Toulouse-Lautrec Montmartre: How to Capture the Spirit

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec: the artist who made Montmartre

A contemporary portrait photograph of the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec by Paul Sescau. Lautrec is looking beyond the camera to the viewers right and wears his customary pince-nez (clip-on) glasses. He is formally dressed with a high starched collar and a cravat.
A portrait photograph of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec by his friend the photographer Paul Sescau. (1) © Wikimedia Commons.

Toulouse-Lautrec captured the spirit and defined the image of Montmartre like no other artist. His name is forever linked with its most talked about venue, the Moulin Rouge dancehall. Lautrec was a fine painter but it was publicity posters that made him famous.

When Lautrec’s 1891 poster Moulin Rouge: La Goulue hit the streets of Paris it catapulted him overnight from obscurity to fame. It became Montmartre’s most famous image.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864 – 1901) was from an old aristocratic family in the South of France.

He had a rare medical condition that gave him brittle leg bones and stunted his growth. The illness is now known as Toulouse-Lautrec syndrome.

His parents separated when he was young and Lautrec spent much of his childhood in Paris living with his mother.

As a student Lautrec returned to Paris, took lessons at an art academy— where he met Vincent van Gogh—and by 1884 was living in Montmartre.

Before he became an established artist Toulouse-Lautrec was a friend of Aristide Bruant the Montmartre cabaret owner and performer. Bruant gave Lautrec wall space at his venue called the Mirliton.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s observations of performers and customers in the Mirliton may have set him thinking about the artistic and commercial opportunities in the Montmartre entertainment scene.

The Mirliton sharpened Lautrec’s eye and was a useful apprenticeship for his later Moulin Rouge work.

Lautrec’s artistic approach to Montmartre

Montmartre’s racy nightlife, its smoky cabarets, flashy mirror and marble cafés and tumultuous dancehalls must have been a strange place for someone who had spent much of his time in the provinces. But Lautrec revelled in it and soon realised he’d found the perfect subject for his artistic style. Lautrec quickly made friends with the showbiz celebrities of the day and in time became one himself.

Caricature and types for representing showbiz Montmartre

Toulouse-Lautrec presented 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. The worker, the courtesan, or the artist had a set of caricatural visual conventions that defined them.

One of the most recognisable was the bourgeois man-about-town. The set of representational triggers that identified his type was his top hat, cane, gloves, a dark frock coat and a high starched collar and tie. Here was a man of substance, sober, responsible, with a position in society; a solid bourgeois.

The problem with portraying people as types, from our perspective, is that it tends to reinforce social stereotypes and facilitate simplified psychological type casting. Art that depends on caricature types helps entrench and authorise the dominant culture of the time.

Types and caricature helped Lautrec convey the artificial, gaudy, theatricality of Montmartre nightlife. Just like in a theatre, types identified the players and set expectations.

What Lautrec came up with in his images of Montmartre was more illusory than real—all performance is illusion and Lautrec himself became part of the Montmartre entertainment machine— but Lautrec’s images, whether exaggerated or not, cast Montmartre in the starring role of the 1890s.

Lautrec’s penetrating observation

Art historians speak of Lautrec’s penetrating sense of observation. His incisive line managed to seize and distil the essential nature of his subject in a flash, presenting the viewer with a lightning psychological snapshot.

He was able to quickly identify a person’s characteristic expressions and behavioural tics: a quizzical mobile eyebrow, ruddy round cheeks, a twitchy moustache and bulging eyes, a prominent upturned nose, the shadow of a smile, and slightly magnify them so that the image he created became more real and identifiable than the person portrayed.

Thanks to Lautrec names and stage personas from 1890s Montmartre live on: the dancer La Goulue with her daring high-kicking can-can; Jane Avril, another flamboyant dancer, with her slim silhouette, flaming red hair and feathery hats; Yvette Guilbert, a singer and storyteller, with her long, elegant, black arm gloves; Aristide Bruant, the cabaret owner and performer, with his great flowing cape, wide felt hat and red scarf hanging from his shoulder. All would have surely been forgotten without Lautrec’s memorable images.

The Goulue poster made Lautrec famous

Lautrec became famous—and forever associated with the Moulin Rouge—with the mass circulation publicity poster, Moulin Rouge: La Goulue, created for the venue in 1891. The poster is Montmartre’s defining image. I spend some time looking at this and other key Moulin Rouge Lautrec works on the Moulin Rouge page.

