In his art we see him still, the dwarfish, half-drunk figure watching in the Moulin Rouge. There is a homburg on his head and a cane against his chair. He is peering through his pince-nez, memorizing everything -- the fury of the cancan, the silk hats of the toffs, the yellow of the gaslight, the pale, powdered whores. Excepting Vincent van Gogh (the half-mad Calvinist of Arles who took a razor to his ear) and Paul Gauguin (the voyager who fled to the South Seas), no 19th-century artist is remembered more romantically than Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the painter of Montmartre. And yet, despite the movie, the letters of his friends and the autobiographical nature of his art, we know him only slightly. His image, as we near it through the laughter and the smoke, begins to fall apart.

He pretended total honesty. "I don't spare the warts," he wrote, "and I enjoy adding the hairs that sprout from them." But his late prints and posters, now on exhibition at Manhattan's Museum of Modern Art, are held in check by reticence. His prints, like those of Warhol, tell us more about their subjects -- the dancer Yvette Guilbert with her long nose and long gloves, red-haired Jane Avril, tough-voiced Aristide Bruant, Loie Fuller of the veils -- than they do about the strange celebrity who made them. He hid himself in public. One always feels an odd reserve, a distance in his art.

Anna Held, May Belfort, La Goulue and all the others, the performers Lautrec captures with such droll precision, never step down from the stage, they are always on. The neither-sad-nor-sexy prostitutes Lautrec portrays make no effort to seduce us, they go about their business as if we were not there. In 1896, there were 274 cafe's concerts in Paris, and he frequented the best of them, laconically observing the hot and heavy glances, the pick-ups and flirtations -- but only from afar. He was imprisoned by ugliness. His art conceals his pain.

Pride and shame were mixed in him. So were poverty and wealth, abandon and restraint. He was made of contradictions. He was a lowlife of high breeding. He often dressed in costume -- as a choirboy, a shogun -- as if stressing his deformities, his thickened tongue, his heavy hands, his shortened arms and legs. A lush, a workaholic, he died at 36, yet managed to produce 737 canvases, 275 watercolors, 368 prints and more than 5,000 drawings. He was equally at ease in Lesbian bars and chateaux. He liked to live in brothels. Had he outlived his father, he would have been a count.

Scholars nowadays applaud Lautrec's modernity, the flatness of his colors, the concision of his shapes, and the way he helped invent the big eye-seizing ad. And yet he was in many ways not a modernist at all. His art retrieves the past.

The prints conserve tradition. They are quintessentially French.

He was not the first sophisticate to hymn the seamy side of Paris: the poet Franc,ois Villon -- thief, street brawler, vagabond -- had done so with high elegance 400 years before. Lautrec's lithographs of whores, especially those gathered in 1896 for the volume he called "Elles," were condemned for their obscenity, but the same fate had befallen the books of Rabelais in 1532. Even Lautrec's slumming suggests the days of old. The nobility of France had long enjoyed descending to play the games that poor folk play. Marie Antoinette, dressed up like a shepherdess, spent her afternoons milking cows and goats.

Watteau had painted actors, Gilles, Harlequin and Columbine; Lautrec portrayed Sarah Bernhardt. Boucher had filled his canvases with romantic and rococo pastoral seductions; Lautrec's suggestive prints are perfumed by cheap beer, rice powder and tobacco instead of meadow flowers, but their precedents are many and their pedigree is long. His lolling, bathing whores are the updated sisters of the harem girls portrayed by Delacroix and Ingres. What the Orientalists had found in Cairo and Algiers, Lautrec discovered again in the steep streets of Montmartre.

Memories of masters constrict one's admiration as one wanders through this show. Lautrec was not the first lithographer of Paris to blend commerce with high art; Daumier had trod that path before. And other older men, with talents grander than Lautrec's -- Seurat, Degas, Manet -- had previously depicted the dance halls of the belle e'poque, the circuses and cafe's.

"He wears my clothes," said Degas to Suzanne Valadon, "but they are tailored to his size."

