Overview: Lautrec's Depiction of Parisian Night-Life
An introduction to Toulouse-Lautrec's fascination with Parisian night-life and an exploration of his painting At the Moulin Rouge, 1892/95.

Manual: Impressionism and Post-Impressionism
Art Institute of Chicago, Museum Education Department: Teacher Programs. Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1995, p. 65-66.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901)

Although Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec did not retreat from Paris like many of the other Postimpressionists, he celebrated the wrong part of the city, shedding light on a slice of life as yet largely unexposed: the demi-monde. His subjects were as far removed from Correggio’s holy images as could be. Night life, cabarets, performers and clients, people on the edge of respectable society provided Toulouse-Lautrec his adventure, his escape. From one of the oldest noble families in France, he suffered from a congenital disease that during adolescence left his growth stunted, his figure misshapen. As a result, he spent much of his childhood drawing and at age seventeen, studied briefly in the ateliers of academic masters in Paris. One of his studio companions, in fact, was van Gogh.

Parisian night life at the turn of the century is memorialized in At the Moulin Rouge, 1892-95. A resident since the mid-1880s of Montmartre, one of the era’s major entertainment centers, Toulouse-Lautrec depicts in his masterpiece one of the district’s most famous cabarets. Advertising a "Ball every evening, Wednesday and Saturday night festivities. Diverse attractions. High-life rendezvous," the Moulin Rouge opened in 1889 to attract the huge crowds that gathered to celebrate the Exposition Universelle and the completion of the Eiffel Tower that same year. A grand success, the cabaret’s clientele included the future King Edward VII of England (1841-1910).

Toulouse-Lautrec was a regular patron of the Moulin Rouge. For the painting, he turns his acute powers of observation on the club’s other habitues — his friends and acquaintances. The flaming red-orange hair of the entertainer Jane Avril is the focal point of the central seated group; gathered around her are another female performer, a photographer, a vineyard proprietor, and a poet. Primping in front of the rear greenish mirror, her back to us, is the dancer La Goulue, whose name translates "The Glutton." Wearing his customary bowler hat, the stunted figure of the aristocratic artist appears, as it often did in life, side-by-side with his devoted cousin, Dr. Tapie de Celeyran. But it is the frozen, acid-green face of the dancer May Milton that dominates the canvas and haunts the action. A strange black chapeau, with insect-like antennae, rests atop her head. In the painting, she seems to have just left the table; in reality, she was apparently ostracized from the group in 1895.

Toulouse-Lautrec renders this Parisian netherworld with hallmarks of his technique: flowing Art Nouveau lines and flat planes of strident color, both reminiscent of Japanese prints. His dramatic palette is strikingly different from that of the Impressionists. In At the Moulin Rouge, there is neither sun nor sky nor evidence of foliage, flowers, or land. Instead it is nighttime; the room is smoke-filled and dusky. The only green is from reflected stagelights in the rear mirror, on the collar of the bearded gentleman seated on the left, on the rice powder makeup of May Milton’s masklike face. Because of the artist’s linear color style, in which he seems to almost draw with a brush, we can take that green and follow it around the compositionally daring picture. Serving as a vehicle not of the Impressionists’ sunlight, but of the artificial light of the demi-monde, color is used more than ever to express Toulouse-Lautrec’s personal vision and emotions. These rhythmic lines and broad planes of color are even more pronounced in the artist’s celebrated posters, drawings, and prints.

At the Moulin Rouge also displays Toulouse-Lautrec’s characteristically unorthodox viewpoints and dramatic cropping, again reflective of Japanese prints. We seem just to have entered this swirling nocturnal den and paused for a moment before the plunging diagonal of the bannister. Heading our way is the garish apparition of May Milton, cropped by the painting’s edge. In fact, it appears that the figure of the controversial Milton was once completely severed from the composition. A detail that has caused continued debate, the painting itself is comprised of two joined parts. According to some scholars, the artist added an shaped panel to the lower and right edges of a smaller canvas either before he began his composition or during its execution. Others have proposed that the canvas was sectioned after the artist’s death at thirty-seven (rumored by some to be from the effects of alcoholism), presumably by the dealer, to make the composition less radical and more saleable. The painting was restored sometime before 1924 for a special exhibition of Toulouse-Lautrec’s work at the Art Institute.