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“Nature has betrayed me”

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s ‘La Goulue entrant au Moulin Rouge’

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s ‘La Goulue entrant au Moulin Rouge’

The art and genetic lineage of the ever-popular Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, painter and chronicler of the Moulin Rouge, seem as tightly entwined as the strands of a double helix.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s family traced its line back to Charlemagne, and the various counts of Toulouse ruled southern France as de facto kings for centuries. Though proud enough to challenge the power of popes — who excommunicated the Toulouse-Lautrecs ten separate times — the lineage also produced pious Raymond IV, who for God’s glory led 100,000 men during the first Crusade to pillage Constantinople and Jerusalem. By 1864, when Henri was born, the family had lost political power but still ruled vast estates, and their lives had settled into a baronial fugue of endless shooting, fishing,
and boozing.

Scheming to keep the family lands intact, the various Toulouse-Lautrecs usually married each other. But these consanguineous marriages gave harmful recessive mutations a chance to crawl out from their caves. Every human alive carries a few malignant mutations, and we survive only because we possess two copies of every gene, allowing the good copy to offset the bum one. (With most genes the body gets along just fine at 50 percent of full manufacturing capacity, or even less.) The odds of two random people both having a deleterious mutation in the same gene sink pretty low, but relatives with similar DNA can easily pass two copies of a flaw to their children. Henri’s parents were first cousins; his grandmothers, sisters.

At six months, Henri weighed just ten pounds, and the soft spots on his head reportedly hadn’t closed at age four. His skull seemed swollen, too, and his stubby arms and legs attached at odd angles. Even as a teenager he walked with a cane sometimes, but it didn’t prevent him from falling, twice, and fracturing both femurs, neither of which healed soundly. Modern doctors can’t agree on the diagnosis, but all think Toulouse-Lautrec suffered from a recessive genetic disorder which, among other pains, left his bones brittle and stunted his lower limbs. (Though he was usually listed as four-foot-eleven, estimates of his adult height ranged as low as four-foot-six — a man’s torso propped top-heavy on to child-size legs.) Nor was he the family’s only victim. Toulouse-Lautrec’s brother died in infancy, and his runtish cousins, also products of consanguineous marriages had both bone deformities and seizure disorders.

“The temptations of the Moulin Rouge – casual sex and ‘strangling the parakeet’, his euphemism for drinking himself stupid — depleted his delicate body”

And honestly, the Toulouse-Lautrecs escaped unscathed compared to other inbred aristocrats in Europe, like the hapless Hapsburg dynasty in seventeenth-century Spain. Like sovereigns throughout history, the Hapsburgs equated incest with bloodline “purity”, and they bedded only other Hapsburgs whose pedigrees they knew intimately. (As the saying goes: with nobility, familiarity breeds.) The Hapsburgs sat on many thrones throughout Europe, but the Iberian branch seemed especially intent on cousin lovin’ — four of every five Spanish Hapsburgs married family members. In the most backward Spanish villages at the time, 20 percent of peasant babies usually died. That number rose to 30 percent among these Hapsburgs, whose mausoleums were positively stuffed with miscarriages and stillborns, and another 20 percent of their children died before the age of ten. The unlucky survivors often suffered — as seen in royal portraits — from the “Hapsburg lip”, a malformed and prognathous jaw that left them looking rather apish. And the cursed lip grew worse every generation, culminating in the last Spanish Hapsburg king, pitiful Charles II.

Tête-à-tête supper c.1899

Charles’s mother was his father’s niece, and his aunt doubled as his grandmother. The incest in his past was so determined and sustained that Charles was slightly more inbred than a brother-sister love child would be. The results were ugly in every sense. His jaw was so misshapen he could barely chew, his tongue so bloated he could barely speak. The feeble-minded monarch didn’t walk until age eight, and although he died just shy of 40, he had an honest-to-goodness dotage, full of hallucinations and convulsive episodes. Not learning their lesson, Hapsburg advisers had imported yet another cousin to marry Charles and bear him children. Mercifully, Charles often ejaculated prematurely and later fell impotent, so no heir was forthcoming, and the dynasty ceased. Charles and other Hapsburg kings had employed some of the world’s great artists to document their reigns, and not even Titian, Rubens and Velázquez could mask that notorious lip, nor the general Hapsburg decline across Europe. Still, in an era of dubious medical records, their beautiful portraits of ugliness remain an invaluable tool to track genetic decadence and degeneracy.

