Following in the Footsteps of Toulouse-Lautrec
Following in the footsteps of the artist Henri-Marie-Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Montfa, I set out to explore the scene of his childhood at the Chateau du Bosc in Albi, which is located north of Toulouse in the Midi-Pyrénées region of France. I wanted to discover the time before his crippling accidents…the time before Paris…before the dance halls…before the famous posters…before absinthe. I wondered if it was possible to find traces of the happy-go-lucky little boy who grew up to be a deformed, depressed, somewhat depraved, albeit a very talented alcoholic.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the only surviving child of Comte Alphonse de Toulouse-Lautrec Monfa and his wife Adèle Tapie de Céleyran, was born in Albi, November 24, 1864. Although Alphonse and Adèle were first cousins and knew the dangers of possible genetic problems with any children they may have, they fell in love and married. This was a time when the constant inner-marriage of aristocratic families began to produce pronounced birth defects and weakened children.
Alphonse, an avid sportsman, was often away from his family for extended periods of time living in his various hunting lodges. A resolute non-conformist, he especially enjoyed dressing up in fancy uniforms and host flamboyant hunts and parties. Henri always joked that his mother couldn’t resist a man in a pair of bright red trousers. The Toulouse-Lautrec’s had a reputation for producing eccentrics and Alphonse and Henri fully lived up to that reputation. Adèle was often overlooked and she and Henri spent their years living like nomads. They divided their time visiting relatives at the Chateau du Bosc, Malrome Castle and his mother’s birth home at Céleyran, then moving to Paris where they lodged at the Hotel Pèrey off an on over the years until Henri relocated into his own studio at 37 Rue des Mathurins at the age of eighteen.
Walking through the gates of the Chateau du Bosc I was immediately transported back to a time when aristocrats were pampered and catered to by servants. Waited on hand and foot, they had nothing more to do than to oversee their daily menu, survey their farmlands and plan their next entertainment. The Chateau, originally built in the 12thCentury and rebuilt at the end of the 15thCentury, is situated about twenty-seven miles north of Albi and is encircled by lush farmlands, vineyards and forests. The Chateau has always belonged to the family Tapié de Céleyran.
Henri spent most of his childhood living in the Chateau, surrounded by his family, including a large menagerie of young cousins. Artistic traits were encouraged and often after returning from a hunt his father and uncles would draw scenes of their day with almost as much enthusiasm as they had experienced during the actual chase. Indeed, artistic ability seemed to be the whole family’s hereditary.
Upon entering the Chateau, I could imagine the cousins running through the halls and could almost hear their childish laughter as I walked through the rooms.
Among the rooms open to the public is a sort of gallery which is filled with memorabilia from Henri’s childhood. I was fascinated by his early drawings of horses and family members. I pondered over small sketches and personal objects protected in a glass-enclosed case. Somehow seeing the artists tools, sketches, paint pots and even a pair of his pince-nez (glasses) seemed to bring the family to life. In one corner leaning against the wall was a rustic bicycle that was especially adjusted so Henri could exercise after his accidents. Breaking one leg in the first accident and then the other leg within a year of each other, thus becoming a cripple at age 14.
While in his bedroom I could picture the small boy playing with the puppet theater and assorted games scattered around the floor. It looked as if he had just stepped out for a few minutes and would return shortly to continue his play. On a bureau was the sailboat he created after his first accident and in another corner was a buggy and crib along with fancy baby linens that had been his.Above the bed hung a reproduction of a sentimental portrait he had painted of his mother several years after moving to Paris.
Along one wall in the chateau were the names and height measurements, marked at different years, of all the cousins living there during Henri’s childhood. The most striking measurement was the last one for Henri at age 15 when he reached his maximum height of 4’ 11”.
The library was filled with an assortment of books, many of them in English. Henri and his mother were students of the English language and often conversed and wrote letters in the language. His mother, in the English tradition, always wrote his name as Henry.
The family liked to spend their evenings in an opulent and ornate salon where in winter a huge fire was set. Henri especially liked to lie down on the carpet in front of the blaze with his sketchbook and pencils. He sometimes took pieces of charcoal from the fire to add another dimension to his drawings. Although the Salon was furnished rather formally, the lush tapestries and draperies gave it a sense of intimacy and I could easily understand why the family often chose to spend time there.
Surrounded and encouraged by his family, Henri began to study art seriously.
However, his decision to become a professional painter around the age of 18 was utterly shocking to his family. Especially to his father who expected Henri to follow in his footsteps and become a dilettante horseman, but Henri’s physical limitations made this dream impossible. Besides, having a job and working was just something they didn’t do.
Always of frail health, Henri’s adulthood was marred by his physical handicaps and also by alcoholism. Treating his limitations with humor, he was quick to point out his unusual appearance and even went so far as telling his fellow art students that he wished he would meet a girl whose boyfriend was uglier than himself. Yet during his brief life he managed to create his own immediately recognizable style, and to evoke in his inimitable way a world full of gaiety and amusement.
Throughout his lifetime he returned to the Chateau du Bosc every year except his last one when he was too ill to make the trip.
I was attracted by a beautiful assortment of very old Sèvres porcelain bowls and plates displayed in a small dining room. I walked around the room examining the collection and wishing I could run my fingers over the exquisite hand painted flowers decorating each piece. The morning sun streamed in through to windows and it was easy to imagine the small boy sipping his morning chocolate from one of the oversized cups.
Later, I wandered out into the gardens and poked around the old stables that had been so important to the family. I felt a pang of sorrow imagining how Henri must have felt when he was forced to give up riding his favorite horse. However, he continued to express his love for horses by drawing and painting them. It seemed he was determined not to let his physical limitations get him down.
As I walked toward the gate, I wondered what stories the old stone walls could tell. Yes, it seemed to me that Henri had been happy here, cosseted by his family and protected from the vices that helped develop his genius but were also his downfall. Looking up at the windows as I left the grounds, I thought I caught a glimpse of a small, dark haired boy laughing and waving to me as I passed by.