Works Collected by Theo and Vincent van Gogh

Portrait of Vincent van Gogh

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

This vibrant, colourful pastel portrait by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901) depicts his friend Vincent van Gogh (1853–1890) seated at a table with a glass of absinthe in front of him. According to their mutual friend Emile Bernard (1868–1941), the portrait session must have taken place at Le Tambourin, an establishment they frequented in Montmartre. Although Toulouse-Lautrec did not date the work, it is reasonable to assume that it originated in the first half of 1887. As it is one of the very few portraits made of Van Gogh, this lively work is quite exceptional. And all the more so since it seems to be the only highly detailed pastel portrait Toulouse-Lautrec ever created.


There is little concrete evidence of a friendship between Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh aside from this portrait drawing and a letter of condolence on Van Gogh’s death. No correspondence has survived, and Toulouse-Lautrec, who like Van Gogh died at a young age, did not write personal memoirs. However, through testimonies and other leads, a reasonably clear picture of their relationship can be pieced together. The two artists first crossed paths at the atelier libre (‘free studio’) of Fernand Cormon (1845–1924) in March 1886, shortly after Van Gogh had arrived in Paris in late February. There, Toulouse-Lautrec, along with fellow students Bernard and Louis Anquetin (1861–1932), formed a closely knit trio known for their adversarial behaviour. Defying their teacher’s academic principles under the influence of impressionism, these so-called ‘intransigents’ experimented with looser brushwork and a brighter palette, especially outside their classes. Van Gogh, who stood out due to his older age, Dutch heritage and idiosyncratic nature, felt some kinship with the rebellious group. In his memoirs, Bernard described how Van Gogh ‘worked tirelessly in the mornings after the nude model, with the students’, and in the afternoons drew plaster copies in an almost empty studio, ‘where there was only himself, Toulouse-Lautrec, Anquetin and me’. Indeed, drawn studies from that time reveal that Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh studied the same plaster casts. It was not until the autumn of 1886, sometime after Van Gogh had left the atelier in early summer, that the bond between him and the three younger artists deepened. Bernard and Van Gogh, in particular, became close. An important meeting place for the artists was Le Mirliton, the cabaret of Toulouse-Lautrec’s good friend the chansonnier Aristide Bruant. Toulouse-Lautrec regularly frequented the establishment in the company of Anquetin and Bernard, and it seems only natural that Van Gogh occasionally joined them. In addition, according to the artist and model Suzanne Valadon (1865–1938), Van Gogh joined the weekly gatherings in Toulouse-Lautrec’s studio, located around the corner from the apartment Vincent shared with his brother, Theo van Gogh (1857–1891).

The fact that Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh interacted with regularity is also evident in the stylistic affinities found in some of their works from early 1887. Both artists employed a similar painterly touch, characterized by short, parallel strokes, and simultaneously explored the use of thinned oil paint (peinture à l’essence), a technique with a matting effect that Van Gogh eventually abandoned but which would become Toulouse-Lautrec’s trademark. Moreover, they admired the same contemporary artists, including the realist Jean-François Raffaëlli (1850–1924) and the impressionist Edgar Degas (1834–1917), and shared a fondness for prints and illustrations, such as those by the caricaturist Honoré Daumier (1808–1879).

However, when it came to their backgrounds and characters, these two artists certainly differed. Toulouse-Lautrec was an arch aristocrat, endowed with a healthy dose of ironic humour, whereas Van Gogh, the elder by eleven years, grew up in a middle-class Brabant family and took a far more serious approach to life. Thadée Natanson (1868–1951), a confidant of Toulouse-Lautrec and editor of the avant-garde magazine La Revue blanche, noted that these differences in no way hindered their friendship. Van Gogh saw in Toulouse-Lautrec an infectious energy and love for the craft, while Toulouse-Lautrec was charmed by Van Gogh’s simplicity and enjoyed listening to his stories about art, Holland, and his peregrinations. Still, it remains a matter of debate whether their friendship was truly close. Their friend and Cormon confrère Archibald Standish Hartrick (1864–1950), for instance, could not recall ever seeing the two together.

