Artist and videographer Paul Priestly is an enthusiastic and generous sort of fellow.
His free online drawing tutorials abound with encouraging words for beginners, and he clearly relishes lifting the curtain to reveal his home studio set up and self designed camera rig.
But we here at Open Culture think his greatest gift to home viewers are his Art History School profiles of well-known artists like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Vincent Van Gogh.
An avid storyteller, he’s drawn to those with tragic histories — the decision to pivot from impersonating the artist, as he did with Van Gogh, to serving as a reporter interested in how such details as syphilis and alcoholism informed lives and careers is a wise one.
Priestly makes a convincing case that Lautrec’s aristocratic upbringing contributed to his misery. His short stature was the result, not of dwarfism, but Pyknodysostosis (PYCD) a rare bone weakening disease that surely owed something to his parents’ status as first cousins.
His appearance made him a subject of lifelong mockery, and ensured that the freewheeling artist scene in Montmartre would prove more welcoming than the blueblood milieu into which he’d been born.
Priestly makes a meal of that Demi-monde, introducing viewers to many of the players.
He heightens our appreciation for Lautrec’s masterpiece, At the Moulin Rouge, by briefly orienting us to who’s seated around the table: writer and critic Édouard Dujardin, dancer La Macarona, photographer Paul Secau, and “champagne salesman and debauchee” Maurice Guibert, who earlier posed as a lecherous patron in Lautrec’s At the Café La Mie.
Queen of the Cancan La Goulue hangs out in the background with another dancer, the wonderfully named La Môme Fromage.
Lautrec places himself squarely in the mix, looking very much at home.
Consider that these names, like those of frequent Lautrec subjects acrobatic dancer Jane Avril and chanteuse Yvette Guilbert were as celebrated in Belle Epoque Montmartre as many of the painters Lautrec rubbed shoulders with — Degas, Pissarro, Cézanne, Van Gogh and Manet.
In an article in The Smithsonian, Paul Trachtman recounts how Lautrec discovered the model for Manet’s famous nude Olympia, Victorine Meurent, “living in abject poverty in a top-floor apartment down a Montmartre alley. She was now an old, wrinkled, balding woman. Lautrec called on her often, and took his friends along, presenting her with gifts of chocolate and flowers — as if courting death itself.”
Meanwhile Degas sniffed that Lautrec’s studies of women in a brothel “stank of syphilis.”
Perhaps Priestly will delve into Degas for an upcoming Art History School episode … there’s no shortage of material there.
Above are three more of Paul Priestly’s Art History School profiles that we’ve enjoyed on Frances Bacon, Edvard Munch and Gustav Klimt. You can subscribe to his channel here.
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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. Follow her @AyunHalliday.
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