These, for me, are the two most depressing paintings in western history. They were painted by post-impressionist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, a man who, due to inbreeding, was born with a genetic disorder that prevented his legs from growing after they were broken. After being so thoroughly mocked for is appearance, he became an alcoholic, which is what eventually caused his institutionalization and death. His only known romantic relations were with prostitutes.
And then he paints something like this which is so beautiful and tender and sentimental. It seems like the couple in bed really loves each other—cares about each other. Wakes up happy to look at each other. And I see that love and passion and I wonder how lonely he must have been. I wonder how he could paint something like this without it breaking his heart.
Maybe they say artists should create what they know, not because its unbelievable when they extend themselves beyond their experiences, but because when they pull it off with such elegance, it’s so damn unbearable to look at. I hate thinking of Lautrec, wondering about the lovers he created and knowing it was beyond his experience. Creating something that he knows is beautiful and knows he’ll never really understand.
To delve further into this painting, homosexuality in France, at the time, was viewed with incredible disdain. In short, if you were gay, it was “disgusting”, and most of the prostitutes were stereotyped as lesbians. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was infamous for painting women at the brothels he frequented. Toulouse-Lautrec suffered from people mocking his appearance, much like the prostitutes in his paintings. In fact, he became so well known there, that a brothel let him live amongst the women there and allowed him to paint them. Many of his late paintings are of women at the brothel performing sexual acts with each other, and he was one of the first to visually depict this.
However, Toulouse-Lautrec painted the women in a way that was unlike many of the academy trained artists. Rather than idealizing their bodies, he often painted them in honest perspectives. Toulouse-Lautrec was able to capture the love, passion, and happiness of the women rather than exploiting them or shedding them in a bad light (see Kirchner’s Five Women at the Street), in turn, it elicited a response of empathy in the viewer. The people depicted in these paintings are two prostitutes in a lesbian relationship. Rather than making them look helpless (see Gauguin’s Spirit of the Dead Watching) or unattractive, he captured the love and tenderness in their relationship.