Renoir’s sunny Montmartre afternoon: The Dance at The Moulin de la Galette
Where is the Moulin de la Galette?
Renoir’s Impressionist masterpiece painting is to be found in the Orsay Museum in Paris. It is usually exhibited on the top floor. The Moulin de la Galette site is now a restaurant. The area features Montmartre’s last two windmills. The park area where Renoir’s friends are seen dancing and relaxing in the afternoon sunshine is now private land with no access.
One of the definitive symbols of Montmartre
The Moulin de la Galette is one of Montmartre’s defining symbols. It stands for windmills, dancing and painting. The painting that catches the spirit of a carefree sunny afternoon in Montmartre is Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s The Dance at the Moulin de la Galette.
The Montmartre windmills suggest the spin of the dance and the restless spirit of the artists. The image of circular movement can also be seen as a metaphor for the restricted and socially sanctioned freedom which the commercial entertainment venues of Montmartre afforded their clientele.
The windmills of Montmartre
There have been windmills (‘moulins’) on top of the western flank of Montmartre for centuries. The prevailing south westerly winds were compressed by the steep sides of the slope and forced up to the crest where they were caught by the mill’s sails. Windmills fanned out all over Montmartre in the past, now only two remain.
One of the windmills — the ‘Radet’ — has now become the sign of the present day Moulin de la Galette restaurant. The other — the ‘Blute-Fin’ — is set in private gardens a little behind the restaurant and is visible later in the walk on the way to point 10 Toulouse-Lautrec’s studio.
The windmills gave Montmartre a rustic feel and helped to set its sense of otherness on the boundary between city, country, land and the sky.
The millers move in Montmartre
The Debray family were traditionally associated with milling in Montmartre. They decided to open a ‘bal’ which in those days consisted of a dancehall venue and a park or promenade area. Paris was growing and slowly industrialising, drawing people from the country to the city. The new workers were often single men and women with wages to spend. The Debray’s spotted opportunity in the new labour force and gave the workers a place to go.
The small farm attached to the mills was turned into a shady park for promenades and dancing in the summer. The Parisians could get some green space and people from the country could think of home. Here then was a place where people could meet and dance or spend time in the garden.
The Galette is a reference to a flat round cake which could be made of pastry or bread with the flower coming, naturally, from the mill.
Let there be light
Whilst the commercial atmosphere of the dancehall of the Moulin de la Galette was caught by Toulouse-Lautrec or Picasso and the picturesque windmills by van Gogh or Utrillo, one artist has become synonymous with the Moulin de la Galette: Pierre-Auguste Renoir.
Renoir has removed his painting from the confines of the nocturnal bal with its cast of professional dancers and pimps. He has placed it in the rustic park surrounding the dancehall and windmills.
The action is now outdoors in the summer sun. The air has been cleared of the hanging smoke, the cheap perfume and the citrus odour of absinthe that you get in the Toulouse-Lautrec and Picasso versions. The light now floods in.
For wheelchair route users, please return to point 9 Bateau Lavoir.
The Dance at the Moulin de la Galette
This famous and joyful painting captures the dappled summer feel and relaxed atmosphere of a Montmartre afternoon. Renoir called it Le Bal du Moulin de la Galette (The Dance at the Moulin de la Galette).
Renoir lived and worked in Montmartre for many years. Some of the people represented in the picture were his friends. The painting successfully portrays their conviviality and complicity; they are seen here, talking, flirting, drinking, smoking and dancing. Nobody is portrayed as unhappy, bored, tired or drunk, there are no indications of undercurrents of jealousy or rivalry.
Renoir has caught the light of a bright afternoon and the rustle of of the breeze through the plane trees. As we look the branches move allowing shafts of sunlight to play on the back of the man seated in the foreground.
The painter has managed to evoke an easy moment of happiness, at a dance, in the shade of some trees, in a sunlit garden, among friends and strangers, in the summer of 1876. Renoir’s masterpiece made the Moulin de la Galette famous and has fixed an image of nineteenth century Montmartre in popular consciousness.
The painting can be seen at the Orsay Museum in Paris.
The Moulin de la Galette that we see today is a restaurant.
For wheelchair users, please return to wheelchair route Place Dalida and point 7.
The next stop on the In the Footsteps of the Artists circuit is another Montmartre address associated with Renoir: Le Château des Brouillards.