Rescued by his love of the circus
HENRI de Toulouse-Lautrec is best known for his nightclub posters and for paintings that showed the seamy side of Paris. Beginning at an early age, however, he had an enormous enthusiasm for horses, and much of his best work reflects an interest in sporting and circus life that seems largely alien to the milieu in which he generally worked. His Toulouse ancestors, noblemen for more than a thousand years, had been great riders. In the days of chivalry and crusades they had distinguished themselves as fighters on horseback, whether in tournaments or at war. When armored knights went out of fashion the men of the family applied themselves with equal vigor to hunting. Henri's father could reasonably hope for yet another horseman to continue the line.
But Henri was a sickly child; his legs did not grow to normal length. Far from becoming a tireless equestrian like his father, he walked with difficulty and did not ride at all.
If he did not move gracefully, he could nevertheless make pictures of graceful motion. Long before he began his formal art training at the age of 17, he loved to watch and draw horses.
After he moved to Paris, he sketched horses at the race track and the circus. It is as if he meant to attach himself to his father's world in one way or another; if he could not ride horses, he could at least draw and paint them, and spend hours with men who could ride.
The drawing reproduced on this page resulted from a climactic episode near the end of his life. By 1899, his alcoholism had become unmanageable. He was sent to a private mental hospital.
By the end of the first week his physical health had improved noticeably. But he was wretchedly unhappy. He wrote to his father, ``I am imprisoned, and everything that is imprisoned dies!''
It seemed urgent to persuade the doctors that the artist had regained not only his physical energy, but also his mental faculties. Encouraged by his friend Maurice Joyant, he executed a series of 39 circus drawings comparable in quality to the finest work he ever did. His doctors were impressed; they discharged him. ``I have purchased my liberty with my drawings,'' he told Joyant.
After an encouraging period of sobriety, he slipped back into his old habits. For a short time, however, his love of the circus had enabled him to triumph over the most restricted circumstances he ever experienced, in a brief lifetime given over to doing anything he pleased.