One evening in December 1891, about three thousand copies of this poster—Lautrec’s initial foray into lithography—were pasted on walls across Paris. Critics and the general public alike were struck by the poster’s modern sensibility; it includes bold colors, a variety of lettering styles, and innovative use of silhouettes. The poster advertises the Moulin Rouge dance hall and its featured performer La Goulue (the Greedy One or the Glutton), so named for her voracious appetite for all things sensual. By advertising a specific celebrity rather than anonymous beauties, Lautrec infused his poster with star power. The poster created a sensation, and fueled the popularity of both La Goulue and Lautrec.
Despite the fame of this poster, its genesis remains unclear. The owner of the Moulin Rouge, Charles Zidler, may have approached Lautrec directly, or Lautrec may have won a competition. It is also uncertain who first introduced Lautrec to the medium of lithography, although the artist Pierre Bonnard is often mentioned as a possibility. It is known, however, that Lautrec was well aware of the lithograph that Jules Chéret had created as the first poster advertising the Moulin Rouge. Chéret, the so-called “father of the modern poster, depicted anonymous, flirtatious women — known as chérettes—Lautrec’s later, more modern one.
When the artist-cum-entrepreneur Rodolphe Salis died in 1897, the inscription on his tombstone read: “God created the world, Napoleon the Legion of Honor, and I, Montmartre.” While Salis, the owner of the celebrated Chat Noir (Black Cat) cabaret, exaggerated his importance, his epitaph correctly suggests the fundamental role played by the Chat Noir in the development of Montmartre. Salis’ “cabaret-artistique” opened its doors in 1881, and almost immediately became a gathering spot for avant-garde artists, poets, musicians, and writers, who used the cabaret as a sort of artistic laboratory to recite poems, sing chansons, and exhibit paintings. The cabaret’s name, chosen for its multiple associations with sources as diverse as Edgar Allan Poe and French folktales, itself became a leitmotif for the district. Artists regularly used images of the black cat, as in Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen’s poster Tournée du Chat Noir. Steinlen’s poster, with the black cat sitting upright and a halo surrounding its head with the inscription “Montjoye Montmartre,” advertises the Chat Noir cabaret, while conjuring the sensual, mysterious, independent, and nocturnal culture of Montmartre.
Publicity posters, made possible by the lithographic technique, were an important innovation of the artists of Montmartre. Jules Chéret, considered the father of the modern poster, was a generation older than Lautrec. His posters, with coquettish, beautiful women known as chérettes, conceived of the text as an integral visual component of the overall design and elevated posters to an art form. His 1889 poster Bal du Moulin Rouge depicted voluptuous women who flirted with viewers and beckoned them to the Moulin Rouge dance hall, denoted by the central red windmill.
Just two years later, Lautrec was commissioned to create his own poster advertising the Moulin Rouge. The artist’s first foray into the art of lithography was a resounding success: one evening in December 1891, three thousand copies of Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge: La Goulue were pasted on the walls around Paris, prompting an outpouring of popular and critical acclaim and turning the young artist into an overnight sensation. Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge poster was far more daring than the comparatively subdued poster by Chéret. The dance hall’s name is repeated three times in an eye-catching design that then draws the viewer’s eye down to the central motif: La Goulue. Born Louise Weber (1870–1929), La Goulue (the greedy one) was a young dancer who turned the cancan into a risqué dance with high kicks and loud shrieks. Seen here with her dance partner Valentin le Désossé (Valentin the Boneless), the provocative La Goulue attracts a sizable audience, rendered by Lautrec in silhouette form. The unusual use of silhouette was influenced by the flat designs of Japanese art then popular among the avant-garde and also by the Chat Noir’s shadow theater productions, in which zinc cutouts were back-lit and their shadows then projected upon a puppet-theaterlike stage. Innovative designs based on silhouettes were perfectly suited for the bold, graphic style of posters and other works of the era.
In addition to providing the subject for Lautrec’s most famous poster, the Moulin Rouge provided the backdrop for some of Lautrec’s most highly regarded paintings, including At the Moulin Rouge. This dance hall, opened by Charles Zidler and his partner Joseph Oller in late 1889, had a carnival-like atmosphere, with not only dancers but performers of all types, including singers, puppeteers, acrobats, and animal acts. At the Moulin Rouge is an unsettling painting, with severe lighting, unconventional perspective, and an ambiguous narrative. To the right is a figure (thought by some to be the performer May Milton), whose tilting, subaqueous green face draws viewers’ attention. Behind this prominent figure La Goulue can be seen with her back to the viewer, pinning her hair before a mirror. Lautrec himself can be found in the rear of the room, his diminutive figure accompanied by his cousin. The lower left-hand quadrant is dominated by the sharp angle of a balustrade that at once brings the viewer into the dance hall while separating him or her from the café table, where a group of Lautrec’s male friends sit with the entertainers La Macarona and Jane Avril. With its skewed perspective, lurid colors, and perplexing social dynamic, At the Moulin Rouge is both alienating and arresting—an embodiment of the spirit of Montmartre.
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