Toulouse-Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge Paintings and Posters

Toulouse-Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge paintings and posters

Point 8: The Moulin Rouge

Map of lower Montmartre Pigalle for the self-guided walk which guides you to artists’ studios, paintings and canteens. The walk is around the lower Montmartre - Pigalle area and includes sites associated with Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso and the Montmartre jazz scene of the 1920s.

Walk 2, map of lower Montmartre – Pigalle. Route and points of interest of the Montmartre walking tour Montmartre Artists’ Studios © OpenStreetMap contributors, the Open Database Licence (ODbL).

A pre-fire 1914 coloured image of the Moulin Rouge from Wikipedia
The old Moulin Rouge that Toulouse-Lautrec would have known before the fire of 1915. (1) © Wikimedia Commons.

The Moulin Rouge opened in 1889. It positioned itself as an upmarket dancehall featuring a large garden and stage for open air concerts.

There were many distractions: donkey rides and a huge plaster and wood elephant left over from the 1889 World Fair; there was a Spanish palace, shooting galleries, belly dancers and clowns.

The publicity campaign from the early years spoke of an audience of ladies, artists and people of quality — all the advantages of Montmartre without the inconveniences of having to rub shoulders with the riff-raff.

The place was perfect for Toulouse-Lautrec and friends.

Toulouse-Lautrec and the Moulin Rouge are often mentioned together with good reason: The work he did here was the high point of his career and the Moulin Rouge would have been just another Montmartre entertainment venue without Toulouse-Lautrec.

At The Moulin Rouge: The Dance

The new Moulin Rouge soon inspired Toulouse-Lautrec to paint one of his most ambitious works: At The Moulin Rouge: The Dance. The picture dates from 1889-90 and is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s At The Moulin Rouge: The Dance. The picture is set at the Moulin Rouge. In the middle ground a female dancer is being put through her paces by the star male dancer of the Moulin Rouge, Valentin ‘the boneless’. We see her kicking her leg up. She is observed by two women in the foreground one of which is wearing an elaborate pink dress and hat. In the background many male bourgeois, (because of their top hats and dress), clients are either observing the rehearsal or are socialising at the bar. The floorboards, pillars and windows of the Moulin Rouge are also visible.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s At The Moulin Rouge: The Dance. Valentin ‘the boneless’ puts a trainee through her paces as a quality bourgeois audience looks on. (2) © Wikimedia Commons.

The picture shows a typical scene at the dancehall.

A famous male dancer Valentin ‘the boneless’ (because of his rubbery flexibility) is going through a rehearsal with a female dancer. Valentin the boneless was the Moulin Rouge’s star male dancer. The trainee he is coaching is energetically kicking her left leg in the air. She is learning the chahut or can-can for which the Moulin Rouge became famous.

We see floorboards, a long bar, some slender supporting pillars and the Moulin Rouge’s mostly male clientele. In the background there are what looks like the branches of the trees from the garden seen through the windows behind the bar.

The trees, which Lautrec has painted, appear behind the windmill in the early twentieth century photograph of the Moulin Rouge (see above). The scene is illuminated by globes of electric light hovering around the pillars and the trees appear to be reflecting the light.
In the painting they seem animated, almost straining to catch a glimpse of what is going on inside. Lautrec has played with the effect of light on the windows and the branches to suggest more dancing figures.

Even the vegetation is captivated by the spectacle of the Moulin Rouge.

We are right in the middle of the Moulin Rouge action

Many male bourgeois spectators mill around, if we look closely we can see Toulouse-Lautrec’s friend Paul Sescau among them.

One of the top-hatted figures is leaving the frame picture to the left — Toulouse-Lautrec has used the technique of cropping. Cropping is where we only see a portion of the figure. Toulouse-Lautrec had already used the device in a painting called The Performing Horsewoman at Fernando’s Circus, (in the Art Institute Chicago). The circus painting had been bought by the owners of the Moulin Rouge and hung above the bar.

Toulouse-Lautrec probably picked up the technique of cropping from the Japanese prints he saw and admired. The cropped figure peeling away from the scene implies that there is more action going on elsewhere outside the frame of the picture ; it suggests that there is always plenty of distraction and good company at the Moulin Rouge.

Speaking of good company, the woman dressed up in pink in the foreground appears to be giving the dancer a condescending look; she at least does not have to dance for her living.

