Where Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec lived and worked in the Pigalle area of Montmartre
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was from an old aristocratic family in the South of France. He came to Paris, took lessons at art academy and then spotted a market niche in the Montmartre entertainment sector.
He has become closely associated with the Moulin Rouge. His paintings and prints help define the image of Paris and Montmartre at the end of the nineteenth century.
It is well known that he had a congenital condition that gave him brittle leg bones and stunted his growth; it has become known as Toulouse-Lautrec syndrome.
He quickly adapted his style to advances in printing methods.
Montmartre with its cabarets, cafés, dance halls and showbiz celebrities must have been a very strange and alien environment to someone who had grown up in the provinces.
Toulouse-Lautrec revelled in the nightlife of late 1880s and 1890s Montmartre but he still managed to keep a neutral, professional distance from his subjects. His best work is highly observational, sometimes caricatural but rarely judgmental.
Bruant’s Mirliton, an apprenticeship for the Moulin Rouge
He became friendly with Aristide Bruant the cabaret performer and singer who gave him wall space at his cabaret the Mirliton. Lautrec’s observations of performers and customers in the Mirliton probably set him thinking about the artistic and commercial opportunities in Montmartre nightlife. Being often in the Mirliton sharpened Lautrec’s eye and was a useful apprenticeship for the Moulin Rouge.
Lautrec was to later make a famous poster for Bruant.
An important part of his work is devoted to the dancers who performed in venues such as the Moulin Rouge. He also portrayed the paying customers who came to see the performers. The performers were mostly working class women whilst the audience was mainly male and bourgeois.
I look briefly at the society that framed and helped set these male bourgeois paying customers’ expectations and prejudices on the social forces in late nineteenth century France page.
Caricature and ‘types’
Toulouse-Lautrec shows us many of his subjects including his bourgeois male as a caricature or ‘type’. Types were artistic and cultural conventions for portraying and understanding contemporary society. They showed and categorised for example the worker, man of leisure, the courtesan, the dancer or the artist. Types tended to be caricatural and always followed a set of visual conventions.
The set of visual triggers that identified the bourgeois man was his top hat, often a cane, perhaps gloves, a dark frock coat or suit and waistcoat, a high starched collar and tie. Here was a man of substance, sober and responsible; a solid bourgeois.
The problem with portraying people as types was that it tended to reinforce social stereotypes and facilitate simplified psychological type casting. Art that depends on types helps entrench and authorise the dominant culture of the time.
Challenging social rank, class or gender roles however, was probably never on Toulouse-Lautrec’s personal or artistic agenda. We are dealing with a visual artist here, one interested in capturing the graphic quality of a scene, a trait of personality or a mood; questioning the justice of the situations people have found themselves in seems secondary.
Lautrec’s incisive sense of observation
Art historians, such as Richard Thomson writing in the exhibition catalogue of the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition held in 1992 in Paris and London, speak of Lautrec’s penetrating and incisive sense of observation. By his economy of line Lautrec manages to seize and represent the essential nature of his subject in a moment.
Toulouse-Lautrec uses caricature and heightened naturalism which borders on exaggeration in order to present the viewer with a lightening psychological snapshot of scenario, narrative and personality.
He may have had the reputation of being a drinker but his vision remained clear and his wit sharp.
The influence of Japanese prints
Vincent van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec studied together and remained friends until Vincent’s death in 1890. Both artists admired Japanese prints; Vincent and his art dealer brother Theo were avid collectors. Here is how the Vincent van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam resumes the essential stylistic characteristics of Japanese prints:
- An uncluttered empty middle ground in the painting
- Enlarged foreground subjects
- Cropping bringing the principal subject into dynamic focus
- No horizon
- Expanses of colour and flatness, “delineated by bold contours”
With advances in printing technology Toulouse-Lautrec was able to effectively adapt and incorporate many of these techniques when he turned his attention to publicity posters.
Let’s now look at some of his most famous works and link them, (by means of the infographic diagram), to the various different Toulouse-Lautrec addresses on the walk.
