Inspiring Toulouse-Lautrec

Prostitutes befriended, supported, and modeled for an ugly, crippled dwarf who would one day be remembered as one of the greatest artists of 19th-century France.

"Moulin Rouge", 1890
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), pictured at left, spent much of his short life painting the nightlife of the Montmartre district of Paris, France. He often spent his evenings in the extravagant dance halls there, painting the professional dancers who performed the risque can-can, along with prostitutes who mingled among the clientele in search of business. The dance halls also commissioned Lautrec to create advertising posters, dazzling lithographs filled with the vigor and movement the sickly artist must have wished he possessed. After its opening, the Moulin Rouge dance hall reserved a table for Lautrec every night, and displayed his paintings and sketches in the foyer.

As a purchaser of their services, Toulouse-Lautrec also had more direct dealings with prostitutes. Indeed, sometimes he would pack up and move into a brothel for days or months on end. He even enjoyed shocking new acquaintances by giving the notorious address of a brothel as his place of residence! Prostitutes and madams accepted Lautrec as a fellow outcast, and permitted him to wander about, sketching and painting freely on his own initiative or on commission to the brothels. He grew close to his prostitute models; he played board and card games with them, brought them birthday presents, and accompanied them to his studio, restaurants, circuses, or theaters during their time off. He adored redheads, especially one prostitute called Rosa la Rouge of whom he painted several portraits. Lautrec produced an entire album of images of prostitutes, titled simply Elles. He neither vilified nor glamorized these women, but presented an objective, almost documentary view of the everyday life they shared with him.


Toulouse-Lautrec's "In Bed" (1893) portrays
tender comaraderie between brothel workers.

"In the Salon at the Rue des Moulins", 1894
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

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