18 JANUARY 1957, Page 25

Crippled Genius


L. and E. Hanson. (Seeker and Warburg in association with Chatto and Windus, 25s.)

Tuts is indeed the story of a tragedy. A wonderful future awaited the baby Henri de Toulouse- Lautrec, only son of Count Alphonse, a great sportsman:a great aristocrat and a great original. The baby's pedigree went back to the earliest epoch of French history, to the coronation of Charlemagne, who granted the head of the family at the time the privilege of carrying his spurs. Henri's father was proud of his riches, proud of his nobility and yearned to be proud of his only child. What then went wrong? First of all, the child, although coming of exuberantly healthy stock, was obviously an enfant chetif. He grew very slowly and his legs never seemed strong enough to carry his small body; then one day he slipped and fell and the bones of his legs snapped. Calcification set in and the legs stopped growing altogether.

A recent film has familiarised the general public in this country with the unhappy story of this great artist. Above all else he was an unusual eccentric, his eccentricity being partly inherited. His father never understood him and never for- gave fate for giving him so uncouth a son and heir. He himself, however, gained notoriety from his own eccentric behaviour. He would ride a lovely mare in the Bois de Boulogne every morn- ing, dismount by the waterfall in the midst of fashionable promenaders, milk the mare he had been riding on, and drink the milk with great gusto.

Fortunately Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was able to study painting in Paris, as money, in the shape of a more than adequate allowance, was plentiful. This, however, did not prevent him from seeking the lowest company and frequent- ing the vilest haunts. He spent his time in Paris brothels and painted uniformly unpleasant sub- jects, yet he was one of the finest draughtsmen of his time. His friendship with, and admiration of, Vincent Van Gogh is typical of his knight- errantry. He defended him against the latter's many enemies, but it was Degas who really inspired him to great achievements. Some of his best drawings were of La Goulue, an extra- ord. nary being who appeared in the musical halls of Paris at the time. She was not attractive to look upon, was stout and greedy, also very rapa- cious, but her method of dancing delighted Paris audiences. she would have nothing to do with men and lived with another dancer, 'La Mame Fromage,' who boasted to all and sundry that she was her only lover. The Moulin Rouge opened in 1889. Toulouse-Lautrec had done much of the decor. The entertainment delighted the Paris proletariat of the period, when at the first open- ing the piece de resistance was a man known as 'Le Petomane; His title is sufficient to indicate his accomplishments. •

Toulouse-Lautrec was rather anglophile in his tastes. He did not like London at all, but he liked Englishmen, and we are told 'his greatest pleasure in London was probably the meetings with Wilde, whose dress and air, the "ne plus ultra" of the English axthete, fascinated him, and whose witty remarks, enounc.ed with a captivating boredom, prostrated him with delight and admiration. His life, one long round of dissipation and intoxica- tion, soon ebbed out and Henri de Toulouse- Lauver died at the early age of thirty-seven, genuinely regretliod by a vast circle of friends and admirers.

The gifted authors of this book are already well known to the public for they have already pub- lished many books, of which I remember with great pleasure their Gordon : The Story of a Her,. There is an excellent frontispiece in colour of a painting by Toulouse-Lautrec which the authors have entitled Au Lit, although I always thought this picture was Le Balser.

• The most diflicult task of all is the assessment of the value of Toulouse-Lautrec's work. His portraits and drawings are said to be changing hinds today at fabulous prices in New York. I think he was never a great painter, but he certainly was a_major artist.