Point 10, 19, 19 bis and 21 Rue Pierre Fontaine
19, 19 bis and 21 Rue Pierre Fontaine (which I have gathered together as point 10 on this walk), are the three adjacent apartments where Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec stayed during his most creative period.
He lived between these three buildings from 1884 to 1893 or 4. Some experts disagree as to whether he also worked here.
To simplify I have preferred to situate his artistic work from 1886 to 1897 or 8 in the studio in Rue Caulaincourt, (see the upper Montmartre walk point 10), and from 1897 or 8 until 1901 in the studio in Avenue Frochot, (point 15 on this walk).
His greatest work was produced whilst he stayed in these apartments
The poster that made him famous ‘Moulin Rouge La Goulue’ was produced whilst he lived here. His most penetrating portrait of the Moulin Rouge, the performers, the paying customers and the Montmartre entertainment scene, ‘At the Moulin Rouge’ was also painted whilst he lived here. Toulouse-Lautrec would have known the slope of this street very well. He opened and closed the doors to these buildings many times.
Two contrasting portraits
The attractive portrait of Toulouse-Lautrec’s neighbour, Hélène Vary, (in the Kunsthalle Bremen) from 1889 shows his assured draughtsmanship. His fine line has caught her classical beauty and fine profile in a flash.
The jumble of paintings and canvases which serve as a background and frame her harmonious features tell us that she is sitting in the studio at 21 Rue Caulaincourt (see point 10 on the upper Montmartre walk). She is seen posing in a wicker chair.
In another portrait from 1891 Paul Sescau, (in the Brooklyn Museum), a photographer and friend of Toulouse-Lautrec, who will regularly appear in other later works, is also seen in the studio at Rue Caulaincourt.
Whereas Hélène Vary is obviously posing and sitting, Paul Sescau is otherwise engaged, standing and looking at the work in the studio. He’s dressed for a walk; top hat, shirt and tie, jacket and cane as though he has just wandered in or is he perhaps about to go out?
Hélène is posing and reading and dressed as though she has just come round from next door, but Paul is dressed up and on the move. It is a simple but telling illustration of the roles French society expected men and women to play at the time.
The Moulin Rouge opens in 1889
The Moulin Rouge (point 8) had opened in 1889. It was the fruit of the experienced impresario partners Zidler and Oller.
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 elephant left over from the 1889 World Fair, there was a Spanish palace, shooting galleries, belly dancers and clowns.
The publicity campaign 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.
At The Moulin Rouge: The Dance.
The Moulin Rouge inspired Toulouse-Lautrec to paint one of his most ambitious works: At The Moulin Rouge: The Dance. The picture which dates from 1889-90 is now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The picture shows a typical scene at the Moulin Rouge. 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 looking after 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 what looks like the branches of the trees from the garden through the windows behind the bar.
The scene is illuminated by globes of electric light hovering around the pillars and the trees appear to be reflecting the light. The trees seem animated, almost straining to catch a glimpse of what is going on inside, their branches and the effect of the light suggesting further dancing figures. Even the trees are captivated by the spectacle of the Moulin Rouge.
We are right in the middle of the 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 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). This 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 figure peeling away from the scene suggests 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 here only the acute sense of observation that Toulouse-Lautrec often brings to his work.
The painting places the viewer right in the middle of the elegant crowd. We observe the people and the action. We see a modern, spacious, well-illuminated venue frequented by top hatted bourgeois 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 know for sure that this painting was executed in the studio at Rue Caulaincourt because we have 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 entitled his photograph Toulouse-Lautrec in his studio in Rue Caulaincourt.
Lautrec gets the commission for the new Moulin Rouge poster
On the strength of At The Moulin Rouge: The Dance, Lautrec was commissioned, in 1891, by the owners 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.
The information panels at the 2019 – 2020 Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris talk about Lautrec’s images of movement, and that is what we have a good example of with this piece.
The Moulin Rouge: La Goulue poster
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. 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 and underwear. This is the Moulin Rouge’s star turn: La Goulue (the ‘Glutton’).
The floor has been cleared and the lights have been turned up. Toulouse-Lautrec has caught her moving, in mid turn, energised, balanced and concentrated.
