Toulouse-Lautrec Paints Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s At the Moulin Rouge illustrated the practices of bohemian Paris at the turn of the century, in particular the nightlife crowd of dancers and drinkers at the dance hall Moulin Rouge. The image retained the Impressionist interest in capturing a single fleeting moment, but it employed the artist’s idiosyncratic style and thematic concerns to do so, creating an art that was uniquely Toulouse-Lautrec’s.

Summary of Event

The French post-Impressionist painter, illustrator, and lithographer Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec captured the effervescent fervor of bohemian Paris in his many paintings and posters. He represented and glamorized the less civilized individuals of society, particularly the patrons and entertainers of the pleasure district of Montmartre. Between 1892 and 1895, Toulouse-Lautrec painted At the Moulin Rouge, which embodied the nineteenth century voyeuristic taste in nighttime entertainment, portraying patrons of a nightclub as simultaneously observing and observed. Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri de At the Moulin Rouge (Toulouse-Lautrec) Art;French Art;post-Impressionism[PostImpressionism] Post-Impressionism[PostImpressionism];Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec[Toulouse-Lautrec] Paris;Impressionism Moulin Rouge Paris;Moulin Rouge Montmartre Paris;Montmartre [kw]Toulouse-Lautrec Paints At the Moulin Rouge (1892-1895) [kw]Paints At the Moulin Rouge, Toulouse-Lautrec (1892-1895) [kw]At the Moulin Rouge, Toulouse-Lautrec Paints (1892-1895) [kw]Moulin Rouge, Toulouse-Lautrec Paints At the (1892-1895) Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri de At the Moulin Rouge (Toulouse-Lautrec) Art;French Art;post-Impressionism[PostImpressionism] Post-Impressionism[PostImpressionism];Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec[Toulouse-Lautrec] Paris;Impressionism Moulin Rouge Paris;Moulin Rouge Montmartre Paris;Montmartre [g]France;1892-1895: Toulouse-Lautrec Paints At the Moulin Rouge[5780] [c]Art;1892-1895: Toulouse-Lautrec Paints At the Moulin Rouge[5780] Degas, Edgar Goulue, La Avril, Jane

In the swell of the Industrial Revolution, the last decade of the nineteenth century in France (the fin de siècle) was fraught with uncertainty over the stability and the social path of the Third Republic (1870-1940). After the common working man had been replaced by machines and after personal vices became regulated by the new regime, mass socialism and burgeoning feminism began to propose radical solutions to the ills of a new industrial age. For some, this transitional period encouraged what was then viewed as irresponsible and depraved behavior and frenetic, even fatalistic, states of mind. The end of the nineteenth century also witnessed the rise and downward spiral of the dance hall and other bohemian entertainments in the hilltop Montmartre district, technically just outside Paris. Montrmartre was crowded with cabarets, café-concerts, bars, brothels, and other salacious venues. The area was a popular locale in which to meet and drink, especially considering that wine was made locally, at a nunnery in the district.

The disreputable atmosphere of Montmartre was associated in the Parisian popular mind with the bohemian artist. The bohemian lifestyle was introduced to the Parisians by Slavic and Hungarian artists who frequented French academic art circles. Many believed the stereotype of the gypsy, the wandering vagrant artist who was the quintessential bohemian individual. This stereotype, while a gross abstraction of reality, was embraced as a model by many artists, writers, dancers, philosophers, and dreamers in late nineteenth century French culture. During this period, sometimes referred to as the belle époque, some French entertainers, artists, and intellectuals began to emulate what they saw as an ideal and carefree lifestyle.

The most famous concert venue and dance hall in Montmartre—and the stage for many French artists’ opuses—was the Moulin Rouge, named for its recognizable red windmill. The Moulin Rouge opened on October 5, 1889, to an eager bohemian public that included Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The nightly finale at the Moulin Rouge was a new dance phenomenon called the cancan. Known for their physical limberness and their loose morals, the cancan dancers were popular for their wild performances and particularly for raising their brightly colored skirts to kick their long legs up to eye-level. This was the world that Toulouse-Lautrec anxiously joined as a spectator and also came to represent in his art.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born into aristocracy on November 24, 1864, to the Comte Alphonse-Charles de Toulouse in Albi, France, with a rich aristocratic genealogy one thousand years in the making. As a child, Toulouse-Lautrec was often ill and injured. He broke both of his legs on separate occasions as an adolescent, and a bone disease prevented him from growing to a mature height. It was arguably Toulouse-Lautrec’s inability to participate in many aristocratic pastimes and outdoor activities that inspired him to become an artist.

Toulouse-Lautrec began working in the academic style of painting under the tutelage of L. J. F. Bonnat Bonnat, L. J. F. and Fernand Cormon Cormon, Fernand . By the mid-1880’s, he was frequenting Montmartre, as well as the galleries and exhibitions of the Impressionist painters. In 1885, Toulouse-Lautrec became fascinated with Edgar Degas Degas, Edgar , whose voyeuristic images of women (often ballet dancers) in private scenes later proved to be incredibly influential on Toulouse-Lautrec. The majority of the Impressionists focused their attention on the effect of light in nature, while Degas, whose oeuvre included natural imagery as well, often chose to depict the play of light on interior space. He represented the interiors of public arenas, such as ballet studios, as well as private settings, such as women’s boudoirs.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s interest in the Montmartre nightlife brought him to nightly cabarets and dance halls, where he would sketch rough drawings on paper that would be continued as drawings or paintings on canvas the next day. He was befriended by social outcasts, particularly by prostitutes. Toulouse-Lautrec favored this vulgar and garish nightlife; he focused on the impoverished and depraved, because they did not fit into the mold of proper society—just as he did not fit into his birthplace in French aristocracy. Prostitutes allowed Toulouse-Lautrec to draw them in the most intimate of environments and poses; he produced at least fifty images depicting the lifestyle of the French brothels, or maisons closes, between 1885 and 1895. His subjects varied from prostitutes to the patrons of the various establishments of Montmartre to cabaret performers. It was his depictions of the nightly performers, which he exhibited in the various cafés of the district, that won him his initial commissions to produce commercial playbills and posters in 1891.

Although Toulouse-Lautrec is widely known for the lithographic posters he produced to advertise the nighttime attractions of Montmartre, perhaps his most recognized image is from an oil painting: At the Moulin Rouge depicted an evening scene of patrons at the nightclub. It captured a single, informal moment among the celebrated members of the Montmartre nightlife. In the painting’s background, a cabaret dancer adjusted her hair in a mirror. The dancer portrayed was Louise Weber, better known as La Goulue Goulue, La , or “the glutton,” as she could drink any man under the table. Toulouse-Lautrec produced numerous images of La Goulue, returning to the Moulin Rouge repeatedly to observe her. She was the subject of his first lithograph, Moulin Rouge: La Goulue (1891).

Also depicted in this sensationalized atmosphere were the dancer Yvette Guilbert, music critic Édouard Dujardin, and the back of a fiery redhead believed to be the dancer Jane Avril Avril, Jane —another popular subject of Toulouse-Lautrec. The faces of these subjects were shadowed by the dim, artificial light of the nightclub. However, there was one face that stood out from the rest. A cropped visage of actress May Milton loomed on the right side of the canvas with a garish green face. Her face appeared ominous and eerie, even sickly. The green skin tone imparted by Toulouse-Lautrec was meant to capture the reflection of artificial light upon Milton’s luminescent face powder.

Artistically, At the Moulin Rouge evinced the same post-Impressionist qualities prized in the lithographs of Toulouse-Lautrec. The artist created roughly hewn, two-dimensional, linear forms and engaged in expressionistic uses of color. The human shape was exaggerated almost to abstraction in his work, yet its representation somehow remained brutally honest, much like the environment that produced the work. Toulouse-Lautrec used more rounded, although still rather jagged, lines to trace the figures of La Goulue Goulue, La and Jane Avril Avril, Jane , which contrasted with the harsh diagonals of the room itself. He chose a color palette that was unflattering to his subjects yet visually engaging, with various spots of color designed to lead the eye around the image. For example, the vibrant red of Avril’s hair against her trademark black attire complemented the acidic green of Milton’s goblin-like face.

The lithographic quality of Toulouse-Lautrec’s drawings and paintings stemmed from his interest in Japanese woodblock prints from the Edo Tokyo;art in period (1615-1868). Images of Japanese ukiyo-e, or “images of the floating world,” were similar to a genre of images popular with the Impressionists and post-Impressionists, ranging from scenes of nature to theater to prostitution. Many French artists from these stylistic periods credited Japanese woodblock prints with their inspiration, leading them to create asymmetrical compositions and broad areas of color that echoed the two-dimensionality of the woodblock prints.


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s At the Moulin Rouge is remembered for its skilled craftsmanship and the psychological insight it provided into a world that was more foreign than familiar to the majority of Parisians. Toulouse-Lautrec took a region infamous for its vulgarity and debauchery and humanized the ill-fated creatures of the night that inhabited it, making them intriguing. His artistic innovations influenced his fellow post-Impressionist painters Vincent van Gogh Gogh, Vincent van and Georges Seurat Seurat, Georges , as well as the succeeding expressionist Art;expressionism Expressionism painter Georges Rouault Rouault, Georges . Toulouse-Lautrec’s death from alcoholism in 1901 put an end to a brilliant career at the young age of thirty-six. Despite the short life of the belle époque, its history remains vibrant and intriguing to many modern theorists and filmmakers.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cabanne, Pierre. Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, the Reporter of Modern Life. Paris: Editions Pierre Terrail, 2003. Focuses on the development of the entertainment genre of images popular in nineteenth century Paris, crediting some of his contemporary influences.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hanson, Lawrence and Elisabeth. The Tragic Life of Toulouse-Lautrec. New York: Random House, 1956. A thorough biographical narrative.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heller, Reinhold. Toulouse-Lautrec: The Soul of Montmarte. New York: Prestl, 1997. Provides a look at the dichotomy of Toulouse-Lautrec’s life from his early development in the aristocracy and his fascination with dance halls and cabarets.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nord, Philip. Impressionists and Politics: Art and Democracy in the Nineteenth Century, London: Routledge, 2000. Offers a balance of facts and the psychology behind the interaction of art and politics as the Impressionists were moving away from government sanctioned schools and sets the stage for the social climate in which Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec emerged.

Paris Salon of 1824

Delacroix Paints Liberty Leading the People

Courbet Establishes Realist Art Movement

Paris’s Salon des Refusés Opens

First Impressionist Exhibition

Post-Impressionist Movement Begins

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

Edgar Degas; Vincent van Gogh; Georges Seurat; Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri de At the Moulin Rouge (Toulouse-Lautrec) Art;French Art;post-Impressionism[PostImpressionism] Post-Impressionism[PostImpressionism];Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec[Toulouse-Lautrec] Paris;Impressionism Moulin Rouge Paris;Moulin Rouge Montmartre Paris;Montmartre

Categories: History