Toulouse-Lautrec and Vincent van Gogh studied together at art academy 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:

  • Enlarged foreground subjects
  • Cropping bringing the principal subject into dynamic focus
  • Expanses of colour and flatness, bordered by bold contours
  • An uncluttered empty middle ground in the painting
  • No horizon
  • Silhouettes

Many of the Japanese print styles were already employed by Edgar Degas who Toulouse-Lautrec greatly admired.

Lautrec paid close attention to the Japanese style of printmaking that he and other artists in his circle found so original and dynamic. In them he recognised the directness and clarity he needed to make a successful poster.

Because he knew that he was operating in a medium that had to get its message across in the blink of an eye, Lautrec decided to follow the Japanese example. What he produced was a clean, bold and elegant image in the Japanese style.

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. (2) © Wikimedia Commons.

The legend above La Goulue is unfussy and direct in plain font: ‘Moulin Rouge’, ‘Bal’, ‘La Goulue’. To concentrate the viewer’s eye on the dancer all other graphic elements are diminished to secondary roles.

Spectators are reduced to silhouettes, electric lights to hovering spectacle-like globes and even La Goulue’s regular dancing partner is shown as a pale shadow as he rocks back on his heels to admire her fling.

All attention is on the Moulin Rouge’s star, La Goulue. We see her energetic high-kick and her brilliant, white, billowing petticoats. That kick, her uninhibited vitality and the frilly underwear is what the Moulin Rouge is all about and that is the focus of the image.

Toulouse-Lautrec adapts his style to advances in printing technology

Lautrec paired his Japanese print inspirations with new opportunities that advances in lithographic printing gave him. Lithography  is a method of printing from stone. The image was drawn with a special lithographic oil-based crayon on a limestone slab. For the coloured posters that Lautrec made multiple stones would be used, each with a dedicated colour.

The La Goulue image used four stones and three sheets of paper allowing a gigantic image in vibrant colour some two metres high by one metre wide. Large posters had been seen on the streets of Paris before but nothing as uncluttered, radical and direct as Lautrec’s Goulue.

The development of modern printing machines and workshops towards the end of the century meant that these large-format colour posters could be rapidly produced at scale.

Lautrec had no agenda but great powers of observation

Toulouse-Lautrec was from an aristocratic background. He was privileged and would have had no personal experience of economic hardship or barriers to social advancement that many faced in the conservative climate of late-nineteenth-century Paris.

That privilege may have compromised his understanding of the people he painted. His capacity for empathy may have been limited by it but that in no way makes him a lesser artist.

His work did not challenge contemporary power structures, hierarchies or gender roles. There is no clear political viewpoint in Toulouse-Lautrec’s work and there is no judgement of the people or places he chose to represent. Lautrec observed and created, it is up to us to judge or find meaning in what he saw.

Lautrec’s cousin, who was his regular companion on his nocturnal outings, was at medical school. It appears to me that some of his cousin’s medical training in professional neutrality by avoiding emotional engagement also rubbed off on Lautrec. It helped him to keep his distance from his subjects and to observe them all the more keenly, almost with a surgeon’s eye.

Lautrec was a drinker and it did become a problem—his cane was said to have a secret absinthe reservoir—but he was just as addicted to his work. In spite of a developed taste for alcohol his vision remained clear and his wit sharp.

Where Toulouse-Lautrec lived in the Pigalle area of lower Montmartre

An Infographic timeline which shows where Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec lived, the dates he lived there, his two studios and when he occupied them and the major paintings to be associated with the addresses and the studios. All of these addresses are in Montmartre and all but one in the Pigalle area of Montmartre.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s studios, apartments and major works in the Pigalle area of Montmartre.

Route around the lower Montmartre Pigalle area

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).

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—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. 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.

A stencilled image of Toulouse-Lautrec and cane stands next to the top of the door of his apartment at 19 Rue Pierre Fontaine Montmartre. Window shutters, the street number 19 and a plaque which tells us that Toulouse-Lautrec lived here are also visible.
Point 10, 19 Rue Pierre Fontaine. Toulouse-Lautrec keeps an eye on you as you approach his front door.

Edgar Degas also lived at 19 Rue Pierre Fontaine as the metal information panel in front of the door informs us. He stayed here before Lautrec, from 1878 – 1882, and produced the Little Dancer statue in the workshop in the courtyard behind these doors.