He was born Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec Montfa in November 1864. His mother was a pious prude, his father an eccentric who gave his days to hunting with falcons, cormorants and ferrets. Both were fearsome snobs. The family -- to whom the artist remained loyal throughout his tortured life -- was very old and very rich. A thousand years before his birth, it had ruled the south of France.

"Ah, Monseigneur," the painter's father once said to an archbishop, "the days are gone when the counts of Toulouse could sodomize a monk and hang him afterwards if it so pleased them."

That excessive pride in pedigree led to Lautrec's curse.

Although, as Julia Frey observes in the exhibition catalogue, "posthumous diagnosis is always risky," it is believed he suffered from pyknodysostosis. The symptoms are well known: the long bones of the arms and legs cease growing in adolescence -- and Lautrec, in adulthood, was less than five feet tall. "He developed other marks of his rare form of dwarfism: a receding chin, large nostrils, a thickening tongue, abnormally red and bulbous lips, a lisping speech impediment, a characteristic sniffle and a tendency to drool." And he always wore a hat. "He explained that the turned-down brim reduced glare, helping him to concentrate on his vision, but one of the unvarying symptoms of pyknodysostosis is an unknitted anterior fontanel -- the classic 'soft spot' of newborns. Lautrec's had never closed."

The defect, although rare, often is inherited by children born to parents who are from the same family.

"His grandmothers were sisters. His parents were first cousins. In addition, Lautrec's father's sister married his mother's brother. This aunt and uncle had 14 children, not counting stillbirths; three of them were born with birth defects, and at least one of those was a dwarf. In a family proud of its illustrious lineage, the presence of children with birth defects was a humiliation. Nowhere in any of the family correspondence are such birth defects mentioned. The children are always referred to as fragile or sickly if mention of their health problems must be made at all."

His many cousins joined the army or rode to hounds on grand estates or promenaded blatantly with their adoring mistresses on Sunday afternoons in the Bois de Boulogne. It was the era of the dandy. Physically, at least, Lautrec could not compete.

But though he lived among the underclass, he never lost his aristlack -- the eyebrow and the hat, the right glove and the cloak -- are first softened by their outlines (whose hue is mossy green) and then completely conquered by the singer's crimson scarf. All these blocks of color play supporting roles. Cover up the face, and there is almost nothing there. The entire poster swings around that beautifully cocked eyebrow, that tight-lipped mouth, that haughty, knowing glance.

This poster, says the catalogue, is so closely "related to Katsukawa Shunsho's famous woodcut of Ichikawa Danjuro V in the role of Sakata No Kintoki, of about 1781" that it is "evidently a direct 'steal.' " But the picture's graceful curves, its astonishing directness -- and its delight in pop star glamor -- are entirely Lautrec's.

Although the exhibition's many repetitions (its six variously colored prints of Loie Fuller dancing with her veils, its seven pictures of "The Englishman at the Moulin Rouge," its four of De'sire' Dihau playing his bassoon) reveal the artist's methods, the viewer off the street may regard them as excessive. Lautrec did not struggle for his images. He got them right the first time.

His eye was sharp, his wit was bright, his drawing was concise -- he was, by any measure, an exceptional reporter -- but his prints and posters, excepting those of animals, of horses in particular, rarely touch the soul. There is more power and more poignance in Manet's "A Bar at the Folies-Berge re" than there is in this whole show. Lautrec had his own voice, but his voice was small. He left us snapshots of his time.

"I can paint until I'm 40. After that I intend to dry up." He didn't make it. By late 1897, Lautrec, then 33, was in serious emotional trouble, caused certainly by drink and probably by tertiary syphilis. "He was almost always drunk and suffered from hallucinations, paranoid fears, amnesia and uncontrollable shaking." The next March he was committed to a private hospital where, denied alcohol, he improved. The drawings that he made there -- to show his memory had returned -- encouraged the doctors to release him. For a while he seemed better, but the drinking and the terror and the whole downward spiral soon began again. He suffered a stroke in August 1901. He died Sept. 9.