food in the arts

(1864-1901) original lfff site
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born into an aristocratic family in the south of France in 1864. His father, Count Alphonse, was a notorious eccentric known for all kinds of unpredictable behavior: from washing his socks in the river (unheard of for an aristocrat!) to galloping off to a hunt wearing outlandish costumes, to simply disappearing for long stretches of time. The young Henri never became very close to him.

Unknown at the time, Henri suffered from a genetic condition that prevented his bones from healing properly. Fatefully, at age twelve, he broke his left leg. And at age fourteen, he broke his right leg. Both legs ceased to grow, while the rest of his body continued to grow normally.

In his late teens, Lautrec was honored to become a student of the artist Fernand Cormon, whose studio was located on that hill above the city, Montmartre.

When he graduated from Cormon's studio, Lautrec gave himself up fully to the bohemian life, spending much of his time drinking and carousing -- and constantly sketching -- in cabarets, racetracks, and brothels.

His stunted physique earned him laughs and scorn, and kept him from experiencing many of the physical pleasures offered in Montmartre, a sorrow that he drowned in alcohol. At first it was beer and wine. Then brandy, whiskey, and the infamous absinthe found their ways into his life.

Art and alcohol were his only mistresses, and they were mistresses to which he devoted all of his time and energy. He was doing one or both almost every day of his life until he died.

Adapting the fad for Japanese style (asymmetric composition, flat areas of color) that then pervaded French art to the also burgeoning art of the picture poster, he created thousands of artworks both to memorialize his friends and to advertise their venues. Among those whose images are now a part of art history are the Moulin Rouge dancers Louise Weber and Jane Avril, and the combative singer/entrepreneur Aristide Bruant.

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From Vienna to Jerusalem and from Baghdad to Alexandria, there has existed, for at least five centuries, a cross-cultural group of people who are dedicated to passing as many hours as possible every day at one or more of their favorite cafes. And, whether it has been at Paris' postmodern Cafe Le Beaubourg or at the decrepit Friends' Meeting Place in Limassol, a significant number of artists have devoted their energies to recording or otherwise expressing such pleasures.

As Toulouse Lautrec and Edgar Degas delighted in sketching the social scenes of cafes, Lawrence Durrell and Ernest Hemmingway thrived on writing about them. John Lennon took pleasure in singing about the people who sit at cafes and Carl Sandburg and Sylvia Plath both devoted several poems to them. Photographers have also had a special interest in cafes. Cartier Bresson in France, Irving Penn in the United States and Alfred Eisenstaedt, while he was still living in Germany, all had a sizeable oeuvre of photos of what many consider a unique cafe-related style-of-life.