Thematically the subject is similar to the At the Moulin Rouge: The Dance. This, however, is an advertising poster which has to make an impact in the blink of an eye and so Lautrec has radically streamlined the image.
A radically streamlined image
There is only one recognisable figure: La Goulue, everything else we talked about in terms of detail on the painting has been either stripped out or reduced to shadow. Even the electric lights have been reduced 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 ladies hats. The shaded Valentin the Boneless, who is 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.
Representing the audience as shadows again shows the influence of Japanese prints. Art historians also point out the importance of the second Chat Noir cabaret which featured an ingenious shadow play performance theatre which could put on elaborate and spectacular performances. Toulouse-Lautrec was a regular there.
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 is what this poster is saying.
Toulouse-Lautrec is suddenly 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, art 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 printing techniques facilitated a wider palette, better colour reproduction, clarity and mass distribution. Toulouse-Lautrec was able to quickly adapt his technique to get the most out of the advances.
The Moulin Rouge: La Goulue poster was so new and magnetic that a friend of Lautrec’s describes seeing it being drawn along on a cart in the Avenue de l’Opera. He was so transfixed by it that he felt 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.
At The Moulin Rouge
In At The Moulin Rouge (the Art Institute, Chicago) from 1892 – 1893 Lautrec chooses to show us a more subdued moment from the life of the Moulin Rouge. 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.
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 and yellows. These are hardly uplifting colours.
In the Moulin Rouge: La Goulue poster, the lines of the floorboards invited our eye to admire The Goulue’s 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 with a startlingly lit face.
She is a menacing 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. What we are looking at is a closed VIP area with restricted access.
The commercial transaction between people of different social status
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 all 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 on their way out of the picture.
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. The reality is that communication between the bourgeois patrons and the lower class performers is difficult. Status and culture make it almost impossible.
The downside of showbiz
The table we see here is not convivial it is simply a by-product of the commercial transaction between people of different social rank in society brought together by the artificial spectacle of Montmartre.
Toulouse-Lautrec has also portrayed himself as a caricature. His face is exaggerated and his stature contrasted to his tall cousin Dr. Gabriel Tapié de Céleyran. They both glumly stalk out of the Moulin Rouge.
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, but like his doctor cousin treating his patients, Lautrec preferred to keep his distance from judgement. 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.
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.
La Goulue Entering the Moulin Rouge
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.
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 Zidler and displayed in the Moulin Rouge.
Had the enterprising owners of the Moulin Rouge seen an investment opportunity in the works of Toulouse-Lautrec? Were the Toulouse-Lautrec paintings now an added attraction to draw people there or did they simply wish to proudly own the images associated with the place?
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.
Her dancing career was not, however, over and she hired a fairground hut close to the Moulin Rouge to perform a belly dance which also featured her trade mark high chahut kick. For the outside decoration she asked her friend Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.
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.
Lautrec 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. 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.
Because you will be walking past the Moulin Rouge (point 8) I have preferred to concentrate on the most famous paintings and images associated with the place.
The name Toulouse-Lautrec and the Moulin Rouge are often mentioned together with good reason: The work Toulouse-Lautrec did here was the high point of his career and the Moulin Rouge would have been just another Montmartre entertainment venue without Toulouse-Lautrec.
Before we continue the walk and leave Toulouse-Lautrec it is also worth considering another painting and three outstanding examples of his poster work.
Jane Avril was also a dancer at the Moulin Rouge. It has been suggested that Lautrec was infatuated with her. Here was someone quite different to the direct, powerful, extravert Goulue. Avril was delicate and discreet. We get a sense of this from Lautrec’s portrait of her At the Entrance to the Moulin Rouge (in the Courtauld Institute, London).
The narrow vertical format accentuates her slender physique. She had spent time in a psychiatric institution and was said to be cured when she was introduced to dancing. She was an exuberant, elegant, entrancing and talented dancer.
This off-guard portrait bears witness to the trust between artist and model. We can see that when not on stage Jane is simply an anonymous woman entering the Moulin Rouge. In the foyer of the Moulin Rouge her face is mask like with her eyes closed.
On stage she would psychologically transform to become the extravagant and fascinating dancer Jane Avril. As in The Goulue Entering the Moulin Rouge there is also a suggestion of the personal price of celebrity and fame.
