There is so much commentary surrounding the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (French, 1864–1901) and his ‘celebrity’. Certainly, with just at the mention of his name, shimmering glimpses of Parisian nightlife in come to mind. But what would surprise most, I think, is that he developed from an aristocratic youth into a bohemian artist whose images are anything but blue-blooded.
We can get a little peek into the early life of one of the best known painters of the post-Impressionist period with Three Cuirassiers (left), dated 1879. This small painting—in fact, you might have missed it!—is on display in the newly reopened European Galleries.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s Early Life
Henri-Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa was born November 24, 1864 to wealthy parents in Albi, in southern France. Lautrec’s father Alphonse was a Count and enjoyed hunting and riding more than most. Friends and family recalled that Alphonse (Alph) had an almost unnatural love of animals. He once told young Henri, that when the bitterness of life comes, “first the horse, then the hound and the hawk will be precious companions and help you to forget things a little.”
Lautrec’s mother, Adèle, was an extremely devout Catholic. Throughout Lautrec’s childhood, and adolescence, he and his mother were unusually close. To say that she doted on her son would be an understatement; while reading the many letters Adèle sent to her mother, she often referred to Lautrec’s pain and circumstances as her own.
These letters that I mention (and will continue to reference) are written by, to, and about Lautrec. When compiled, these letters document the artist’s life from the day he was born until the day he died. (If you want to read more, check out The Letters of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, edited by Herbert D. Schimmel and published in 1991.)
The attention Adèle paid to her son was understandable. Her husband was often away hunting, leaving his wife and son to occupy one another. Some years Alphonse only saw his son a handful of times as he continuously hopped from property to property, obsessed with the hunt. Also, when Adèle lost a second son (Richard) just before the baby would have turned one, she became even more protective of Henri, now her only son. And, above all, Henri himself was frequently ill and he required a lot of attention. Because his parents’ relationship was one of incest (Adèle and Alphonse were first cousins), Lautrec was inflicted with a bone deficiency and chronic illness. One life-long consequence was his short stature. After breaking both of his femur bones in separate incidences a year apart, they ceased to grow, and as an adult he barely reached 5 feet tall.
Toulouse-Lautrec and Art
Growing up, Lautrec was surrounded by art. The walls at Toulouse-Lautrec’s home in Albi, Le Bosc, were hung with fashionable sporting scenes by respected artists, as well as works made by Alph and his brothers—many of the Toulouse-Lautrec men were amateur artists. It is repeatedly noted that, especially during his frequent illnesses, Lautrec endlessly copied these prints and paintings.
Lautrec’s first drawings from 1873 (when he was just 9 years old) to 1875 depict mostly animals. In many sketchbooks, Lautrec executes drawing after drawing of horse and rider. One such sketchbook is housed at the Art Institute of Chicago.
These early drawings show the direct influence of his father and surroundings. Horses in Lautrec’s early paintings may have been observed on the family estate in Albi, where his father kept a full stable. Lautrec’s love of animals would last throughout his life, and a number of his mature works depict horses ridden by jockeys or controlled by circus trainers.
They also would have been promoted to Lautrec by his first teacher, René-Pierre-Charles Princeteau (French, 1843–1914). Princeteau, a close family friend who was also a deaf-mute, had a successful career painting sporting pictures, or works that focused on riders, hunters, the racetrack, and cavalry. These themes were traditional subjects in the upper class, and it was instinctive for young Lautrec to imitate other painters like Princeteau, John-Lewis Brown (French, 1829–1890), and Jean Richard Goubie (French, 1842–1899).
In 1878, after years of sketching in graphite, ink, and watercolor, Lautrec bought his first set of oils. This date also corresponds with a series of life-changing accidents. On Monday, May 13, 1878, Lautrec slipped and broke his left femur. The following year, in July, Lautrec fell while waking outdoors with his mother and broke the right femur. The recovery time rendered him immobile, and painting became his first priority.
During this time, Lautrec looked to Princeteau, twenty years his senior, for guidance. Over the years, Princeteau had been commissioned to paint several portraits of Toulouse-Lautrec men on horseback. He and Lautrec became close during the late 1870s and early 1880s. The two were not only both disabled, but they also shared a passion for art. Especially between 1879 and 1882, letters solidified Lautrec’s attachment to Princeteau.
When, at the age of 16, Lautrec became very serious about a career as a painter, he commenced on a traditional path for someone in his social class. He studied works by acclaimed artists at the Salons and received instruction from professional artists.
Lautrec entered Princeteau’s studio informally in 1878 and then, once he was fully healed, in 1881. Lautrec showed great potential, and since he couldn’t occupy himself with much else, he devoted most of his time to his art. In 1882, Lautrec moved from Albi to Paris, where he studied art in the ateliers, or studios, of two academic painters, Léon Bonnat (French, 1833–1922) and Fernand Cormon (French, 1845–1924). This move was greatly encouraged by Princeteau, who felt like he had nothing more to teach Lautrec, and Lautrec’s Uncle Charles, who saw the talent the young man possessed.
At this point in his life, Lautrec has already painted the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Three Cuirassiers. Executed in oil on canvas around 1879, Three Cuirassiers would have been made when Lautrec was just 14 years old! It’s one of only about a dozen oil paintings from this time period before he entered an official atelier.
Lautrec’s style in this painting is already realist and expressive. He combined loose brushwork with very traditional subject matter. Even at this age, he is a champion of composition, using only a few suggested strokes to create this expressive scene. He is applying Princteau’s teachings of rendering movement in the most efficient way.
Our painting shows how Lautrec’s working methods developed while still in his teens. For instance, he used sketches and other paintings as he produced new work. His Uncle Charles urged him to learn his trade by copying the world around him. It is no surprise, then, he almost exclusively sketched pictures of horses in motion.
Lautrec even produced a number of works based on paintings exhibited at the Salons (by Jean Richard Goubie, Princeteau, John Lewis Brown). Letters confirm that he not only copied, but also traced poses and types from Princeteau. He did, however, translate these other paintings into his sketchy style.
What exactly is the subject of this painting, though? First appearing in late 15th-century, the word cuirassier is the name given to cavalry men equipped with armor and firearms. In French, the term means “the one with a cuirass” (another word for breastplate). Cuirassiers achieved increased prominence during the Napoleonic Wars, from about 1803 to 1815 (see print below right), and were last utilized in the opening stages of World War I. They were also, along with other types of cavalry men, common subjects for artists in the nineteenth century. Their uniform displayed the markings of elite status. The helmet had a black horse mane and a tall red plume, while the coat was dark blue with cuffs in regimental color.
Lautrec most likely saw cuirassiers in person. Both Princeteau and the local military gazette (L’Avenir Militaire) recounted that military exercises were held throughout the region during August and September of 1878. This is supported by the only painting of this subject that Lautrec himself dated, called Les Hussards, inscribed 1878.
It’s interesting to note, however, that the mounted figures in our painting wear white cloaks that resemble ones from the “Old Royal Army”, ca. 1807-12. It seems strange that heavy cloaks would be worn at the exercises Lautrec sketched in 1878. Those occurred in the summer. What is most likely is that Lautrec painted Three Cuirassiers by combining different sources from the late 1870s. When bed-ridden, or at least house-bound, he had time to let his imagination run.
So, make sure to pay some attention to Three Cuirassiers by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec when you visit the European galleries at the Milwaukee Art Museum. It is a special look at a young and developing Lautrec!
And stay tuned to learn the provenance of this little treasure next time…
–Christa Story, Curator of Collections, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Art Collection and Galleries