Spotlight: Toulouse-Lautrec’s ‘At the Moulin Rouge, The Dance’

Spotlight: Toulouse-Lautrec’s ‘At the Moulin Rouge, The Dance’

Arguably the king of dynamic dance representation, Toulouse-Lautrec was a troubled outcast who ‘sang’ through his energetic colourful brushstrokes and embraced all that was eccentric in early 20th Century Paris. Much to our luck, we now enjoy these vignettes of high-low social interaction in his canvases today.

Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) was an aristocratic French artist who immersed himself in the world of Parisian theatre and bohemian life. Known for his provocative and elegant paintings of Parisian life, he also produced drawings, prints and illustrations.

He broke both legs in early life and was unable to take part in physical activities due to severe associated complications. Since moving to Paris where his well-connected family had muscled a position for him to practice art, he was immersed in a theatrical world of decadence and the mix of high and low culture which he embraced.

Outcast by his aristocratic roots thanks to his disability and physical appearance, he embraced this new life, finding solace in the cafes of Montmartre and a kindred spirit with the decadent characters of the newly-opened Moulin Rouge. He immersed himself in his art, finding plenty of subject matter and inspiration through the colourful life of his new friends in fashionable and bohemian Montmartre.

He gravitated more and more to this hedonistic lifestyle, as well as alcohol and women. This all encouraged his artistic style to the energetic, flamboyant work he is known for today.

‘At The Moulin Rouge, The Dance’ (1890; Philadelphia Museum of Art) is stylistic and vibrant, yet there is a sombreness. Full of vigour and energy, a single colourful girl dances the Can-Can with a man in a room full of men. This dancing girl is the newest recruit to the Moulin Rouge, being shown how to dance by the owner. In the crowd are various notable characters of the bohemian scene: aristocrats, frequenters and others.

A second woman in the foreground, a mysterious aristocratic lady in pink, doesn’t dance. Almost setting herself apart from these women who dance for money, this picture is a perhaps unintended social discourse on the high-low culture of Montmartre where rich and poor rub shoulders and morals of all sorts converge.