Comte Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) is the tragi-comic French artist who, with Cezanne, Gaugin and his friend Van Gogh, led the Post Impressionist movement. In his brief but prolific life, Lautrec created over 700 paintings, 363 prints and posters and over 50,000 drawings. Lautrec revolutionised lithography with his Japanese-inspired Art Nouveau posters celebrating the stars of Montmatre’s infamous nightclubs the Moulin Rouge, Chat Noir and Moulin de la Galette. His portraits of the Paris demi monde – prostitutes, circus clowns, Cancan dancers and chanteuses – are tender, melancholy studies of outsiders whose lives were tawdry, lonely and in the shadows of the city after dark.
Lautrec’s sympathy with social outcasts stemmed from his own genetic disability. Lautrec’s parents were first cousins and that may go some way to explain that when he fractured both thighbones in his early teens the bones failed to heal. The artist was left with an adult torso, child size legs and hypertrophied genitals. He would never grow taller than 5ft 1. Toulouse-Lautrec grew up in isolation on his parents’ estates and developed his gift as an artist. Though his father disowned him, Lautrec’s mother who was a deeply religious woman encouraged his art and used her social connections to place him with Parisian portrait artist Léon Bonnat.
Bonnat’s studio was in Montmatre, a quarter of Paris colonised by the bohemian revolutionaries, café-cabarets and bordellos. The dark side of Paris enchanted Lautrec and when the Moulin Rouge opened in 1889 impresarios Charles Zidler and Joseph Oller invited Lautrec to design a poster to advertise the wicked wonderland. Lautrec’s graphic depicted Cancan dancer La Goulue (the glutton) with her legs wide apart mid-kick and her dance partner Valentin le Dessose (the boneless one) in silhouette.
Zidler gave Lautrec a table at the Moulin Rouge every night to sketch Paris’s queens of the night. The artist’s work was nocturnal and he drank deep. An infamous alcoholic for all of his adult life, Lautrec is credited as the inventor of the Tremblement de Terre (earthquake): a mixture of absinthe, cognac and laudanum. Lautrec’s paintings – rendered in thinned oil on cardboard – are an exercise in economy and lightning-swift technique. The palette is garish, harsh and theatrical while the observation is brutally honest but tempered by empathy for the human condition.
Lautrec’s posters are considered masters in the art today. They immortalised the short-lived stars of Belle Epoque Montmatre such as Aristide Bruant with his distinctive red scarf, Jane Avril with the disdainful look of a goddess fallen to earth and Loie Fuller whose act at the Folies Bergère involved yards of chiffon, wind and light. Toulouse-Lautrec was successful in his own lifetime and gangs of admirers would follow the poster man round Montmatre peeling his work off the walls before the glue set. His art dealer Maurice Joyant organised exhibitions of his work in Paris, Brussels and London.
On an 1894 visit to London Lautrec (who was a noted epicure) dined with Whistler at the Café Royal and embarked on a gastronomic tour including the Criterion, Sweetings and the Savoy. He had already met Oscar Wilde in Paris and included him in a painting commissioned by La Goulue who had been reduced to performing in a circus tent. Laturec was in London when Wilde was convicted of buggering rent boys at the Savoy in 1896. He was one of the few who would consent to being seen with Wilde in Paris when he had served his prison sentence in Reading Gaol and designed a poster for Wilde’s last play Salome.
By now even friends such as Francois Gauzi described him thus: ‘Lautrec is seen only as a midget…a drunken, vice ridden court jester whose friends are pimps and girls from brothels’. Lautrec did indeed take up residence at several brothels and painted some of his most intimate canvases of the lesbian love affairs common amongst prostitutes. As Jane Avril said, ‘the prostitutes were his friends as well as his models. In his presence they were just women and he treated them as equals’. Degas said of Lautrec’s prostitute studies that they ‘stank of syphilis’.
Model Suzanne Valadon (a talented painter herself) was considered to be Lautrec’s mistress tough he dismissed her as ‘nothing but a tart’. It is thought that Lautrec caught syphilis from a redheaded prostitute called Rosa la Rouge. Syphilis and alcoholism were to prove a lethal combination for Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. In his final years he carried a hollow cane filled withy vials of absinthe so that he would never be far from a drink. These contraptions were made for him by British umbrella shop James Smith & Sons on New Oxford Street.
In 1899 Lautrec was committed to an asylum in the hope that enforced abstinence from the corrupting influence of Montmatre would calm his troubled mind. It didn’t and the artist returned to Paris to complete the work that alcohol and syphilis had started. Toulouse-Lautrec died at the family Chateaux Malromé in his mother’s arms aged thirty-six. Inspired by Lautrec’s remarkable body of work, Pablo Picasso executed a series of paintings at the Moulin Rouge and used both Lautrec muses Yvette Guilbert and Jane Avril as models.
Toulouse-Lautrec has never previously been identified as a Henry Poole & Co customer. His name was discovered in an index of customers that bears no relation to the corresponding ledgers recording orders. The fear was that the two volumes of indexes actually belonged to a company bought and assimilated into Henry Poole. We know it isn’t Squires because they weren’t established until 1937. We are equally convinced that it is not Sullivan, Woolley & Co (bought in 1980) because two of the directors are now senior cutters at Poole’s and neither recognised the books as part of the Sullivan, Woolley archive.
Henry Poole did have international branches in Paris, Vienna and Berlin from whom no ledgers were thought to survive. Henry Poole’s Paris branch is thought to date from the turn of the 20th century and closed in 1940 when the Nazis invaded. Were these ledgers evacuated to Poole’s in London precious as they doubtless were for the business? A likelier story is that Toulouse-Lautrec visited Henry Poole & Co on his 1894 visit to London and that the customer order ledgers have been lost.