Interpretive Resource

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's At the Moulin Rouge, 1892/95

Discussion questions and activities for home and classroom about Toulouse-Lautrec's striking depiction of Parisian nightlife in the 1890s.

Art Institute of Chicago, Museum Education Department: Teacher Programs. Impressionism and Post-Impressionism: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1995, p. 131-132.

At the Moulin Rouge, 1893-95
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901)
Oil on canvas, 48 1/2 x 55 1/2 in. (123 x 141 cm)

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge provides us with a personal and sympathetic insight into Parisian nightlife. This painting is an intriguing depiction of late nineteenth-century Parisian history, a period when cafe nightlife was alive with intrigue, vitality, and color. Colors can create a mood. How has Toulouse-Lautrec used color to create mood and emotion in this work? At this time there were new colors available in paints. Chromium increased the range of oranges and yellows. With arsenic, the development of a new emerald green pigment was possible.

The composition (arrangement) of this painting is quite striking also. In the right foreground, the singer and dancer May Milton seems to be plunging out of the painting, yet in the left foreground, the viewer is blocked by a railing from entering the scene. A group of five people are crowded in the center. Toulouse-Lautrec places himself almost on the same plane with the seated group. As your eye travels to the foreground, the space becomes less defined and seems to open up.

How has Toulouse-Lautrec portrayed the people as if characters in a play? (Through extraordinary perspectives as if they were entrances or exits on a stage.) Who is the main character of the scene? (Possibly May Milton, since she seems to be dancing or floating out of the scene and into the viewer’s space.)

1. Where has Toulouse-Lautrec used the new greens and yellows? How does color create dramatic effects? Observe his use of green in May Milton’s face and trace the green around the painting. How does Toulouse-Lautrec demonstrate the stage lighting that catches her cheeks and eyes? Her exaggerated masklike face emphasizes that she is a performer. Make a sketch of this painting and, using pastels, create a different atmosphere. What colors were chosen and how did they achieve the mood?
2. This painting has not always been seen in this form. An L-shaped portion, including the lower and right edges, was not always a part of the painting. Experiment with changing the painting’s "frame." In a sketch, expand one or more of the sides, top, or bottom, or cut out portions of one or more of the sides, top, or bottom of the painting. How does the cropping of an image affect the painting?
3. Imagine and discuss this painting as if it were a scene from a play. What happens to the viewer or audience? Divide the students into groups. Each group can describe the setting, create the characters, and write a dialogue between the characters. Each group can then act out its scene.

night scenes, urban life, women


Elementary, High School, Middle School

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