Movement as Implied Through Charcoal: Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec

A child prodigy often bedridden due to fragile and malformed femur bones, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec learned at an early age to transcend physical limitation through soaring artistic expression. Given drawing materials and direct, intentional exposure to the art world by his parents, Toulouse-Lautrec developed a highly unconventional style and worldview that consistently veered from both societal and artistic norms. His addition of acrid washes of color and harsh lighting to charcoal sketches brought the gritty, Bohemian underworld of Montmartre dancers, circus performers and prostitutes under an unmitigated spotlight, fully accessible to the quotidian eye. His subjects, portrayed with reverence, realism and honesty, were filled with life and activity.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

Toulouse-Lautrec produced over 5,000 separate drawings, in addition to hundreds of paintings and lithographs, before dying from the effects of syphilis and entrenched alcoholism at age 36. Late in life, as he was trying to heal, an inherited fascination with all things equestrian re-emerged. In terms of his inherent brilliance for depiction of light and movement, nothing at all had been lost.

In At the Circus: The Spanish Walk (Au Cirque: Le Pas Espagnol), the artist brings to vivid life the explosive, controlled power of a horse under saddle executing an exquisite sequence of steps. The image seems to come to life before our eyes, ready to burst into continued movement. One can almost feel, through all of the senses, the next footfall, the next swish of the tail, the chomp of the bit, the unified concentration of horse and rider as they proceed across the ring. The rider is settled, confident and serene. The horse is anatomically perfect, with a beautiful headset and distinct sheen to his coat, a vision of compressed energy. His ears are alert to two onlookers, rendered as mere suggestions in sparse, shorthand gestures; only their presence is required. Light reflects upon the wall; a lyrical shadow serves as the composition’s underpinning and punctuation.

Miraculously, Toulouse-Lautrec achieved all of this from memory, and with extensive, almost counter-intuitive use of dark outlining. He employed oranges, browns, a hint of yellow; but, all in all, he remained faithful to (and leaned most heavily upon) the simplicity of charcoal to encapsulate a cohesive, fluid dream of rarified movement. Can you think of other artists who used charcoal to convey specificity and realism of movement? Who are they?

Toulouse-Lautrec lived just two more years after the creation of this drawing, leaving behind an entire demi-monde, a recorded culture for our exploration. He lived with debility and the accompanying emotional burdens, but his exceptional perspicacity still has the power to transport us, as if by time machine, straight into the complicated world of his own, unparalleled life experience.

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