At the Moulin Rouge: The Dance
This is Toulouse-Lautrec's earliest work depicting dancers at the Moulin Rouge. It marks the beginning of the portion of his career that would earn him his reputation, and his close association with the legendary cabaret. The piece itself was begun shortly after the Moulin Rouge opened in 1889, and completed shortly thereafter.
The painting depicts a scene of Valentin le Désossé rehearsing an auditioning dancer. Our organizing eye level is approximately at the height of the shoulders of the foregrounded woman in pink. This allows us, along with the floorboards signaling perspectival depth, to look past the friezelike line of patrons in the back towards a background of alcoves, dim lights, and windows opening onto the trees of the garden. We are thus afforded a very long view into the action of the scene--Toulouse-Lautrec's subsequent paintings of similar scenes do not share quite the same depth.
Notable is the fact that, in addition to Valentin le Désossé, several of the men in the background can be identified as friends of Toulouse-Lautrec's, while the women, including the dancer remain entirely unknown. Even the foreground woman clothed in pink, with her portrait-like features and prominent placement, is an anonymous character. The women, then, function largely as accents of color among the uniformly black and brown clothing of the males. Indeed, it is the flamboyant color of the foregrounded woman, in conjunction with her downcast, indifferent pose that lends her a unique presence in the milieu.
The themes present here of mingling social classes, sexuality, and carnal public display would appear again and again in Toulouse-Lautrec's further Moulin Rouge works. Here, as in later works, the subject matter would be both celebrated and denigrated by critics.
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