Toulouse-Lautrec: A Life by Julia Frey

Review published on July 29, 2017.

I could not hazard a guess at how many books have been written about Henri Toulouse Lautrec, but I know I have read quite a few over the years. I obtained this particular book after reading a short mention in a national newspaper, I waited a while, then I purchased a ‘used’ copy for myself, and I have to say, I am mighty glad I did so.

Toulouse Lautrec: A Life by Julia Frey, was published in 1994; I appreciate it is some years old, but a good book about an artist, especially a popular artist, is timeless. Julia Frey took ten years to write this book, she has trawled through countless familial letters, really captured the essence of the man, his friends, his relatives, his tastes, but she also captures a breath of the Belle Époque, that period of Parisian society that existed in the late 1800s. Many books of this ilk simply state the well-known facts, any sensationalism that may surround the subject, and so forth, this book has that of course, plus all the day to day tawdriness, his moving houses, his drinking, his perceived cross-dressing, his incarceration in a well-to-do asylum, and so on.

This book took me a while to get through, but one can easily do that, bit by bit. Nearly 500 pages of text, plus a rather extensive Bibliography and Notes make up this hardback book. Several black and white photographs, and sketches throughout. Also, in addition, is a further selection of colour prints featuring some of his many paintings and lithographs.

I make no excuse for my obsession with the Demi-Monde, the courtesans of Paris; it is indeed a fascinating period of history. Lautrec fits comfortably within this style of life, where money changes hands for various reasons. The aristocracy, Lautrec being from a well known aristocratic family, frequented the myriad bars and entertainment venues that abounded in those days. What happened after their meeting with the lower orders at these establishments is anybody’s guess, but syphilis was rife, along with many other maladies. Lautrec became famous because he largely turned his back on the ‘upper classes’ and frequented these dens of iniquity on a regular basis. One surmises that the people of Montmartre took him at face value, despite his accidentally reduced height, his facial features and arrogant demeanour. Perpetually short of money, he was always begging his mother for financial help. His rather odd father, never much on the scene, dismissed his art as mere doodling. The extended family features quite a lot in the text, and it also sheds light on three more deformed, and crippled females.

This is a great read for those who enjoy Lautrec, quite possibly the best book about the man written thus far. It tells us virtually everything known about him from birth to death. I will treasure this book because it is so factually accessible, and well written, plus it goads the interested to seek out more from Henri Toulouse Lautrec.

Reg Seward 5/1

Toulouse-Lautrec: A Life by Julia Frey
Weidenfeld & Nicolson 9780297812715 hbk Jun 1994

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