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‘The Monstrous Gnome’: Confronting Physical Difference in the Art of Toulouse-Lautrec


“Monstrous gnome,” “Quasimodo,” “disgraceful”– The obituaries of Henri de Toulouse-

Lautrec (1864-1901) deployed such pejorative corporeal descriptions, which colored his

posthumous legacy. Such influential framings suggested that his presumed resentment of Self

manifested in the deformation of his graphic subjects. Lautrec scholarship has shifted between

two narrative poles: Lautrec’s appearance as either the bitter root of his art, or as a factor utterly irrelevant to his transcendent creative ‘genius.’

The disabled population constitutes the world’s largest minority, yet disability is still

largely underrepresented in art history and Lautrec studies. This dissertation works to reclaim the artist’s impairment as a newly productive lens. Rather than focus on his pathology, it expands the scope of Lautrec scholarship by considering the wider reception of his art and his body in a culture obsessed with its presumed degeneracy. Indeed, working in a France recovering from a humiliating defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, Lautrec navigated a society in flux. Faltering industrialization, political volatility under the Third Republic, and the emergence of eugenics all fostered a climate ripe for the stigmatization of difference. Ultimately, I argue that Lautrec and his work were troublesome and thus denigrated as visual manifestations of a France perceived to be in decline. Using an intersectional approach (deploying disability studies’ social model along with conventional art historical methods) reframes Lautrec as more than a debauched aristocrat. It exposes him as a multicultural artist, fashioned equally by his aristocratic birth, the impairment of close friends in addition to his own, his relocation to Montmartre and its socially-marginal population, and the rise of technologies such as electricity and photography.

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