Impressionist painter Edgar Degas’ subject matter, as well as his innovative framing, lighting, and perspectives, greatly influenced Lautrec, although the older artist did not reciprocate the admiration. So taken was Lautrec by Degas’ work that one evening after hosting a lavish dinner party, Lautrec invited his guests out for dessert. Rather than treating them to sweet pastries, he escorted them to a neighbor’s apartment for a private viewing of Degas’ work—a feast for the eyes!
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s privileged roots did not make him an obvious fit for the seedy district with which he became associated. The artist was born in the city of Albi, in southern France, into an aristocratic family with ties to the counts of Toulouse, who had once ruled over the Languedoc region of France. His parents were cousins, a common occurrence for wealthy families of the era who were anxious to preserve their lineage. Lautrec suffered the results of inbreeding: abnormally weak bones caused multiple breaks, which stunted his growth and caused him lifelong difficulty with his legs. Barred from many activities, Lautrec became a keen observer, and, with the encouragement of his mother, began drawing and painting in his teenage years.
In 1872, Lautrec and his mother moved to Paris, where, a decade later, he began to study art formally. It was at that time, in the early 1880s, that he began to frequent Montmartre, where he painted its denizens, many of whom were his acquaintances or intimates. In Young Woman at a Table, Lautrec depicted the artist, circus performer, and artists’ model Suzanne Valadon, who posed numerous times for him, as well as for his artistic hero, Edgar Degas, and other Montmartre artists. This genre painting of a lower-class woman alone at a café table—a subject popular with Montmartre artists—illustrates Lautrec’s early experimental work; rapid brushstrokes demonstrate a preference for a new freedom of handling, as did the work of Vincent van Gogh, who was then living in Montmartre and whose brother Theo, an art dealer in Paris, purchased this painting.
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