There is little moral judgement in the painting but Lautrec brings his acute sense of observation to convey the mood of the scene.
The painting places the viewer right in the middle of the elegant crowd — we are almost walking the floorboards of the dancehall observing the players and the action.

Dancers, ladies and top-hatted bourgeois

We see a modern, spacious, well-illuminated venue frequented by top-hatted bourgeois men and unaccompanied well-dressed ladies.

Little wonder that the owners of the Moulin Rouge bought the painting and hung it above the bar next to Lautrec’s Performing Horsewoman circus picture. They could not have asked for more in terms of favourable publicity had they commissioned Toulouse-Lautrec themselves.

We can be sure that this painting was executed in the studio at Rue Caulaincourt because there is photographic evidence of Toulouse-Lautrec working on it there. The photographer Gerstle Mack took a photograph of him working on At the Moulin Rouge: The Dance and called it Toulouse-Lautrec in his studio Rue Caulaincourt.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s poster Moulin Rouge: La Goulue

On the strength of At The Moulin Rouge: The Dance, Lautrec was commissioned, in 1891, by the owners, Zidler and Oller, to design the new poster for the Moulin Rouge. It was an inspired choice and the result was one of Lautrec’s and indeed Montmartre’s most famous and recognisable images: Moulin Rouge: La Goulue.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s famous poster from 1891 Moulin Rouge: La Goulue. The Goulue is executing her famous chahut or can-can dance on the floorboards. She is caught in mid movement her right leg kicking out energetically. We see her billowing white petticoat, stockings and underwear. In shadow in the foreground Valentin ‘the boneless’ takes a second roll; behind we see a continuous frieze of silhouettes, recognisably bourgeois because of the top hats and ladies hats. The scene is illuminated by hovering yellow globes of electric light.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s famous poster from 1891 Moulin Rouge: La Goulue. The Moulin Rouge’s star turn La Goulue in full flow. (3) © Wikimedia Commons.

The subject of the poster is similar to the At the Moulin Rouge: The Dance. It shows a female performer caught in the middle of the chahut or can-can. Chahut in French suggests chaotic energy. The dancer is raising her leg, showing off her powerful thighs, which are covered by billowing brilliant white petticoats.

This is the Moulin Rouge’s star turn: La Goulue (the ‘Glutton’).

The floor has been cleared and the lights have been turned up; all eyes are on her as she brings the Moulin Rouge to a standstill. Toulouse-Lautrec has caught her moving, in mid turn, energised, balanced and concentrated.

Whilst the subject matter may be similar to the At the Moulin Rouge: The Dance, the style of this work is radically different.

A radically streamlined image

This is an advertising poster which has to make an impact in the blink of an eye and so Lautrec has radically streamlined the image.

The people milling around in the Moulin Rouge: The Dance picture have disappeared. Everyone but La Gouloue is in shadow or silhouette. There is only one pivotal figure illuminated by blazing light: La Goulue.

All the detail we saw in the earlier canvas has been either stripped out or reduced to shadow – even the electric lights have been stylised to a series of linked hovering globes, magnetised by the Goulue’s uninhibited performance and erotic charge.

We can tell that the continuous frieze of silhouettes in the background is a bourgeois audience by the top hats and fancy ladies’ hats. Representing the audience as shadows again shows the influence of Japanese prints.

Toulouse-Lautrec was also a regular at the Chat Noir cabaret (the site of which is point 18 on this walk). It featured an ingenious shadow play theatre and could stage elaborate and spectacular shows. Art historians identify the shadow shows as an influence on Lautrec’s work and more particularly La Goulue poster.

The pale foreground silhouette of Valentin the Boneless, who was the Goulue’s regular dancing partner, seems in danger of having his top hat knocked off by La Goulue’s flailing boot as she stamps, springs and rotates on the Moulin Rouge’s wooden floorboards.

Come and experience the thrill of La Goulue’s sensational performance, witness the novelty of electric light and mix with an audience of quality people at the Moulin Rouge is what this poster is saying.

The Goulue poster made Toulouse-Lautrec famous

With the streamlined impact of this great poster Toulouse-Lautrec found himself in the centre of a modern advertising campaign. It meant that he was suddenly famous outside the closed world of art connoisseurs, dealers and gallery owners.

La Goulue became a celebrity.

