|Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec|
|Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. At the Moulin Rouge, 1892-1893.|
On October 5th, 1889 the Moulin Rouge was inaugurated at Place Blanche then on the outskirts of Paris; this dance hall replaced the Reine Blanche of the Second Empire era. To launch the new night spot and attract a well-to-do clientele, but also to give life to the peripheral area where it was located, the owners adopted modern publicity techniques, including posters and leaflets as well as announcements and photographs of the show people in the popular press.
At the Moulin Rouge, with both gas and electric lighting, the curtain opened every evening at 8:30 on a stage with alternating concert-spectacles, provocative and masked dancers, in perpetual movement which assured performances that were always the latest fashion. The dance popular at the time, the chahut, made this and other night spots famous. Not a new dance - it had been popular during the Restoration- it was replaced by the can-can. But, while in the latter the dancers mostly raised and twirled their skirts and underskirts, in the chahut the attraction was the frenetic high kick of the legs, often showing the view up past the top of the thighs. The two main movements in the dance are the grand ecart and the quadrille naturaliste, based on kicking the legs high with a vertical split at the end.
The young Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec suddenly found himself before a modern popular subject and spent most of his evenings in the chahut dance halls.
|Georges Seurat – Le Chahut
(1890) oil on canvas
Otterlo, Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller
This painting gives a bold presentation of a moment of the chahut and was interpreted at the time as ironical criticism of the Montmartre environment.
While Impressionist painting was celebrating its triumph, the French artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec became the chronicler of the sparkling lights of the night spots, the theaters, the circuses, the brothels in the last years of 19th century Paris. An aristocrat, nervous and deformed, he was an untiring observer of contemporary society. Satirical artist and forerunner of publicity designers, Toulouse-Lautrec invented the affiche.
At the Moulin Rouge is probably the most strange of his entire works, and it is one of a vast series of paintings dedicated to the dance halls then in vogue in artistic Montmartre. From the end of 1880s to the early 1890s, the places like circus, launched by the commercial system of the Parisian show world in continuous movement, were the principal subject of Toulouse-Lautrec's pictures, appreciated in exhibitions and fetching high prices in private dealings.
The perpetual kermesse, the masked balls, the gas lights, the electric lighting, all captured the artist's fantasy.
Clearly conceived as an especially important painting, both for its size and composition, At the Moulin Rouge represents a group portrait with the artist and some of his friends mingled among a group of women, regulars at the dance hall.
The artist and his cousin Gabriel Tapie de Celeyran appear in the background; the woman arranging her hair at the mirror is La Goulue (the Glutton), the stage-name of the dancer Louis Weber, who apparently got the nickname because of her habit of emptying clients' glasses. In the foreground around the table are gathered, from left to right, the literary dandy Edouard Dujardin, La Macarona, the photographer Paul Sescau, and the champagne merchant Maurice Guibert. There is some uncertainty regarding the red-haired woman portrayed from behind. The most common hypotheses identify her as the dancer May Milton or Jane Avril.
The painting has characteristics of a private picture, immersed in a spectral atmosphere. Although his friends are intelligent gentlemen of elevated social condition, the artist portrayed them as tired and superficially worldly. The women occupy a marginal position, on the sides of the masculine triangle, because their presence is requested and paid for, but not their company. No one is talking, no gazes cross: a desolated atmosphere of social alienation dominates the scene.
The entire painting reflects the strong influence exercised by Japanese prints in France during this period, evident above all in the photographic approach used.