The portrait in the café

Toulouse-Lautrec was adept at choosing a setting that reflected the personality of his model. In the case of Van Gogh, it seems he found the café to be a fitting backdrop for his friend. The choice is not surprising considering that in Paris Van Gogh had developed a routine of hastening to a café at the end of his workday during the so-called heure verte, or ‘green hour’, to imbibe one or more glasses of absinthe. Van Gogh himself confessed that when he left Paris for Arles in the winter of 1888 he was ‘almost an alcoholic’. Paul Signac (1863–1935) recalled that when he visited his friend in the south, ‘the absinthes and brandies would follow each other in quick succession.’ During the period when Toulouse-Lautrec depicted him, Van Gogh also portrayed himself twice in a café with a glass of liquor . He even devoted an entire canvas exclusively to his beloved green elixir, seen from the drinker’s perspective: Café Table with Absinthe (1887, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam).

Vincent van Gogh Self-Portrait with a Glass, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

Vincent van Gogh, Self-Portrait with a Glass, January 1887, oil on canvas, 61.1 × 50.1 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam (Vincent van Gogh Foundation)

The subject of alcohol consumption was of particular artistic interest to both painters. Toulouse-Lautrec, who himself suffered from alcoholism, had been exploring the naturalistic theme of the solitary drinker for some time in his art, in particular the stereotypical destitute woman whose drinking led to a life of rack and ruin . His role models, Degas, Raffaëlli and Jean-Louis Forain (1852–1931), who had already frequently depicted the excessive drinking of the Parisian underclass in their paintings and prints, will have inspired him to do so . Toulouse-Lautrec’s portrait of his friend Van Gogh appears to fit seamlessly into this tradition.

Toulouse-Lautrec often favoured a side view when portraying his models, a perspective he also applied in his depiction of his friend. Van Gogh is pictured with a straight back and raised head, sitting at a table and leaning on his forearms, his gaze fixed on something or someone outside the picture plane. The serious expression on his face along with his distinctive nose and ruddy beard makes him instantly recognizable as Van Gogh. These same external features are seen in his numerous self-portraits, and they align with the description provided by his associate Hartrick: ‘Van Gogh was a rather weedy little man, with pinched features, red hair and beard, and a light blue eye.’ However, Toulouse-Lautrec’s portrait went beyond being a convincing portrayal of his friend’s appearance. He managed to capture the essence of Van Gogh’s character while also conveying his personal vision of him. This will no doubt have been due to the fact that he knew him well. Van Gogh’s overall powerful demeanour exhibits the alertness and intensity that typified him as a person. Toulouse-Lautrec almost exclusively portrayed people from his immediate surroundings. This is precisely why, according to his contemporary the art expert Théodore Duret (1838–1927), ‘he was able to capture them so well and provide not a mundane, but a true and superior likeness.’

Pastel crayon

Toulouse-Lautrec built up the colourful portrait with several layers of pastel crayon, consisting of numerous superimposed lines varying in length, shape and direction. As a base, he used prepared paper stretched on sturdy cardboard. According to the art critic Gustave Coquiot (1865–1926), Lautrec began his portraits ‘in the middle of the figure, either at an ear, or at the nose. From there, he multiplied his hatching towards the figure, while seeking its distinctive hallmark.’ He drew Van Gogh’s head with finesse and a rich array of bright and soft hues, ranging from green to yellow and blue to orange. A pale pink bathes his forehead, nose and cheekbone. Around the head, by contrast, the composition is characterized by a more sketchy, coarse interplay of lines dominated by ochre yellow and complementary blue tones. Employing various stylistic techniques, Toulouse-Lautrec deftly made Van Gogh’s overall figure stand out from its surroundings. For instance, he accentuated contours in various places, such as with brown along his back and collar. He added emphasis along Van Gogh’s facial profile by contrasting the skin and reddish beard hair with the darker purple-blue of the bar top and the ochre yellow of the interior. A small area of shadow next to Van Gogh’s forehead also created a convincing contrast. To reinforce this overall effect, Toulouse-Lautrec framed Van Gogh’s figure with the decorative relief of the front of the bar (the only passage for which he used the broad side of the crayon) and the middle panel of the mirror. Van Gogh thus forms the true anchor point of the composition, drawing all attention.

