Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec ranks with Cezanne, van Gogh, Monet and Gauguin as one of the best painters of the late 19th century. Throughout his career, which spanned fewer than 20 years, Toulouse-Lautrec created 737 surviving canvases, 275 watercolors, 363 prints and posters, and thousands of drawings. Ten years ago one of his paintings of a young laundress, La Blanchisseuse, sold for a record $22.4 million.
He was a horribly deformed dwarf who stood only 4’8″ tall with severely misshaped legs and was treated abusively by his father (Gene, 2015 Jan 15;555(1):59-62). He was intimate with a large number of downtrodden people and prostitutes, and was famous for painting the decadent theatrical life of Paris. He often lived and painted in brothels, where he made friends with prostitutes and painted and drew them at work and at play. His lifestyle brought him syphilis and other venereal diseases that eventually killed him at the very young age of 37. Many other famous people have also died of syphilis, including his friends Oscar Wilde, Paul Gauguin, Edouard Manet, Guy de Maupassant and Charles Baudelaire.
Child of Inbred Aristocrats
He was the child of aristocratic cousins who divorced when he was four, and he was brought up by a nanny. He never really knew his father, Count Alphonse, a nut who was totally unpredictable and often disappeared from the family for long periods of time. At age eight, he moved in with his mother in Paris. His talent for art became evident at that time with his painting of animals. In his early teens, he broke the bones in both of his legs so that he ended up with a normal size trunk and extremely short legs. His doctors suspected that inbreeding had something to do with his multiple bone fractures and skeletal deformities but it took 95 years after his death for researchers to find his genetic defect, pycnodysostosis. They named it “Toulouse-Lautrec Syndrome”.
The Artists’ Life in Paris and London
In 1882, when he was 18 years old, his mother used her influence to get him an appointment to study with noted painter Leon Bonnat. He lived in Montmartre, a poor area of Paris that was loaded with artists, writers, philosophers and prostitutes. His friends included the painters Émile Bernard and Vincent van Gogh. He found that downtrodden women such as prostitutes accepted his deformities far better than the associates of his high-society family. Toulouse-Lautrec also traveled to London where he made friends with Oscar Wilde, who was sent to prison for homosexuality. Toulouse-Lautrec defended Wilde and made a painting of him while he was on trial.
He spent most of his mornings painting and then spent most of his nights drinking and carousing at nightclubs in an attempt to drown the depression caused by the tremendous scorn heaped on him for his deformed body and short stature. By his late twenties, the alcohol had damaged his mind to make him forgetful, and by his early thirties it had damaged his liver to make him so weak and tired that he couldn’t even get out of bed. At age 35 he had to be admitted to a sanatorium because of his overwhelming depression.
Death of a Great Talent
At age 37 he lay dying from alcohol and the syphilis that he had acquired from prostitutes. His mother and a few friends were at his side. Surprisingly his father, whom he rarely saw during his lifetime, showed up. Toulouse-Lautrec said, “Good Papa, I knew you wouldn’t miss the kill.” His father suggested that they cut off Henri’s beard according to Arabic customs and that they use his shoelaces to flick at noisy flies. His last words to his father were “The old fool!”. After he died, his mother established the Toulouse-Lautrec Museum, which today has the world’s largest collection of his art.
His Genetic Disorder
In 1962, 116 years after his birth, doctors first described his disease and called it “Toulouse-Lautrec syndrome” or pycnodysostosis (Cases Journal, 2009; 2:6544). The disorder caused his bones to be very thick (osteopetrosis); the distal bones of his fingers to be very short; and his fontanelle, the hole in the skull of infants that closes as they grow up, to remain open for the rest of his life. His brittle bones broke frequently, and his head, face, teeth, collar bones, and skin, were deformed and his nails were flat with deep groves.
In 1996, the defective gene responsible for his deformed bones, short stature and distorted features was discovered. All of his deformities are caused by lack of Cathepsin K, a chemical in osteoblast cells that helps to form bones in normal people.
Long-Term Health Risks from Alcohol
A little alcohol may help a person become more creative. One study showed that taking two pints of beer can help some people solve problems faster, improve concentration and create new ideas (Consciousness and Cognition, April 2012). However, drinking regularly can destroy your mind and even kill you.
Your liver is the only organ in your body that contains enough of an enzyme called acetaldehyde dehydrogenase to break down significant amounts of alcohol. It breaks down alcohol at a slow, steady rate into acetaldehyde, a chemical that is even more poisonous to your cells. If you take in too much alcohol, the acetaldehyde will eventually destroy your liver to cause a condition called cirrhosis. When damaged, your liver breaks down alcohol and acetaldehyde so slowly that alcohol accumulates in and can damage your brain and every other organ in your body. Excess alcohol causes:
• High blood pressure, heart disease, strokes, liver disease, stomach ulcers
• Learning and memory problems (dementia, poor school or work performance)
• Emotional problems such as depression
• Social problems
Alcohol has also been linked to cancers of the breast, prostate, mouth, throat, esophagus, stomach, liver and colon.
Signs and Symptoms of Syphilis
Syphilis is called “The Great Pretender” because it can affect every tissue in your body to cause just about any symptom. Three stages of the disease are described:
• Primary Stage: A few days after exposure, you may or may not develop one or more firm, round and painless spots in your skin called chancres. They stay for three to six weeks and go away with no treatment whatever.
• Secondary Stage: Untreated, a person can develop sores in the mouth, vagina, or anus, and a non-itchy rash with rough red or brown spots on the palms of the hands, the bottoms of the feet or anywhere else on the skin. Other symptoms include fever, swollen lymph glands, sore throat, patchy hair loss, headaches, weight loss, muscle aches or fatigue. Any of these symptoms can develop at the same time as the first stage or several weeks later, and can disappear without treatment.
• Late Stage: From one to 30 years after initial exposure, syphilis can damage your brain, nerves, eyes, heart, blood vessels, liver, bones and joints. Symptoms can include difficulty coordinating muscles, paralysis, numbness, gradual blindness, dementia and death. Some people who are diagnosed as having incurable Parkinson’s or Huntington’s disease really have syphilis and can be cured with multiple injections of penicillin.
A Curable Disease That Still Kills
Today syphilis can be cured at any stage by taking large doses of penicillin. However, people are still becoming demented and dying from syphilis because most doctors do not order the appropriate diagnostic tests. Since syphilis is curable, all people with chronic symptoms or multiple partners should be screened with the blood tests RPR and VDRL. If you have signs of blood vessel disease, nerve damage or any of the other symptoms mentioned above, make sure your doctor includes the VDRL and RPR tests as part of your evaluation.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
November 24, 1864 – September 9, 1901