“Love is when the desire to be desired takes you so badly that you feel you could die of it,” said Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. It’s a strange perspective on the matter, but not a surprising one when you consider the artist’s difficult life. His parents were nobles and first cousins, a pairing that probably gave Lautrec a rare congenital abnormality called osteogenesis imperfecta. He was particularly prone to bone fractures and broke both of his legs as a teen. Bedridden and bored, Lautrec’s only way to escape his misery was drawing.
By the time Lautrec moved to Paris to study art at 18, his legs had stopped growing and he struggled to support his regularly sized torso. He battled deep insecurities about his appearance, but never dropped an abrasive air of superiority. His first relationship with 17-year-old model Marie Charlet was short and tumultuous, and his second serious lover Suzanne Valadon attempted suicide.
Lautrec immersed himself in the booze-soaked world of Paris’ cabarets and brothels to numb his pain, where he was inspired to produce some of the era’s most innovative images. Many of his works tell tales of longing and lost love, including our lithograph La Passagere du 54. Here’s a sad story from our archives about the 1895 boat voyage that inspired the print:
No wonder the woman on the poster is giving the viewer the cold shoulder. Most of Lautrec’s sketches must have been completed from this angle, as his haughty subject never gave him a second glance.
Lautrec’s artistic career only lasted a little over a decade, and though he gained considerable fame for his work, his romantic prospects never improved. He died at 36 from alcoholism and syphilis, but left behind a body of work that eternally capture the spirit of the City of Lights.