Although pastel crayons lend themselves to painterly drawing and evenly filling surfaces, in this drawing the line predominates. Possibly inspired by Degas, who juxtaposed numerous complementary and contrasting lines in his pastels, Toulouse-Lautrec did not rub out the chalk with a stump or finger at any point and let the surface of the paper show through the entire composition.

As a detailed and finished pastel portrait, this work occupies a unique place within Toulouse-Lautrec’s oeuvre. We can only guess as to what prompted him to reach for a box of pastel crayons. When drawing and sketching, he typically favoured other materials, such as charcoal, (conté) crayon, pencil and ink. He preferred using thinned oil paint for his portraits, like most of his independent works. However, the combination of pastel crayons and stretched paper enabled him to produce a representation in colour in a short time and on the spot. It is plausible that he drew the portrait in a single session during a meeting at the café with Van Gogh. Alternately, given the level of detail in the depiction, he may have drawn a layout during their encounter and then refined it in his studio.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s choice of materials may have been prompted by his artist friends. For instance, powdery pastels were Anquetin’s favourite medium. Like Toulouse-Lautrec, he portrayed one of the other ‘intransigents’ in pastel around the same time, namely Bernard . Bernard also explored this medium during those Paris years, though only occasionally, as in The Hour of the Flesh . Van Gogh seems to have been the only one among this small group who did not experiment with pastel crayons. However, remarkably, in the first half of 1887, he made a series of drawings and sketches using coloured crayons that bore some resemblance to his friends’ drawings, such as his Window in the Bataille Restaurant (February–March 1887, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam). It has therefore been suggested that Toulouse-Lautrec adopted Van Gogh’s drawing style in his portrait of him. Nevertheless, it is important to note that the short, erratic strokes are precisely the hallmark of Toulouse-Lautrec’s technique, whereas Van Gogh favoured bolder, tauter lines.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s remarkable ability to create accomplished portraits even in a medium less familiar to him underscores his great mastery of drawing materials. This proficiency was the result of diligent practice and the thorough training provided by his teachers Cormon and Léon Bonnat (1833–1922). The latter was a respected portrait painter in whose Paris atelier Toulouse-Lautrec took his very first academic lessons. Early on, in 1882, taking up Bonnat’s advice, Toulouse-Lautrec had effortlessly portrayed several family members in charcoal, such as his uncle Charles de Toulouse-Lautrec . This uncle was an amateur artist who, according to Toulouse-Lautrec, had ignited ‘the sketching spark’ (‘l’étincelle crayonneuse’) in him.

Place in Toulouse-Lautrec’s oeuvre

Because Toulouse-Lautrec almost never dated his works and his use of pastels was relatively exceptional, the portrait drawing of Van Gogh is difficult to place within the chronology of his portraits, which constitute a large part of his oeuvre. There appears to be only one other pastel portrait (Portrait of Georges Henri-Manuel, 1891; ) by Toulouse-Lautrec from a later period, which moreover is less elaborate. However, from both a stylistic and technical perspective, the portrait of Van Gogh bears affinity with several oil portraits Toulouse-Lautrec created around 1886–87, including the intimate profile portrait of his mother reading . The composition of this painting is similar to the pastel drawing and exhibits a comparable dynamic and dense pattern of short brushstrokes.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Adèle de Toulouse-Lautrec in the Salon at Malromé, c. 1886–87 (according to Murray 1991, clearly 1887; according to Roquebert 2019, summer or late 1886), oil on canvas, 59 × 45 cm, Musée Toulouse-Lautrec, Albi

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Adèle de Toulouse-Lautrec in the Salon at Malromé, c. 1886–87, oil on canvas, 59 × 45 cm, Musée Toulouse-Lautrec, Albi

A comparison with portraits that Toulouse-Lautrec painted of his fellow trainees Bernard and François Gauzi (1862–1933) during his time at Cormon’s atelier illustrates the rapid development he underwent during this period ( and ). His work became increasingly colourful and direct under the influence of impressionism and neo-impressionism. The impressionist brushstroke is already evident in Bernard’s portrait, while the painting style is generally harmonious and seems calm on the whole. On the other hand, Gauzi’s portrait presents a more fluid interplay of brushstrokes and much freer execution. In terms of line and style, it is relatively close to the portrait of Van Gogh. Although the later graphic style so characteristic of Toulouse-Lautrec has not yet reached maturity in the pastel portrait, the hand of an artist who wants to measure up to the Parisian avant-garde is clearly manifest here.

