Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
At the Moulin Rouge, La Goulue and Her Sister (Au Moulin Rouge, La Goulue et sa sœur), 1892
46.1 x 34.8 cm
"That Lautrec’s got a hell of a nerve, and no mistake. No half measures, the way he draws, or the way he colors either. Great flat dollops of white, black, and red—forms all simplified— that’s all there is to it. He’s got them off to a tee, those gaga old capitalists, completely past it, sitting at tables with clever little tarts who lick their snouts to get cash out of them...What’s so fantastic is the single-minded way he does it, the bare faced cheek of it, the humor."
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (France, 1864-1901) suffered from congenital health conditions which caused his legs to fracture when he was a teenager. These breaks, requiring painful treatments and extensive periods of bedrest, did not heal properly. While recovering, he was unable to participate in many physically activities, and so Toulouse-Lautrec immersed himself in painting and drawing at a young age. His favorite subject as a youth was the horse. He often accompanied his father to the races and developed a lifelong passion for them. His legs ceased to grow, leaving him an adult with a normally proportioned upper body and very short lower extremities, making it difficult for him to walk.
In 1884 he moved to the bohemian district of Montmartre, in Paris, where he gravitated to the vibrant and decadent nightlife, befriending rich habitués as well as workers and artists. It was a time of upheaval and turmoil, characterized by social, political, industrial, and scientific transformations in Paris’s cultural scene. Artists of the day—as both indicators and as driving forces—contributed to the birth of diverse innovative movements. Toulouse-Lautrec depicted the society of his time with a style that ranged from mordant realism to satire. Perhaps his greatest appeal was his portrayal of famous members of Paris’s fin-de-siècle nightlife.
By 1885 he was representing scenes of his neighborhood’s notorious nightlife, including the customers who frequented theaters, café concerts, and brothels. Because he was a regular of the cabarets in the area, he came to immortalize the unorthodox, colorful activities there that exposed not only the upper class milieu in attendance, but the frenetic entertainment they came to experience, and the tragic lives of the lower classes who were the performers in these locales.
When the Moulin Rouge, a famous cabaret in Montmartre, opened in 1889, Lautrec was commissioned to produce a series of advertising posters for it. He attended shows every evening, sketching dancers and clients from a corner table. His posters depicted Montmartre entertainers as celebrities, and elevated the popular medium of the advertising lithograph to the realm of high art. His prints of Moulin Rouge denizens revealed the spirit, the sadness, and the grace of the people who populated the cabaret.
At the Moulin Rouge he also met one of his favorite café-concert stars, Louise Weber, nicknamed La Goulue (the glutton) because of her insatiable appetite for both food and life. La Goulue was an ambitious woman who was also famous for her skills as a can-can dancer. The can-can was a high-energy, physically demanding dance, considered scandalous and extremely inappropriate by respectable society, with dancers flaunting the extravagant undergarments and contrasting black stockings of the time. Despite its risqué reputation, the can-can became a staple of dance hall’s giddiness and dynamism.
In the lithograph At the Moulin Rouge, La Goulue and Her Sister (1892), La Goulue is seen inside the cabaret with her sister, surveying the scene and the men there. She is wearing a revealing gown, sports a flamboyant hairstyle, and a black ribbon around her neck. Because of her eccentric appearance, Lautrec often presented La Goulue with her back to the viewer—her silhouette was (and is) enough for her to be recognized. As with La Gouloue, Lautrec seized upon the key features of his subjects and in his highly stylized and reductive interpretations, encapsulated their core identities.
 Vivien Greene, ed., Paris, Fin de Siècle: Signac, Redon, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Their Contemporaries exh. cat. (Bilbao: Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, 2017), insert page number.
Observe the lithograph. What do you notice? Describe it in as much detail as possible. Where do you think these people are? What did you notice later that was not apparent at first glance? How would you describe the mood of this print?
Paris was a city of entertainment and nightlife, yet it was also the backdrop to numerous social conflicts. Aristocrats, dancers, and workers mingled on the streets of Montmartre and attended café concerts. How do you imagine it would have been to live in the city at that moment? Do you think you would enjoy it? Why do you think the art scene was so vivid at the time?
This image contains various figures. Start by focusing on the two women in the foreground. Who might they be? What can one learn about them through their poses, expressions, and the way they are dressed? What do you think they are doing? Now concentrate on the rest of the figures. What might they be doing?
La Goulue was a famous can-can dancer in Paris’s Moulin Rouge cabaret. Have you ever seen or heard about the can-can? Watch this short clip of the movie Moulin Rouge from 1952: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=exrcnq6Uac4
La Goulue was a performer similar to the dancers in the movie. Would you enjoy attending a show featuring her? Why or why not? The can-can was considered scandalous, and for a while there were attempts to repress it. Why do you think it was so controversial?
Having seen the clip, do you think Lautrec effectively captured the club’s atmosphere? Lautrec also created posters to promote the Moulin Rouge. Google the images and find the one you like the most. Why do you consider it your favorite? What can you learn about fin-de-siècle Paris by analyzing Lautrec’s posters?
Create your own theater poster:
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec created many posters for the Moulin Rouge Theater. Start your project by researching his creations. Look at his posters and note any differences you see among them.
Later, imagine that you are an artist like him, and your town or city commissions you to create a poster for a new show at the theater. Pick a theater you like or know about, and research the kinds of shows they put on. What artistic styles did they use in the advertising for their shows?
Now select a show you would like to see there. It could be any type: a dance, a concert, a play, a performance, even a puppet show. Once you have selected a show, create a poster for it. Don’t forget that posters usually include some information about the performance. Now display your artwork in your class.
Write a story about La Goulue and Her Sister:
Write a short story or poem, or make a drawing, in which La Goulue and her sister come to life. What would they do? Where would they go? What would happen after they leave the Moulin Rouge Theater?
Research Japanese art that inspired Toulouse-Lautrec:
Lautrec observed the cabaret performers and customers before portraying them, but instead of creating realistic depictions, he drew from the Japanese ukiyo-e style, a genre of art which flourished in Japan in the 18th through 19th centuries. His inspiration also came from the Japanese artist Toshusai Sharaku, who portrayed the exaggerated and simplified expressions of kabuki actors. Sharaku’s compositions emphasized poses of dynamism and energy, displaying an unusual realism for prints of the time. Rather than the idealized beauty typical of ukiyo-e, Sharaku highlighted unflattering features such as large noses or the wrinkles of aging actors.
Similar to the figures in Japanese ukiyo-e woodcuts, Lautrec’s subjects are portrayed in reductive terms. They are often recognizable because of their characteristic postures, coiffure, or clothing; they are not represented realistically. Research the ukiyo-e style and Toshusai Sharaku, and compare them to Lautrec’s poster At the Moulin Rouge, La Goulue and Her Sister. What similarities and differences can you find? Write a short essay on your conclusions. You can find images of ukiyo-e and Toshusai Sharaku prints here: https://ukiyo-e.org/
Lithograph: a printing process that uses a flat stone or metal plate, on which areas of the image are worked using a greasy substance so that the ink will adhere to them, while the areas which are meant to remain blank are made ink-repellent.
ukiyo-e: genre of art that flourished in Japan in the 18th and 19th centuries. Its artists produced woodblock prints and paintings that typically portrayed female beauties; kabuki actors and sumo wrestlers; historical scenes and folk tales; travel settings and landscapes; lora and fauna; and erotica. The term ukiyo-e translates as “picture(s) of the floating rld.”