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 resident here.

Lautrec looks out of his window

Toulouse-Lautrec would have known the small shops, cafés and incline of the street you have just walked down very well. He lived for a decade here at the peak of his powers and we can perhaps let our imaginations wander back 130 years or so and catch a whisper of what he may have seen and heard.

Looking up the facade of 19 Bis Rue Pierre Fontaine Montmartre. Windows and shutters are visible on the four storey building. Some shutters are thrown open. At the top is a cornice. The building is made from sandy yellow coloured stone.
Point 10, 19 Bis Rue Pierre Fontaine. Toulouse-Lautrec lived here too, on the third floor.

Through the windows of his apartment he would have heard the coach horses plodding up the slope of Rue Pierre Fontaine. Looking out he may have seen the morning sun rising behind them catching the buckles on their harnesses. They would slowly drag carriages full of passengers up the hill towards the Boulevard de Clichy and then, with a lighter step, go trotting back down again. Lautrec liked horses and he may have had a name for those he saw all the time. He was used to the country so the ever-present odour of horse manure on the Parisian streets would not have troubled him.

As Lautrec sipped his coffee, the cries of the chimney sweep, the window repair man, the rag collector and the coachmen complaining, cursing and joking, would have ebbed and echoed through his rooms as they made their way under his balcony up and down the incline of Rue Pierre Fontaine.

Closing the front door of these apartment buildings to set out on the short walk to his studio in Rue Caulaincourt, he would have raised his hat to the chattering concierges, leaning on brooms, buckets at feet, hall tiles still wet, brass door handles gleaming; perhaps they spoke about him when he was out of earshot. He would have opened and closed these doors many, many times at the beginning and end of his day and he would always have had art on his mind.

In the evening he would have seen the gas lights lit, the growing glow spreading across the stone of the pavement to kerb and cobble as the whispering gauze heated, the absinthe worked, the night came on and the electric light of the Moulin Rouge beckoned.

Where did Toulouse-Lautrec live in Montmartre?

Toulouse-Lautrec lived from 1884 to 1893/4 in three adjacent addresses in Rue Pierre Fontaine  — 19, 19 bis and 21 — in the Pigalle area of lower Montmartre. He produced his greatest works whilst resident here. Masterpieces like Moulin Rouge: La Goulue or At the Moulin Rouge were painted at his studio in Rue Caulaincourt.

Toulouse-Lautrec addresses in the Pigalle area of lower Montmartre

  • 19 bis Rue Pierre Fontaine, 1884 – 1887, point 10 on lower Montmartre circuit
  • 19 Rue Pierre Fontaine, 1887 – 1891, point 10 on lower Montmartre circuit
  • 21 Rue Pierre Fontaine, 1891 – 1893/4, point 10 on lower Montmartre circuit
  • 21 Rue Caulaincourt, 1893/4 – 1895, point 10 on upper Montmartre circuit
  • 30 Rue Pierre Fontaine, 1895 – 1897, point 9 on lower Montmartre circuit
  • 5 Avenue Frochot, 1897 – 1898, point 15 on lower Montmartre circuit
  • 9 Rue de Douai, 1898 – 1901, point 6 on lower Montmartre circuit

Where were Toulouse-Lautrec’s studios in Montmartre?

  • 21 Rue Caulaincourt, 1886 – 1897/8, point 10 on upper Montmartre circuit
  • 15 Avenue Frochot, 1897/8– 1901, point 15 on lower Montmartre circuit

Where to see the paintings

On the Moulin Rouge page:

At The Moulin Rouge: The Dance is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art
The Performing Horsewoman at Fernando’s Circus is in the Art Institute, Chicago
Moulin Rouge: La Goulue, poster copies in museums throughout world, this one Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields
At The Moulin Rouge is in the Art Institute, Chicago
La Goulue Entering the Moulin Rouge is in the MOMA, New York
The Goulue’s Fairground Hut Decorations are in the Orsay Museum, Paris

On the celebrity posters page:

Jane Avril At the Entrance to the Moulin Rouge is in the Courtauld Institute, London
Jane Avril Au Jardin de Paris, poster copies in museums throughout world, this one the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Jane Avril the Divan Japonais, poster copies in museums throughout world, this one the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
Aristide Bruant in His Cabaret, poster copies in museums throughout world, this one the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


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

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) 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