Henri Toulouse-Latrec, At the Moulin Rouge (1892-95)

Henri Toulouse-Latrec, At the Moulin Rouge (1892-95). Oil on canvas,
123 x 141 cm. Located at the Art Institute of Chicago, IL.

Toulouse-Latrec (24 November 1864 – 9 September 1901) was born into a French aristocratic family with a lineage that could be traced back hundreds of years. A childhood accident left him with very short legs and this physical deformity made him feel uncomfortable and ill at ease within the aristocratic circles his family moved in. Because of this he frequented the nightclubs and underbelly of Paris, especially the famous Moulin Rouge, the Parisian nightclub named for the red windmill on its roof (immortalized recently in the film starring Nicole Kidman). He became a regular feature at the Moulin Rouge and befriended many of the stars and customers. The painting above, At the Moulin Rouge, depicts Toulouse-Latrec among his friends.

The painting itself showcases the varied clientele and entertainment of the infamous club. In the far background, La Goulue, in the red with blond hair and whose real name was Louise Weber, adjusts her costume as a friend looks on. La Goulue was one of the stars of the Moulin Rouge and she was most known for her Can-Can. She was also one of Toulouse-Latrec's favorite subjects and she can be found in many of his works. In front of her to the left of the work, a small almost dwarfish man walks with a tall angular gentleman in a top hat. These two figures are Toulouse-Latrec himself and his cousin,Gabriel Tapié de Céléyran. The woman in the foreground with the strangely green face is May Milton, another of the Moulin Rouge's dancers. Around the table in the foreground to the left are writer Edouard Dujardin, the star dancer Jane Avril, La Macarona, photographer Paul Sescau, and the reputed winemaker Maurice Guibert.

Toulouse-Lautrec was part of the Post-Impressionist movement that sought to combine elements of both Impressionism and Expressionism. He utilizes the world around him as a subject in a similar vein to the interest in contemporary settings shown by the Impressionists, however much of his style is more expressive than impressionistic. There is no feeling of plein air or the idea that this was painting outside among nature, this is a very artificial work that strives to express its message through color and line. Toulouse-Latrec wants to convey the feelings of urgency, decadence, desperation and activity that was the Moulin Rouge. This painting is emblematic of its time because it does not shy away from showing the workings of the underside of Paris. From the indecency of La Goulue's public display to the blatant placement of the glass of absinthe in the forefront of the painting, Toulouse-Latrec is reveling in the ways of that underworld.

At the Moulin Rouge is a fantastic expression of Post-Impressionist movement, which also included figures like Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Vulliard, and Bonnard. He displays the contemporary world without the idealized and sometimes whimsical modes that accompanied Impressionism and does not fear exposing how the world can look and what that can inspire.

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