Vincent and Theo’s collection

It is not known exactly how the Van Gogh brothers obtained the pastel portrait, although it is likely that Toulouse-Lautrec simply gave it to his friend. Another possibility is that an exchange took place, perhaps involving Van Gogh’s View from Theo’s Apartment (1887, Galerie Bruno Bischofberger, Zurich). Toulouse-Lautrec was also on good terms with Theo, who, as branch manager of the art gallery Boussod, Valadon & Cie, had taken some of his works on consignment. He therefore might have presented the portrait to Theo from a strategic standpoint. That the brothers were very fond of the portrait can be deduced from the fashionable, expensive frame that still surrounds the picture today (). It was made by Pierre Cluzel, a highly regarded frame maker known for his work for artists such as Degas and Camille Pissarro (1830–1903). It could well be that Theo chose the frame in consultation with Toulouse-Lautrec, as both regularly used Cluzel’s services. In a note addressed to Theo from December 1887–January 1888, Toulouse-Lautrec asks him to go to Cluzel for advice on framing a study, which could perhaps refer to the pastel portrait in question.

The friendship between Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh waned after Vincent moved to Arles in early 1888, but they did not forget each other. Shortly before leaving, Vincent had urged Theo to acquire Toulouse-Lautrec’s painting Young Woman at a Table, ‘Poudre de Riz’ for their joint collection, a suggestion Theo acted on. From the south of France and later from Auvers-sur-Oise, Van Gogh continued to mention Toulouse-Lautrec and his work in letters to Theo. That Toulouse-Lautrec also remained interested in and respected Van Gogh is evident from an anecdote about the opening dinner of the Les XX exhibition in Brussels in 1890. When a fellow participant, Henry de Groux (1866–1930), openly insulted Van Gogh’s exhibited works there, Toulouse-Lautrec rose to defend his friend, even challenging De Groux to a duel. The last time they saw each other was in July 1890, shortly before Vincent’s death, at the home of Theo and his wife Jo van Gogh-Bonger (1862–1925) in Paris. On this occasion, according to Jo, the two friends had great fun together. In his letter of condolence upon hearing of Van Gogh’s death, Toulouse-Lautrec wrote, for the first and last time, about their friendship in loving terms: ‘You know what a friend he was to me and how eager he was to demonstrate his affection.’


Toulouse-Lautrec’s pastel portrait was also important to Jo van Gogh-Bonger, who after Vincent’s and Theo’s untimely deaths took charge of the vast collection that the brothers had assembled. This is evident from a photograph of the living room of her house on Koninginneweg in Amsterdam, where she lived from 1904 until her death in 1925. Whereas most paintings in the room were hung in rows close together, the portrait was displayed separately and at eye level, to the right of the door (). Besides her personal attachment to the portrait drawing, she must have found it so representative of her brother-in-law that, in addition to his self-portraits, she wished to share it with the outside world. Thus she repeatedly sent the work along with Van Gogh’s paintings when she lent them to exhibitions both at home and abroad. However, reviews of these exhibitions make no mention of the pastel drawing. Be that as it may, the portrait was often noted in the memoirs of artist friends, dealers and critics. Although always brief, these mentions consistently praise the portrait. For instance, Hartrick called it ‘a good likeness and very characteristic of its author as well’, Gauzi described it as ‘an admirable portrait’, and Natanson deemed it a ‘touching likeness’.

Franka Blok
January 2024


Franka Blok, ‘Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Portrait of Vincent van Gogh, 1887’, catalogue entry in Contemporaries of Van Gogh 1: Works Collected by Theo and Vincent, Joost van der Hoeven (ed.), Amsterdam: Van Gogh Museum, 2024.

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