A PAGE FROM THE LOST DIARY OF TOULOUSE-LAUTREC
By Don Conway
For many years there has been speculation that the artist Toulouse-Lautrec (TL) kept a personal diary. Following his death on September 9, 1901 due to the combined effects of syphilis and alcoholism, his personal effects were taken over by his mother. She was determined to promote the artistic works of her unfortunate son. No diary was found however the rumor of its existence persisted.
In 2015 a descendent of Rosa La Rouge, a Parisian prostitute with whom TL had lived from 1886 to1887 came upon his diary among La Rouge’s belongings. The long-lost diary of TL had been found at last.
The last entry in the diary is dated Wednesday, May 19, 1886— a momentous day in the artist’s life as told in his own words. That entry is presented here.
May 19, 1886
Dr. Mathieu has confirmed his original diagnosis. I have the Pox*
I have no doubt that I contracted it from Rosa…not that that matters. I think she does not even know she has it. I must speak to her about this. Poor Rosa. I must also send a personal warning to Oscar.** He is living on the edge.
The Doctor has explained that there is no cure for the Pox, only treatments with Mercury. They sound as horrible as the disease itself and there are high risks for disastrous side effects and early death because of Mercury poisoning.
No! I will not undergo the indignity and torment of these Mercury treatments.
The Doctor says it will take ten to fifteen years for the disease to kill me. And it will be an ugly and unpleasant death. So be it. There is always Absinth and more Earthquakes***.
If I have ten to fifteen years to continue my work then I shall make the most of them.
Of course, I must explain all of this to Momma. She worries about me so and this news will add to her burden. It is bad enough she has had to deal with The Old Fool**** for all these years. It is ironic that I should be the one to come down with the Pox. With all his years of womanizing and humiliating Momma it is a wonder he, who so deserves it, did not catch this disease first. Another of life’s injustices…
Had Alphonse*****, lived and not been a dwarf such as I am, he would have been able to provide Momma with some consolation.
Now I must look to my future with some measure of practicality. Will my dear friends at the near-by brothels continue to service me? I think if I procure a supply of the new rubber condoms they will. In their wisdom they are bound to see that this disease is only one more of the manifestations that sets them, and me, apart from the rest of Society. The world of prostitutes, dancers, dwarfs and circus performers, our world, is so afflicted with damaged human beings that the Pox will not make a significant difference to them.
And so, if I continue to be accepted in our world, I will bear witness, through my work, to the fact that though we are society’s outcasts, we are also human beings.
Ten or fifteen more years of paintings, drawings and lithographs may not be enough to teach this lesson to the world but I have no choice but to try to make the rest of humanity see the real us…and me.
*The Pox was a common term for Syphilis in the 1800’s
** Oscar Wilde whom TL had befriended and who was later tried for homosexuality and served two years in a British prison. He died alone and destitute in Paris in 1900.
***Earthquakes were a drink invented by TL consisting of 1 part Absinth and 1 part Cognac.
****The Old Fool was TL’s pejorative for his father with whom he had a contentious relationship.
*****Alphonse was TL’s younger brother who died at an early age.
Don Conway is an award-winning Architect and Writer (two golds and a silver medal from a national writing competition) also a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University. Says he is working hard on book number four.