5 Things You Didn't Know About Toulouse-Lautrec

If you know anything about the French painter Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, you probably associate him with his art.

Toulouse-Lautrec is best known for his once "scandalous" paintings of prostitutes, dancers, and nudes, his radical portrayal of sexuality, and his posters for the Moulin-Rouge. But you probably don't know that Toulouse-Lautrec led a strange, short, gritty life, full of oddities and idiosyncrasies. He faced adversity, but he was by no means an angel. Here are 5 things you'd never guess about the life of this complex artist.

Mr. Toulouse Paints Mr. Lautrec, Maurice Guibert, 1891

1. He was a dwarf.

Though they didn't have a name for it in 1864, it's believed that Toulouse-Lautrec suffered from pycnodysostosis, which has since been dubbed Toulouse-Lautrec Syndrome. He stood at 4 feet 8 inches. He broke both his legs between the ages of thirteen and fourteen and never fully healed, resulting in abnormally stunted legs yet a relatively normal-sized torso. His parents being first cousins, Toulouse-Lautrec was also a product of inbreeding -- not likely to be a coincidence.

2. He was an aristocrat.

With a full name like Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa, it isn't too hard to believe that the painter was born into an aristocratic family. His father Alphonse was a count (or comte, in French), and he descended from the Counts of Toulouse and Lautrec as well as the Viscounts of Monfa, all of whom were once feudal rulers and vassals to the Frankish kings. But Toulouse-Lautrec didn't feel at home with this aristocratic stature. Édouard Vuillard, a fellow painter, once attributed Toulouse-Lautrec's fascination with the prostitutes he painted to the painter's feeling of isolation from his upper-class background: "As a physical freak, an aristocrat cut off from his kind by his grotesque appearance, he found an affinity between his own condition and the moral penury of the prostitute."

 Toulouse-Lautrec and Oscar Wilde, drawn by Spanish cartoonist Ricard Opisso

3. He was friends with Oscar Wilde.

While visiting London, Toulouse-Lautrec befriended Oscar Wilde. Toulouse-Lautrec drew several portraits of the author. The night before Wilde's trial for "gross indecency" -- homosexuality -- Toulouse-Lautrec was with Wilde, and he asked his friend to sit one last time for a portrait. Having refused to flee Britain despite his knowledge of his impending imprisonment and demise, Wilde was too distraught to sit. Toulouse-Lautrec thus drew Wilde from memory, in his hotel room, adding in London's houses of parliament in the background to locate the portrait. The next day, Wilde was tried, found guilty, and imprisoned. Perhaps one redeeming factor for the rather lecherous Toulouse-Lautrec was his friendship with Oscar Wilde, as he seems to have been impervious to the overwhelming prejudice of his time.

The Earthquake

4. He invented a cocktail.

Confronted with the physical difficulty of his condition and the mockery that came along with it, Toulouse-Lautrec was driven to alcoholism. In his younger years, he drank mostly beer and wine, but as he grew older, he expanded his palate to hard liquor and in particular, Absinthe. It's even said that he hollowed out his walking cane to hold alcohol, so that he would never be far from a drink. Toulouse-Lautrec's signature cocktail is called the Earthquake, or the "Tremblement de terre," because it's so potent that it shakes up the drinker. Wow. Here's how you make it: Pour 3 parts Absinthe, 3 parts Cognac, in a wine goblet. Mix.

À Montrouge - Rosa la Rouge, Toulouse-Lautrec, 1886-87

5. He died at 36 of alcoholism and syphilis.

Both the drinking and the brothel-frequenting caught up to the artist in 1901 when he was only 36, cutting off his life and his career. He collapsed due to negative effects from alcohol and was committed to a sanitarium for three months. During this time, he still managed to draw thirty-nine circus portraits. After his release, his health rapidly declined from more alcoholism as well as syphilis, which he is said to have contracted from the prostitute Rosa la Rouge, also the subject of several of his paintings. Toulouse-Lautrec's career spanned fewer than twenty years, but throughout that time, he painted over 737 canvases, 275 watercolors, 363 prints and posters, 5,084 drawings, ceramic and stained glass work, plus an unknown number of lost works.