When Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec began to paint in Paris in the 1880s, class and gender divisions were beginning to break down. Subversive entertainment in the new cafés was part of the cause. As he explored the bars of Montmartre, the crippled artist, son of an aristocratic family, was in a rare position to observe the hypocrisies and truths of French society. His penetration of the capital’s night life, celebrating and stripping bare the tawdry realities of clubs and brothels, shocked his contemporaries; for younger artists like Picasso his work was an inspiration. He left a legacy of 1,000 paintings, over 5,000 drawings and more than 350 prints. To this day, his vivid, witty posters of the Moulin Rouge and of Aristide Bruant appeal to a mass market. The popularity of certain images has made a proportion of his work into a clich e and the merchandising of his life has transformed an extraordinarily gifted and courageous painter into a martyr.
In his sympathetic biography Sweetman uses the device of a little-known painting of Lautrec’s to bind the artist to Oscar Wilde and the Anarchists in a fin-de-siècle embrace. By 1895, La Goulue (Louise Weber), a former star dancer at the Moulin Rouge, had grown too fat to can-can. She bought