Despite his own genetic burden, Toulouse-Lautrec escaped the mental wreckage of the Hapsburgs. His wit even won him popularity among his peers — mindful of his bowed legs and limp, boyhood friends often carried him from spot to spot so he could keep playing. (Later his parents bought him an oversized tricycle.) But the boy’s father never forgave his son’s handicaps. More than anyone else, the strapping, handsome, bipolar Alphonse Toulouse-Lautrec romanticised his family’s past. He often dressed up in chain mail like Ray IV, and once lamented to an archbishop, “Ah, Monseigneur! The days are gone when the counts of Toulouse could sodomise a monk and hang him afterwards if it pleased them.” Alphonse bothered having children only because he wanted hunting companions, and after it became clear that Henri would never tramp through a countryside with a gun, Alphonse wrote the boy out of his will.

Instead of hunting, Toulouse-Lautrec took up another family tradition: art. Various uncles had painted with distinction as amateurs, but Henri’s interest coursed deeper. From infancy onward he was always doodling and sketching. At a funeral at age three, unable to sign his name yet, he offered to ink an ox into the guest registry instead. And when laid up with broken legs as a teenager, he began drawing and painting seriously. At age 15, he and his mother (also estranged from Count Alphonse) moved to Paris so Toulouse-Lautrec could earn a baccalaureate degree. But when the budding man-child found himself in the continent’s art capital, he blew off studying and fell in with a crowd of absinthe-drinking bohemian painters. His parents had encouraged his artistic ambitions before, but now their indulgence soured into disapproval over his new, dissolute life. Other family members were outraged. One reactionary uncle dug out Toulouse-Lautrec’s juvenilia left behind at the family estate and held a Savonarola-style bonfire of the vanities.

Moulin Rouge: La Goulue, 1891

But Toulouse-Lautrec had immersed himself in the Paris art scene, and it was then, in the 1880s, that his DNA began to shape his art. His genetic disorder had left him frankly unattractive, bodily and facially — rotting his teeth, swelling his nose, and causing his lips to flop open and drool. To make himself more appealing to women, he masked his face somewhat with a stylish beard and also, like Paganini, encouraged certain rumours. (He allegedly earned the nickname “Tripod” for his stumpy legs and long… you know.)

Still, the funny-looking “dwarf” despaired of ever winning a mistress, so he began cruising for women in the slummy Paris bars and bordellos, sometimes disappearing into them for days. And in all of noble Paris, that’s where this aristocrat found his inspiration. He encountered scores of prostitutes and lowlifes, but despite their diminished status Toulouse-Lautrec took the time to draw and paint them, and his work, even when shading comic or erotic, lent them dignity. He found something human, even noble, in dilapidated bedrooms and back rooms, and unlike his impressionist predecessors, Toulouse-Lautrec renounced sunsets, ponds, sylvan woods, all outdoor scenes. “Nature has betrayed me,” he explained, and he forswore nature in return, preferring to have cocktails at hand and women of ill repute posing in front of him.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

His DNA likely influenced the type of art he did as well. With his stubby arms, and with hands he mocked as grosses pattes (fat paws), manipulating brushes and painting for long stretches couldn’t have been easy. This may have contributed to his decision to devote so much time to posters and prints, less awkward mediums. He also sketched extensively. The Tripod wasn’t always extended in the brothels, and during his downtime, Henri whipped up thousands of fresh drawings of women in intimate or contemplative moments. What’s more, in both these sketches and his more formal portraits of the Moulin Rouge, he often took unusual points of view — drawing figures from below (a “nostril view”), or cutting their legs out of the frame (he loathed dwelling on others’ legs, given his own shortcomings), or raking scenes at upward angles, angles that someone of greater physical but lesser artistic stature might never have perceived. One model once remarked to him, “You are a genius of deformity.” He responded, “Of course I am.”

Unfortunately, the temptations of the Moulin Rouge — casual sex, late nights and “strangling the parakeet”, Toulouse-Lautrec’s euphemism for drinking himself stupid — depleted his delicate body in the 1890s. His mother tried to dry him out and had him institutionalised, but the cures never took. (Partly because Toulouse-Lautrec had a custom hollowed-out cane made, to fill with absinthe and drink from surreptitiously.)

After relapsing again in 1901, Toulouse-Lautrec had a stroke and died from kidney failure just days later, at 36. Given the painters in his glorious family line, he probably had some genes for artistic talent etched inside him; the counts of Toulouse had also bequeathed him his stunted skeleton, and given their equally notable history of dipsomania, they probably gave him genes that contributed to his alcoholism as well. If Toulouse-Lautrec’s DNA made him an artist in one sense, it undid him at last.


‘The Violinist’s Thumb’ by Sam Kean is published by Doubleday priced  at £8.99, available now.

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