Printing took his posters directly to the streets of Paris turning his art into a contemporary popular phenomenon which anyone could see, appreciate or criticise. Modern lithographic techniques facilitated a wider colour palette, better reproduction and mass distribution. Toulouse-Lautrec was able to quickly adapt his artistic technique to get the most out of the advances.

The Moulin Rouge: La Goulue poster was so new and popular that a friend of Lautrec’s describes seeing it being drawn along by a horse and cart in the Avenue de l’Opera. He was so captivated by it that he had to jog along just to be with it longer.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters became so famous that no sooner had they been been pasted up in the streets of Paris than they disappeared again, still wet, into a collection or the parallel economy.

Lautrec’s greatest painting: At The Moulin Rouge

Looking closer at his masterpiece

In the painting At The Moulin Rouge (the Art Institute, Chicago) from 1892 – 1893 Lautrec chooses to show us a more subdued scene.  We are looking at a select group of performers and regular clients at the Moulin Rouge. These include a self-portrait with his cousin Dr. Gabriel Tapié de Céleyran.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s At The Moulin Rouge. Five identifiable Moulin Rouge regulars are sitting around a table with drinks in the Moulin Rouge. There are three bourgeois men and two dancers. None are communicating and they seem to avoid eye contact. In the foreground a large thick brown balustrade appears and to the right of the balustrade a woman whose face is cast in a sickly green shadow stares out at the viewer as though challenging us and protecting the rest of the picture. In the background we see Toulouse-Lautrec himself and his cousin. Also in the background, La Goulue is adjusting her hair in a mirror. The palette is sombre brown and sickly yellow.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s At The Moulin Rouge; the show is over, the illusion evaporates. (4) © Wikimedia Commons.

The mood has certainly changed from the La Goulue poster. Now the electric light has turned the scene into a series of sombre browns and sickly greens.

In the Moulin Rouge: La Goulue poster, the lines of the floorboards invited our eye to admire The Goulue’s energetic performance and brilliant billowing foam of fresh petticoat.

In At The Moulin Rouge our visual passage is blocked by two elements: a sturdy, wide balustrade and a formidable cropped female presence who suddenly appears to walk into the painting from the right.

She is an unsettling presence: she wears deathly white plastered grease paint make up and blood red lipstick, a sinister green shadow is cast on the upper part of her face from the side lighting. The inquisitive tilt of her head means that if we want to go any further into the picture then we will have to get permission from her.

The illusion of the Moulin Rouge

We see a seated group: the men are regular clients and friends of Lautrec’s, (Paul Sescau is there again), and the women including the flame haired Jane Avril are dancers.

Behind the main group we see La Goulue looking in a wall mirror, adjusting her hair with her back to us. Another dancer is standing next to her. Still in the background we see Toulouse-Lautrec and his cousin who appear to be glumly stalking out of the picture.

Lautrec has accentuated his own features and made his cousin a stooping presence by his side. Once again he is exploring the graphic possibilities of caricature to convey a gloomy mood in the unreal atmosphere of a late night at the Moulin Rouge.

Art historians have noted that none of the seated figures are communicating.

They look into space as though avoiding eye contact and appear disengaged. If we look at the dancer who is sitting opposite Jane Avril, her face looks puffy and tired; Lautrec has given her a jaundiced yellow tone. The plumpness of her face seems exaggerated; she looks as though she is at the end of her career.

So this may be a late a night scene after the adrenaline of the showtime has subsided and the alcohol has dulled the senses. We have come back to the disillusion of plain reality.

And that reality includes the fact that communication between the bourgeois patrons and the lower class performers is difficult. The people in this painting find it hard to step out of socially imposed roles. In fact the accepted limits of status, hierarchy and culture make it almost impossible.

The commercial transaction between people of different social status

The table we see here is not convivial it is simply a by-product of the commercial transaction between people from different social backgrounds with nothing in common. They have simply been thrown together by the artificial spectacle of Montmartre.

What we see in At the Moulin Rouge is the downside of show business — it is all just an illusion, a performance and a pretext for people to spend and make money.

People who earn their living from it performing can be quickly consumed and passed over.

Is Toulouse-Lautrec criticising bourgeois decadence?

Perhaps — he was after all an aristocrat himself — but just like his doctor cousin treating patients, Lautrec had learned to keep his distance from judgement. We may judge. He preferred to translate and capture mood.

It is clear from this picture that the conservatism of French society made it difficult for people of different social status to understand or even communicate with each other.

