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Dortu (Toulouse-Lautrec et son oeuvre, New York, 1971, p. 166) has dated the carnet from which the following 20 drawings were taken circa 1879-1880. The prevalence of maritime imagery in these sketches indicates that Lautrec probably made them during the first two of three annual winter sojourns in Nice, in January-February 1879, or January-March 1880. Other subjects among these sheets point to the second visit, as discussed below.
Lautrec's inherited problems with the atrophied development of his leg bones became apparent as he entered adolescence. He began to receive regular treatment for pain in his joints and followed a regimen of limited exercise. The first major accident occurred in his home in Albi on 13 May 1878. As he was getting up to greet his doctor his cane slipped on a newly waxed floor, and he fell, breaking the femur in his left leg. Lautrec recovered slowly with the painful application of specially devised splints. He was able to stand and walk without crutches for limited distances by the end of the year.
At the beginning of 1879 Lautrec and his mother Adèle traveled to Nice, then one of the most popular spas in Europe, in the hope that the mild climate and curative waters would aid the boy's recuperative process. Lautrec wrote to cheer his cousin Madeleine, who was beginning to experience difficulty with her own legs, shortly after their arrival: '...We are settled in the Pension Internationale [4bis rue Rossini]. It's a pretty hotel surrounded by a fair-sized garden planted with palms and aloes... We are going to take a walk on the Promenade des Anglais, which is magnificent. It runs along the sea and you can watch tartans, cutters, etc., etc. The harbour is splendid compared with anything I've seen up to now. There are quite a few merchant vessels and an English yacht that is a veritable jewel' (Letters, no. 36).
Lautrec busied himself with painting watercolours and making numerous drawings of horses, his favorite subject in Albi, as well as of the ships in the harbour and at a nearby naval base. He enjoyed sketching portraits of their crew members. In a letter to his friend Etienne Devismes in January 1879 he quoted a song he found in a book by the popular writer Paul Féval: 'There's no one more swaggering Than the sailor Who's washed his ugly face In five or six waters He's the mackerel Who's at home in the water' (Letters, no. 37). Lautrec and his mother returned to Albi in March, and in the following month the final splint was removed. Tragedy then struck again that summer. Following a visit to the holy grotto in Lourdes, Lautrec and his mother stayed in the Pyrenean town of Barèges, where he slipped into a roadside ditch and broke his right leg.
On the mend once again, Lautrec returned to Nice in January 1880 for a second stay there, accompanied by various members of his family. On 13 January he wrote to his grandmother, Madame Raymond Casimir de Toulouse-Lautrec: 'On Saturday we had a lovely day at Cannes; the city is very pretty and my uncle's place superb. It's a swanky villa on the shore.... Uncle Odon goes riding on horseback and has rented a landau to go on the drives up the mountain. We went with them there and climbed up to a place where you can see Nice and the coast of Italy, and the sea is so blue...!! Raymond [Odon's son] is taking lessons from a priest.... The pension isn't as gay as last year. But on the whole the winter is more sunny and we go for a lot of walks' (Letters, no. 48).
The horse studies from the carnet (Dortu nos. 997-1000) may relate to the outings with Uncle Odon; the gouache and wash view on blue paper of the coast (D. 1002) is perhaps the panorama that Lautrec saw from the hilltop in Cannes. The young male bather seen from behind in D. 1006 and the little boy in D. 1007 are possibly Lautrec's cousin Raymond, while the boy's teacher, a heavy-set priest who appears to have enjoyed the beach, may be depicted in D. 1004 and 1008. Lautrec continued to draw ships and sailors. There are studies of a French naval frigate (D.996 and 998), sketches of a French marine holding a rifle (D. 993) and shipmate seated on deck writing a letter (D. 994). The latter also appears in two watercolours in another album (D., III, A. 81-97; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). The sailors seen smoking pipes (D. 989, 991, 992, and 995) are visiting United States Navy 'bluejackets.'
As Lautrec noted above, the weather was improved over the previous season he spent in Nice. He wrote to Devismes on 11 February 1880 'we are cooking in the sun', but also mentioned how two days before 'our Heavenly Father flung open the heavenly flood gates as far they would go; I could have almost sailed a cutter in the garden' (Letters, no. 49). It is perhaps to such a downpour that he refers in the drawing showing himself at his watercolor easel, painting a ship (D. 1005), which he inscribed 'pour que la pluie ne gâte le monument'. He was perhaps suggesting that the rain would not stop him from making his own monument, that is, his art. Indeed, in the painful months following his accidents, during which Lautrec applied himself to drawing and making his first oil paintings, the young man appears to have resolved that he would overcome his physical hardships and limitations through a dedicated commitment to his art.