Perhaps the most well-known and most detailed of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings, At the Moulin Rouge takes the viewer into a decadent and gaudy nightlife of Montmarte, with the glamour stripped away.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec painted this painting between 1892 and 1895. The scene depicts the infamous cabaret Moulin Rouge, which first opened just a few years earlier, in gloomy and misty October of 1889. Henri was instantly attracted to its vibrant atmosphere and energy. Imagine him, with his top hat and spectacles, sitting at the round table covered with white tablecloth, drinking cognac and drawing with charcoal, capturing movement of the dancers and their lavishing dresses, and people around him. These sketches were merely rudiments for the oil-on-canvas paintings that he later made. Moulin Rouge became his second home, and wellspring of inspiration because night life, dancers and cabaret became his main subject. There was something honest about Moulin Rouge. On one hand it was a bewitching, artificial, glamorous world, but on the other hand, it was more truthful, a straightforward place for the ‘working class heroes’, artists and eccentrics. Toulouse-Lautrec found beauty in places that other artists discarded. In spirit of Zola’s Naturalism, he relished in the aesthetics of ugliness, and meticulously studied faces of people and their individual characteristics. He stripped away the glamour of Moulin Rouge and the nightlife of Montmartre, and, at the same time painted scenes so evocative of La Belle Epoque Paris. His paintings posses a charm today still, and are entrancing for the modern viewers even though more than hundred years had passed since their creation.
(I suggest you to enlarge the painting by clicking on it)
Look at the painting. The first thing you notice is the crowd in the middle. Three men and two women are talking. They appear to be sharing the newest gossip, or discussing something important. The lady with the orange-coloured hair certainly stands out (possibly a can-can dancer Jane Avril). We see a part of her hand in black glove, perhaps she’s talking and gesticulating, but she turned her back on us so we can’t be sure. She’s dressed in a typical flamboyant La Belle Epoque manner, her wide sleeved dress and collar are trimmed with fur, her red hair is adorned with a black hat. There’s a bottle and a half full glass on the table. Across from her sits a man seen from the profile (Edouard Dujardin), clutching a walking stick and whispering something to a lady next to him (dancer La Macarona). She seems dizzy from alcohol, and there’s a sense of irony in her smile. The remaining two figures at the table are the photographer Paul Sescau and the vintner Maurice Guilbert.
Behind the crowd we see the artist himself, a short figure with a hat, walking with his cousin Gabriel Tapie de Celeyran, a tall and equally grotesque figure. In the backdrop, another can-can dancer, La Goulue and her friend are fixing their hairstyles in the mirror. The walls in the background are covered with mirrors which give the appearance of a flickering green surface, mottled with brown. Mirrors reflect the vibrancy that goes on in the scene. Even though this is a crowd scene, each figure is highly individualised. There’s a diagonal orange line in the lower left corner, a hint of Japanese Ukiyo-e style unsymmetrical compositions. The most interesting part of the painting is the lower right corner which shows a woman, an English dancer named May Milton whose face is garishly green from the lights below. Her bright yellow hair enhances the contrast. Again a hint of Ukiyo-e prints; the composition cuts her face and torso, which leaves us with a sense of incompleteness, and fires our imagination.