 500 of his eye-catching, lithographic posters, the popularity of the club and the artist immediately soared. However, the posters quickly disappeared from the walls of the city, becoming instant collectors' items.

His posters made equally famous performers such as Jane Avril, May Milton, Aristide Bruant, and a dancer known only as La Goulue. His posters even made patrons of the nightspot famous, such as a tall, thin, law clerk named Valentin, whose antics on the dance floor made him known as "Valentin the boneless". Every element of his posters was carefully planned, based upon detailed colour sketches made at the club each night. His colours were bright, flat and striking, stopping just short of being gaudy. Many of his poster sketches he later developed into canvas paintings capturing the decadent glamour of the night while at the same time balancing it against the sad superficiality of the people of the night whom he came to know and love. Unfortunately, this swinging nightlife was responsible for wrecking his life as well. Because of his handicaps, alcoholism, and the debaucherous life he led (he actually took up residence in a high-class Paris bordello), he died in 1901. He was 37.

Contributed by Lane, Jim
15 March 1998


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