Bourgeois and working class people existed in different social orbits with limited overlap. Identifying this mutual ignorance between the two social groupings helped the impresarios behind the Moulin Rouge to seize on the commercial potential of theatricalising one class so that it became acceptable and consumable by another.

Lautrec has captured the end of the night at the Moulin Rouge and invited us to look in.

La Goulue Entering the Moulin Rouge

Celebrity burn out — the price of fame

Celebrity burn out and the price of fame can also be seen in Lautrec’s La Goulue Entering the Moulin Rouge (in the MOMA, New York) from 1893.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s La Goulue entering the Moulin Rouge. We see a worn and jaded Goulue wearing a daringly revealing dress. She links arms with two flanking women: one a corpulent figure to her right who is her sister and a dancer colleague to her left. These two feminine minders are brought to the front of the picture, their proximity to the viewer accentuated by the familiar device of cropping. A bourgeois customer passes in profile in the background.
Celebrity burn out: Toulouse-Lautrec’s La Goulue entering the Moulin Rouge. (5) © Wikimedia Commons.

Here we see a worn and jaded Goulue wearing a daringly revealing dress. She links arms with two flanking women: one a corpulent figure to her right who is her sister and a dancer colleague to her left.

These two feminine minders are brought to the front of the picture, their proximity to the viewer accentuated by the familiar device of cropping. They are clearing the way so she can get in quickly before people have time to see what she is beginning to look like.

In spite of the obvious fatigue of the star which the painting captured, this work was also bought by Charles Zidler (co-owner of the Moulin Rouge) and put on display in the venue. Had the enterprising owners of the Moulin Rouge seen an investment opportunity in the works of Toulouse-Lautrec? Was Lautrec and his work also becoming part of the show?

La Goulue’s fairground hut decorations

By 1895 the Goulue was no longer entering the Moulin Rouge except as a paying customer. Her career there had come to an end. Although she was no longer the Moulin Rouge’s star turn, La Goulue still danced.

She rented a fairground hut close to the Moulin Rouge to perform a belly dance which also featured her trade mark high chahut kick. She asked her friend Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec to decorate the outside of the structure.

Lautrec’s advertising for La Goulue

Lautrec, as we have seen, was by now famous and it says much for his loyalty and conscience that he was willing to devote time and energy to develop and execute a series of essentially advertising/decorative panels for a fairground hut. He knew that these would be open to the ravages of the weather and be in close proximity to the fairground public.

Lautrec was used to seeing prints of his posters displayed in the streets of Paris but the Goulue panels were original works.

He was probably aware that his fame as an artist had much to do with the image of the Goulue and her prowess as a dancer. Their fame went together. To his credit it looks like Lautrec’s conscience would not allow him to meanly drop her once the tide of her career was on the turn.

The result is the lively and humorous Goulue’s Fairground Hut Decorations which can be seen at the Orsay Museum in Paris.

Lautrec’s friends and Moulin Rouge regulars are the audience and once again Lautrec is featured, this time next to the dancer Jane Avril.
Oscar Wilde is there too.

The Red facade, entrance and windmill of the Moulin Rouge in Montmartre. The red windmill is placed on the roof of the building. Bal and Moulin Rouge are displayed in large advertising letters. The scene is lit by bright autumn light.

Point 8, the Moulin Rouge, Montmartre, 2018. Toulouse-Lautrec’s paintings and posters made it world famous.

All photographs © David Macmillan except: (1), (2), (3) (4), (5).

All Wikipedia photographic attribution courtesy of the Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons Attribution generator :

(1) Albert Kahn, Paris 1914 Moulin Rouge, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons
(2) Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, French, 1864 - 1901 (1864 - 1901) – Artist/Maker (French)
 Born in Albi, France. Dead in Langon, France.
 Details of artist on Google Art Project, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, French - At the Moulin Rouge- The Dance - Google Art Project, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons
(3) Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri de (1864 - 1901) – Artist (French)
 Details of artist on Google Art Project, Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri de - Moulin Rouge-La Goulue - Google Art Project, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons
(4) Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec artist QS:P170,Q82445
 Details of artist on Google Art Project, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec - At the Moulin Rouge - Google Art Project, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons
(5) Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri de, Toulouse-Lautrec - La Goulue arrivant au Moulin Rouge, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons