Le Moulin Rouge, 1914 (photographer unknown)

Le Moulin Rouge, 1914 (photographer unknown)

There’s more to a painting than meets the eye…

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, La Goulue arriving at the Moulin Rouge (1892)

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, La Goulue arriving at the Moulin Rouge (1892)

When most people look at art they see a picture. When I look at art I not only look at the picture but I also look for the story behind the picture. A painting is a part of history and to understand it better one has to look at it in context.

When you look at this painting you should know a little about the artist who painted it and equally important it is essential to discover who is depicted in the painting.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec lived between 1864 and 1901 and is considered a Post-Impressionist. Born in an aristocratic family, Toulouse-Lautrec fractured both his legs which never healed properly. Combined with acute genetic defects these injuries caused his legs to cease to grow leaving him short in stature. He was only 4 ft 8 in tall. Because of this Toulouse-Lautrec began to focus solely on his art as a teenager.

He wasn’t a handsome man and his deformities made him unable to find suitable companions among the aristocratic class that he was a part of. He was easily accepted into the bohemian life of 19th century Paris.  As time went on, Toulouse-Lautrec became a severe alcoholic and spent a great deal of time in the dance halls and brothels of Paris. He was a regular figure at Le Moulin Rouge where he sketched and documented the dancers and patrons there.

This is where he met Louise Weber who was known by her stage name “La Goulue”. Below you will find a picture of her from her youth.

La Goulue became famous for her dancing at the Moulin Rouge which was known for the flexibility of its young dancers both on a physical level as well as a moral one.

The Moulin Rouge became famous for the high kicking Can-Can which made many of its young dancers famous. Toulouse-Lautrec was hired to create posters to advertise Le Moulin Rouge which only helped make its dancers and dance shows even more famous. The Bohemian life of Paris was not an easy one for men and it was even harder for the women who inhabited the dance halls and cafés of Paris during the 19th century. The dance hall was raided frequently by the police to make sure that the women were still wearing their underwear during their performances.

Like many of the dancers working at the Moulin Rouge, La Goulue also worked as an artist and photographers model to make some extra cash. Renoir is credited to introducing La Goulue to his network of artist friends so she could make some extra money.

The Moulin Rouge made La Goulue a household name in Paris. She was nicknamed La Goulue which means “the glutton” because of her habit of drinking the patron’s drinks as she danced around the dance floor. Once she was famous she tried to break ties with the Moulin Rouge and form her own dance troupe, which ended up being a horrible business venture. Her patrons from the Moulin Rouge didn’t feel as comfortable in her new locations. She became depressed and any money she had made over the years she drank away and she became homeless. She tried to make a few dollars selling peanuts, matches and cigarettes a few blocks away from the Moulin Rouge. She had gained a great deal of weight and the difficulties of her life made her unrecognizable to those who stopped to give her a few sous.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec died in 1901 and Louise Weber (La Goulue) died in 1929. Both died of severe alcoholism and personal neglect.

Le Moulin evolved and transformed itself over the decades from dancehall to a serious venue for famous performers like Mistinguett. It hosted many different kinds of shows, from the risque to operettas. The Original Moulin Rouge was destroyed by fire on February 27th, 1915 and was rebuilt in 1921.  The venue lives on till this day and still has some of the flavours of La Belle Epoque and the days of Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and La Goulue.