A Life
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 Stiff and hobbled by its own exhaustiveness, this biography of Paris's tiny painter/provocateur (18641901) takes lively material and renders it lifeless. Frey (French/Univ. of Colorado, Boulder) raided a trove of newly released Toulouse-Lautrec family letters for this life study. Writing to his dear ``Maman'' and other dotty family members, the painter reveals himself only in the most guarded terms. He presents a foppish self-caricature, one that pokes fun at his own dwarfism, aristocratic background, and artistic pretensions. Frey provides more than ample surrounding historical context. She discusses thoroughly the wealthy Toulouse-Lautrec bloodline, its possible genetic inbreeding, and prickly family dynamic. Lively illustrations throughout enrich the text, and in art historical matters Frey, who has training as a printmaker, is most solid. Paris's period atelier system is depicted with some color. A sensible account of Toulouse-Lautrec's technical development follows, particularly strong in its analysis of the liberating effect that lithography had on the artist's work and its role in propagating his public image. Examined at length are Toulouse- Lautrec's possible influences: the formidable shadow of Edgar Degas, the development of still photography, the radical perspectival schemes introduced to Westerners by Japanese prints, and the philosophical convictions of the social realist and art nouveau movements. Less convincing are the author's constant attempts to second-guess Toulouse-Lautrec's psychological motivations for depicting his chosen subjects--the performers and prostitutes of Paris's bohemian Montmartre--and her ceaseless harping on his chronic alcoholism, possible sex life, and probable syphilitic condition. Frey includes extraneous detail to the point of annoyance. No true sense of Toulouse-Lautrec the person emerges. Painstaking and scrupulously scholarly without managing to be evocative. (84 b&w illustrations; 24 pages color illustrations, not seen)

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 1994
ISBN: 0-670-80844-X
Page count: 680pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1st, 1994