Portrait of Maxime De Thomas
NEXT door to Degas’s studio in Montmartre lived a young aristocrat named
Toulouse-Lautrec, one of the most singular figures in modern art, a man
whom the misfortune of physical deformity converted to the philosophy of
He too was an impressionist snatching at fugitive poses and positive
colors-the grotesque beckonings of the obscene, the rhythms of dancers hard
ened in impudicity; he too painted the racecourse and the brothels, but not
in the spirit of curiosity.
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This sinister gentleman, one of the best artists of
the century, was moved by deep, though satanic convictions, imaginatively
aroused by degenerate things, a confirmed believer in the innate depravity
of the human race-a bitter faith, and only possible perhaps to an artist whose
mature life and art were spent in the dens and cabarets of Montmartre.
In his thirteenth year, Lautrec, a descendant of one of the oldest of French
families, was the victim of two accidents which broke his legs and left him
His torso developed but not his extremities, and he became
a hideous midget unable to walk without the aid of a diminutive cane. He
derived some consolation from paintmg, and more from sensual excesses in
the underworld he preferred to the society of his blue-blooded admirers.
But he was doomed. His excesses led to dipsomania and he was committed to an
asylum; on his release he died from a stroke of paralysis.
Lautrec’s dissipations seemed to sharpen rather than injure his artistic
faculties. He invented the poster as we kn ow it today, and made it synony
mous with his fame; his portraits are among the most distinguished of a pro
lific era; as a draftsman, Daumier alone, of the latter-day Frenchmen, ranks
There is no compassion in his work, no romantic posing, no in
gratiating sop. It excludes the noble in man, and it excludes the tragic-it
deals with the morally relaxed or the vicious. Maxime Dethomas was his
closest friend and his companion in satanic recreations, and his conception of
him, drawn in pastel in 1896, is not only a portrait but an immortal record
of a type-the connoisseur of Bohemian life.
The picture, in its juxtapositions
of lights and darks, has some of the qualities of the artist’s posters, but its
appeal is not limited to the arresting design.
It tells us more incisively than
could be told in a psychological novel the relation of Lautrec to his environ
ment, the situation of the man in a strange world that Paris mercifully PIO
vides for the satisfaction of irregular souls.