No artist captured the bohemian underworld of 19th-Century Paris with the wit and verve of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901). His paintings and posters of cabarets, cafes, dancehalls and brothels define the way we still think of the hilltop demimonde of Montmartre, which in Lautrec’s day was a pleasure-seeker’s shadowland at the limits of respectability. Lautrec, a gregarious and free-spirited aristocrat who loved drinking, women and fancy dress, is now chiefly remembered as the chronicler of the seedy, uninhibited side of the belle époque.
Rather less well known is that in addition to being a brilliant artist, Lautrec was also a fantastically inventive chef. Recently a friend gave me a second-hand copy of The Art of Cuisine, a compendium of his memorable recipes published decades after his death that provides many insights into his life and times.
Food doesn’t feature prominently in Lautrec’s art. A still life with a pear appears in the foreground of a late painting set inside a private dining room in a cafe-restaurant, perhaps the Rat Mort, which Lautrec used to visit in the second half of the 1890s. But in the interior’s artificial light, the fruit looks sickly, ghoulish and thoroughly unappetising.
In general, the cafe tables in Lautrec’s pictures are bare, furnished at most with a few small plates or the odd glass of wine or green absinthe. Lautrec, himself, would die of complications arising from alcoholism when he was only 36 years old. A genetic condition stunted Lautrec’s growth after he fractured both legs as a teenager and he lived with a disability throughout his life.
During his life, though, he enjoyed fine food as much as drink, and he threw frequent raucous, impromptu dinner parties for his wide circle of friends. According to one of them, the Symbolist poet Paul Leclercq, “He was a great gourmand… He loved to talk about cooking and knew of many rare recipes for making the most standard dishes… Cooking a leg of lamb for seven hours or preparing a lobster à l’Américaine held no secrets for him.” Indeed, his reputation as a confident and outlandish chef was so established that another friend, the artist Edouard Vuillard, painted a portrait of him standing in front of his oven.
His surprising dishes included quails in ashes, thrushes in juniper, stewed fillets of porpoise (preferably “harpooned” from the bowsprit of a cutter in the English Channel), and “grasshoppers grilled in the fashion of Saint John the Baptist”. He also recommended other curious ingredients such as squirrel and heron.
The recipes themselves, as recorded in The Art of Cuisine, are brief and idiosyncratic. Here, for instance, are his instructions for preparing stewed marmots: “Having killed some marmots sunning themselves belly up in the sun with their noses in the air one sunrise in September, skin them and carefully put aside the mass of fat which is excellent for rubbing into the bellies of pregnant women… Cut up the marmot and treat it like stewed hare which has a perfume that is unique and wild.”
But perhaps his most amusing and renowned recipe was for “baked kangaroo”. Conceived in honour of an animal that he had seen boxing at the circus, then a popular Parisian entertainment, it involved fashioning an artificial pouch and attaching this to a great hunk of mutton.
Lautrec is credited with introducing cocktail food to Paris, as well as for inventing a drink known as the “Earthquake”: three parts absinthe to three parts cognac, served with ice cubes in a wine goblet. However, although he is sometimes described as the inventor of chocolate mousse, this was not the case, since his “chocolate mayonnaise” was actually a variation of a recipe that had already appeared in French cookbooks. While we are on the subject of Lautrec’s desserts, though, my favourite is his recipe for “nuns’ fritters” – flavoured with rum.
Not all of his dishes were mischievous or unusual. Many of his recipes reflect the hearty, no-frills culinary traditions of southern France, where he was born and raised as a gentleman in Albi, not far from Toulouse. “A heavily meat-based gastronomy was, and still is, a key part of that region’s cultural identity, and Lautrec would have been brought up in this farm-to-table mentality,” says Karen Serres, curator of paintings at the Courtauld Gallery in London. “His mother continued to send him products from the family estate when he was in Paris.”
Moreover, his interest in cooking should be understood in the context of the wider passions and pursuits of the era. “The 19th Century was a golden age of French gastronomy,” explains the food and art historian Janine Catalano. “Parisian artists frequently depicted the pastimes of the modern world, and many of them centred around food and drink – from meals in restaurants to picnics in newly designed parks to the night-time entertainments of bars and cabarets. And, of course, the artists engaged in these activities themselves. Monet was a notorious gourmand – he was particularly fond of morel mushrooms – and he would host generous picnics and dinner parties. His famous home in Giverny boasted not only water-lily ponds, but also acres of vegetable gardens and orchards.”
In other words, Monet and Lautrec were representative of the times: according to Alexandra Leaf, writing in the preface to The Art of Cuisine, Paris boasted 27,000 cafes and more drinking establishments than any other city in the world by the end of the 19th Century. In addition, says Leaf, “The construction of Les Halles (1851-54), the great food market in Paris, ensured that the freshest, finest, and most flavourful comestibles, whether delicate white asparagus from Argenteuil or exquisite Belon oysters from Brittany, were readily available to all who desired them and had the means to procure them.” Records do not reveal whether Les Halles could supply Lautrec with his more outré ingredients.
Art of dining
Perhaps the most important question of all, though, is how much Lautrec considered cooking an extension of his art. According to one anecdote, he saw parallels between the two. Vuillard recalled an occasion when Lautrec cut short one of his feasts after the cheese course by inviting his guests to follow him to a friend’s apartment, where an unknown masterpiece by Degas was hanging on the wall. Pointing at the painting, he said: “There is your dessert!”
According to another story, Lautrec once prepared his famous lobster dish in front of an audience in a friend’s elegant drawing room, rather than in the kitchen. This sounds like a piece of performance art before its time. Today, for instance, the Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija is known for installations that involve sharing meals and cooking.
“I am wary of drawing direct parallels between Lautrec’s art and his cooking,” says Serres, “but the obvious link is his experimental attitude to both. Lautrec had a very inventive attitude to cooking, which he considered an extension of his bohemian and subversive attitude to authority. Likewise, in his art, he shunned the traditional oil paint on prepared canvas that artists would be expected to use, and adopted a variety of media and different types of supports. On a practical level, there is a similar attitude in the preparation and processes of painting and cooking, with the mixing of ingredients [and] pigments – and wearing a protective apron – the combination of various elements to make a whole, the trial-and-error aspect. But beyond going back to his roots and the experimental nature of cooking, what interested Lautrec was the conviviality it engendered. A festive meal brought together different people and was truly an event, almost a performance.”
Alastair Sooke is art critic of The Daily Telegraph