Born to aristocratic parents who were first cousins, Toulouse-Lautrec was afflicted with genetic abnormalities. He stopped growing in his early teens at the height of four feet, 11 inches, and as he continued to mature, the growth of his nose and lips outpaced that of his face, causing drooling, lisping, and sinus troubles. Physically unfit for many of the social and sporting elements central to aristocratic life, Toulouse-Lautrec moved to Paris to study art, where he pursued both his creative and social life with vigor. He spent his days working on painting and lithography, and his absinthe-fueled nights at the opera, theaters, cafés, or nightclubs. His life and work merged; he became a chronicler of the Montmartre scenes he frequented.
Suzuki describes Toulouse-Lautrec’s subjects as “resoundingly populist.” She writes, “Toulouse-Lautrec was a nightly visitor to the theater, the circus, and the opera, finding tremendous freedom and inspiration in those milieus.” Toulouse-Lautrec portrayed the performers he adored, like “The Clowness,” Mademoiselle Cha-u-ka-o, a nightclub entertainer.
An 1893 lithograph shows Toulouse-Lautrec’s friend Aristide Bruant, the proprietor of the Mirliton—a Montmartre café. Although Bruant is shown in profile, his back to the viewer, contemporaries would have immediately recognized his large felt hat and velvet coat; the portrait rests on social signifiers rather than on faithful depiction. Suzuki explains that Toulouse-Lautrec “used the low-cut dress of La Goulue, the high-stepping posture of Jane Avril, the gloves of Yvette Guilbert, and the profile of Valentin, rather than traditional portrait likenesses. Toulouse-Lautrec himself was quoted telling Guilbert, ‘Ma chere, I don’t detail you. I totalize you!’”
Using MoMA’s extensive collection of Toulouse-Lautrec’s prints, posters, journals, songs sheets, theatre programs, and illustrated books as her inspiration, Suzuki paints a portrait of an artist whose unique biography, persona, and taste is clearly reflected in his art. She places Toulouse-Lautrec squarely in and of his historical milieu, positing that his work might be seen as a visual distillation of the spirit of the Parisian belle époque.