Masterpiece in the spotlight: At the Moulin Rouge, the Dance, Toulouse-Lautrec
In our Masterpieces in Detail series, KAZoART takes you deep into an artwork to discover its hidden secrets… Today, the editorial team delves into Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s masterpiece At the Moulin Rouge, the Dance. In it, Toulouse-Lautrec – an icon of the belle époque and the cabarets of working-class Paris – depicts a unique atmosphere where dancers dance the can-can in a crowded room. Dive into another world!
The world of cabaret
Painter, draughtsman and lithographer Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864 – 1901) was born into an aristocratic family in the south of France. A small man with a taste for absinthe and a talented artist, he was a great lover of Japanese art and is today considered as a precursor of Expressionism.
He was also known for his good sense of humour and humility. For most of his life, he lived in Montmartre in the north of Paris, which enabled him to spend a great deal of time in music halls and theatres. This unusual world naturally became the subject of his paintings.
At the Moulin Rouge, the Dance is undoubtedly one of the artist’s best-known works. The scene is set in one of the cabarets of the era that remains famous to this day, the Moulin Rouge. In the painting, we see Parisians strolling across the dancefloor that took up the majority of the music hall.
Most of the figures are men, but two women stand out clearly among the crowd of dark, three-piece suits: the women in pink in the foreground and the dancer in the centre of the painting. The entire composition is designed to accurately depict the cabaret’s ambiance, an endless and noisy parade of men and women. The Moulin Rouge’s owner was particularly fond of the painting and hung it above the bar…
Four details in-depth
#1 The man dressed in black
The man in black in the left part of the painting is none other than Valentin le Désossé – real name Edme-Etienne-Jules Renaudin – a famous dancer and contortionist of the time.
He was identified thanks to a recently discovered inscription on the back of the painting, written by the artist by hand, stating, “Valentin le Désossé gives the newcomers an introduction.”
The dancer’s unique physique is easily recognizable, with his slender shape and bandy legs. He is shown here teaching a new dancer a dance step.
Valentin le Désossé was famously the partner of La Goulue, a well-known cabaret dancer frequently painted by Toulouse-Lautrec. Like the other men, he is dressed in black and wears a style of top hat that was very fashionable at the time.
#2 The cancan
Opposite Valentin le Désossé, a young red-haired woman is learning new dance steps. She is not dressed in show clothes and wears a simple, slightly see-through beige dress with a white petticoat.
She sports no accessories, not even a hat or piece of jewellery, in contrast to the elegant woman in the foreground. Her scarlet stockings stand out and immediately attract the spectator’s gaze, creating a sensation of voyeurism and helping us feel we are part of the crowd depicted in the piece.
We can also see her ankles, which was something quite daring during the period and one of the main attractions of the cabaret. The dancer is wearing high-heel boots essential for dancing the Bahut-cancan. In the painting she is completing a step in the dance that was a precursor to the French cancan as we know it today. Inspired by the Andalusian Cachucha dance, it is focused primarily on jumps and wide jetés.
#3 A very elegant lady
In parallel to the dancer but above all in contrast to her, a woman in a pink dress seems to be walking across the stage, almost indifferent to what is happening around her. Her presence is surprising in a cabaret, which was a place of entertainment and debauchery.
Her pink satin dress, white fur, black gloves and large feather hat show she is clearly middle-classed.
Her straight, stately figure is in sharp contrast to the curvy, moving dancer. She is shown as an educated, respectable woman set against the eccentric dancers. She also illustrates the mix of social classes found in cabarets at the time…
#4 A sea of top hats
The painting’s background is filled with customers standing close to the bar. It is possible to make out the pillars of the Moulin Rouge’s main hall as well as the mirrors on the walls. The crowd is highly typical of the 1890s and their fashion: the men wear full three-piece suits and the top or bowler hats that were essential for evening events.
The woman in black facing us is thought to be a famous dancer from the Moulin Rouge named Jane Avril. To the right, the man with a white beard standing near the bar is said to be none other than Toulouse-Lautrec’s father. Finally, on the left, Toulouse-Lautrec has placed a waiter dressed in red who echoes the dancer’s stockings.
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