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At the Moulin Rouge, 1892-1895

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Artist Toulouse-Lautrec, Henri Marie Au Moulin Rouge is perhaps the greatest conundrum in Lautrec’s work. It was evidently intended as a major painting, a multi-figure composition on the same scale as Dressage des nouvelles, a group portrait of Lautrec and his cronies at the chic locale, mingling with the women ‘who “did” the Moulin’. In this sense it a private image for , although set in a public space, it represents a close circle in their leisure hours. But for all these apparent certainties the painting is one which raises difficult questions: when was it made? Did Lautrec enlarge the canvas or was it vandalized and then repaired? Was it exhibited in Lautrec’s lifetime?
Even the question of whom it represent involves a degree of controversy. Lautrec and his cousin Tapie de Celeyran are shown walking across the rear space, having passed La Goulue who adjusts her hair in a mirror. Joyant identified the figures around the table as , from left to right , the author and dandy Edouard Dujardin, La Macarona, Paul Sescau and Mauruce Guibert. He named the woman at the right as ‘Nelly C’, though recent writers favour May Milton.
The tradition account of Au Moulin Rouge argues that it was executed in 1892 and that Lautrec reworked it in 1895, adding along the bottom and right edges the substantial extra strip of canvas which is clear to the naked eye. Support for this view comes from Joyant, who was handling Lautrec’s wok in 1892, the date which he gave the painting in his ‘essai de catalogue’, and the assumption that the female figure represented in the ‘new’ strip to the right of the canvas represents May Milton, who only seems to have appeared in Lautrec’s other work in 1895. This theory has, however , been challenged by Reinhold Heller. In an intricate article he had argued that conservation analysis indicates that the painting was executed at a single phase, for there are no signs of the overpainting necessary to disguise a later join and the additional L-shaped strip is of the same canvas as the main section. Heller conjectures that the painting was cut down not by Lautrec, but after his death with the complicity of Jayant; a photograph illustrating an article on Lautrec by Arse Alexandre in eth Figaro illustre of April 1902 reproduces Au Moulin Rouge without the marginal strip. The motive for this was the ‘need to denigrate – even annihilate’ May Milton, who Heller speculate, may have had a lesbian relationship with Jane Avril. It is difficult to accept what is essentially a conspiracy theory and there seems little reason to distrust Jayant, so loyal to Lautrec and his memory, who mentioned nothing in his references to the painting about any coupage and discussed it in terms of admiration.
Did Lautrec exhibit this important painting? Heller, following Dortu, considers that it was ‘apparently never exhibited prior to 1902’. It has been suggested that it was shown at Les XX in 1892 as Nocturne, though this appears to have described aa a brothel subject. However, it would seem to have been exhibited at the two-man-show which Lautrec shared with Charles Maurin at Boussod et Valadon in February 1893, the centrepiece of a group of smaller Moulin Rouge motifs.
The painting does have something of the ghostly quality : an eerie, almost submarine light seems to pervade it , an effect conjured by the subtle interplay between warm brown and sickly green tones. Au Moulin Rouge combines passages of high finish with others rapidly improvised. The steep diagonal of the balustrade, for instance is approximately brushed in thin washes, while the face of La Macarona and Gulibert are resolved with varied and precise marks. The composition , though more complex, is reminiscent of the poster for La Goulue, with a rear frieze, a central vortex to which our attention is drawn , and a simplifies repoussoir figure in the foreground. This bizarre presence as well as the balustrade, were necessary to give the spectator that ‘naturalist’ perception of a relationship with the fiction of the painting , almost a place within it.




Institution Art Institute of Chicago
Medium Oil on canvas
Dimensions 123 x 141 cm













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