Jane Avril au Jardin de Paris
In the poster Jane Avril Au Jardin de Paris, (the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), from 1893 we see Jane in action on stage. Her dress and petticoats match her striking flaming red hair.
She is executing a nimble high kick, she wears black stockings on her slender legs. The stage floorboards draw our vision in and help suggest her movement. In contrast to the colourful figure of Jane, a musician’s hand is shown in shadow in the foreground gripping the head of a double bass.
The sinuous line of the musical instrument/frame shows Art Nouveau influences. In a humorous touch Lautrec has turned the head of the double bass into a smiling swaying sphinx as it warms to her performance.
Jane Avril le Divan Japonais
Jane Avril features again in a publicity poster for another Montmartre venue called the Divan Japonais (the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) from 1893.
Dressed in a sleek jet-black dress and hat she is almost a living silhouette. The black throws her red hair into dynamic contrast. She is shown enjoying a drink whilst taking in the show.
Whilst the head of the performer on stage has been cropped out we know that it is another Montmartre star. The visual clue is the characteristic black gloves which reach almost to the singer’s elbows. This is Yvette Guilbert a famous singer of the time; her gloves were one of her key stage props.
Toulouse-Lautrec can’t help repeating his dancing musical instruments joke, (from the Jardin de Paris poster), as once again the instruments have been lifted and charmed into swaying movement as Yvette Guilbert goes through her repertoire.
Aristide Bruant in His Cabaret
Our final image is again a poster this time Aristide Bruant in His Cabaret, (the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) from 1893.
Bruant was a popular singer known for ‘insulting’ his bourgeois audience. His realist songs were amplified verbal caricatures of the difficulties of the proletarian ordinary people. They were poetic stereotypes.
Singing songs of working class misery whilst ribbing his bourgeois audience brought Bruant success and he owned a cabaret called the Mirliton in Montmartre.
Bruant and Toulouse-Lautrec were friends and Lautrec had often exhibited his paintings in the cabaret after leaving the art academy in the late 1880s.
Lautrec articulates Bruant’s persona
Bruant had constructed a stage persona using easily identifiable elements of dress and this is what Toulouse-Lautrec has concentrated on in the poster.
Bruant is seen in three-quarter back profile. This allows Lautrec to concentrate on three characteristic elements of his clothing that identified Bruant as Bruant: his great flowing cape, his wide felt hat and his red scarf which is thrown round his neck and hangs down his back.
Like in the Jane Avril poster Lautrec has made the cape and hat raven black, this serves as a perfect contrast for the livid red scarf. Here we see Lautrec’s total mastery of the Japanese style: great areas of flat simple colour that suggest a silhouette, sweeping thick contours that delimit the edges of cape, scarf and hat and suggest that the fabric is heavy and substantial.
Toulouse-Lautrec displays an economy of style that plays on the known props of the stage character and reinforces the image. Here again is a poster which is doing exactly what it should: it amplifies and reinforces a known image whilst being immediately recognisable and understood at the first glance.
A copy of the Bruant poster can also be see in the Montmartre Museum.
All photographs © David Macmillan except: (1), (2), (3) (4), (5), (6), (7), (8),(9), (10), (11).
All Wikipedia photographic attribution courtesy of the Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons Attribution generator :
(1) Paul Sescau, Lautrec - Sescau, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons
(2) Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec creator QS:P170,Q82445, Helene Vary 1889 Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons
(3) Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec artist QS:P170,Q82445, Brooklyn Museum - Portrait of M. Paul Sescau (Portrait de M. Paul Sescau) - Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons
(4) Albert Kahn, Paris 1914 Moulin Rouge, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons
(5) 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
(6) 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
(7) 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
(8) Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri de, Toulouse-Lautrec - La Goulue arrivant au Moulin Rouge, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons
(9) Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril by Toulouse-Lautrec, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons
(10) Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec artist QS:P170,Q82445 Details of artist on Google Art Project, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec - Divan Japonais - Google Art Project, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons
(11) Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri de, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec 003, marked as public domain, more details on Wikimedia Commons