Interpretive Resource

Examination: Lautrec's At the Moulin Rouge

A look at Toulouse-Lautrec's depiction of entertainers and customers, including himself, in a popular Parisian night spot.

Art Institute of Chicago. Impressionism and Post-Impressionism in The Art Institute of Chicago. Art Institute of Chicago, 2000, p. 145.

Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec French; 1864—1901

At the Moulin Rouge, 1892/95 Oil on canvas 123 x 141 cm (48 7/16 x 55 1/2 in.) Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection, 1928.610

The dance hall known as the Moulin Rouge, which opened in 1889, was situated at the bottom of the Montmartre hill, in Paris. Larger and more accessible than the Moulin de La Galette, the Moulin Rouge attracted an adventurous, middle-class clientele, as well as members of the artistic avant-garde, all of whom relished its provocative performances and intoxicating sexual energy.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec early became associated with the place. His Equestrienne (At the Cirque Fernando) hung above the bar in its foyer, and he produced promotional posters for it, in addition to many paintings featuring its performers and habitués. The Art Institute’s canvas, one of Toulouse-Lautrec’s most ambitious, is set on a balcony overlooking the dance floor. In the background, La Goulue, the Moulin Rouge’s reigning dance star, adjusts her red hair, while the dwarfish Toulouse-Lautrec and his tall cousin, Gabriel Tapié de Céléyran, walk toward the left. Seated around a table is an oddly glum assemblage: the writer Edouard Dujardin (disciple of Symbolist poet Stéphane Mallarmé), the entertainer La Macarona, the photographer Paul Sescau, the vintner Maurice Guibert, and another redhead, perhaps the entertainer Jane Avril.

At the Moulin Rouge was apparently cut down along the right and bottom after the artist’s death, perhaps to moderate its radical composition. (It was restored sometime before 1924.) Edgar Degas’s work provided precedents for Toulouse-Lautrec’s eccentric point of view, with its oblique railing and "tilted" floor, and also for the bizarrely cropped figure at right, lit from below, who is probably another entertainer. Stylized, curving surface patterns suggest the influence of Paul Gauguin and the Nabis. But only Toulouse-Lautrec, with his acerbic line, acidic colors, and loose handling, could have conjured so vividly the mixture of disaffection and exhilaration typical of Montmartre’s nightlife in this period.

night scenes, urban life, women


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