The French painter, one of the most significant artists of the late 19th Century, Henry Toulouse-Lautrec had various aspects to his personality – refinement that came from his aristocratic origins (he was a descendent of Toulouse Counts), an inexhaustible curiosity and an zealous urge to taste all of life’s pleasures.
His small, frail physique was the result of a childhood accident that stunted the growth in his legs and deformed his body, making him unfit for any kind of normal physical activity. He was barely taller than 1.5 metres, with a normal-sized chest, the legs of a child, and he nourished himself with art. Already by the age of twenty-three, he had his own atelier in the Montmartre area of Paris, where he recorded the bohemian lifestyle in precise detail and become one of the most important exponents of post-impressionism.
In the cafés and bistrots, when the sun would set and the city of lights would turn on, this small, restless man would appear punctually with a laboured step. He knew everyone – from dancers to Claude Monet, from prostitutes to Vincent Van Gogh. His lithograph drawings became the posters for cabaret theatres like the Moulin Rouge.
Considered one of the driving spirits of Montmartre, Lautrec was not only passionate about painting, but cooking as well. In the castles of Southern France, where he’d spent his childhood, he’d been introduced to the pleasures of the table: vintage wines, aged cheeses, seasoned meats. His recipe book, The Art of Cuisine, which he wrote and published with friend and partner Maurice Joyant, proposes dishes with the strong taste of Provence alongside fantastical ways of preparing fish and fowl, as well as gourmet sauces. The recipes of Toulouse-Lautrec stand out for their originality, and in order to carry them out successfully one must lend particular attention to the balance of tastes.
An invitation to dinner from him was a celebration of the spirit and the senses. He began by carefully selecting his guests, never inviting more than eight or ten, and making sure they were of different professions so as to render the conversation more stimulating. Each guest would receive a lithographed or water-colour painted menus. Henry himself would serve each of the dishes himself, his wines were always impeccably chosen and there was also a carafe of water on the table – in which goldfish swam, however.
In his atelier, among the pillows, hats and wigs, he displayed a shelf full of various liquors, without which, the artist claimed, a painting could not be truly appreciated. Shocking people was his greatest entertainment: he once managed to cook a lobster by cutting it into pieces while it was still alive as his dinner guests watched. Another time, after a boxing match at the circus between a man and a kangaroo, he served a roast shaped like a kangaroo out of a mutton with an artificial pouch.
Curious about all aspects of the world, thanks to his family wealth, Lautrec was able to also indulge in travel. Together with Joyant, he also was a assiduous visitor to all kinds of art galleries and restaurants: in Brussles he dined at le Gigot de Mouton, famous for serving woodcock cooked in champagne and its extensive wine cellar; he loved Sweetings in Londonwhere he would stare transfixed at their pyramids of fish and crustaceans.
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