I came to my artistic interests in a very particular fashion. I was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts a port town near Cape Cod. My parents married young – both had working class backgrounds and neither had an expansive knowledge of fine art. Early in their relationship, they had fuzzily romantic portraits painted of one another. I always loved those paintings; even though they were officially bad art, they were my first reference to any kind of painting, as well as, to the significance art can have in a life. My dad, a career navy machinist, bought some small replicas of Michelangelo sculptures during one of his deployments – made with a material that dissolves if it gets wet. This was the art I grew up with. When I was in middle school, we relocated to rural, central Missouri. It wasn’t until I was a senior in high school, when the art students took a trip to the Nelson Adkins Museum in Kansas City, that I saw paintings in a museum.
The first paintings I ever interacted with regularly were those bought and traded in the board game “Masterpiece”. “Masterpiece”: I had covetous relationships with many of the paintings in the game but two stand out. Rembrandt’s portrait Old man with a Gold Chain with the subject’s wonderful, lumpy, black cloaked, illogical body was one and, my favorite, Henri de Toulouse Lautrec’s At the Moulin Rouge.
My initial interests in At the Moulin Rouge were the large figure with an under-lit greenish face in the lower right hand corner of the painting and the dynamic composition. The scene was decadent and exotic to me as a teenager living in rural Missouri. The large figure is May Milton, a well-known dancer at the time and one of the subjects of the painting along with other notable nightclub denizens, including affluent men of different professions and the performers La Goulue and Jane Avril. The various portraits portray an insider’s view of the ostensibly bohemian nightlife and more importantly, the convergence of different lives. The painting includes a self-portrait, in the center of the composition, an important inclusion in the larger context of Toulouse-Lautrec’s work.
The work employs a compositional device used frequently by Vermeer and Degas; figures interact behind a structure (in this case a table) that separates the viewer from the action in the painting. The formal obstruction indicates something about access and makes the viewer aware of her or his position as a viewer or voyeur – standing outside of the scene. The smears of mustard yellow, dark orange and blue green paint contribute to an atmosphere that further reflect Toulouse-Lautrec’s interest in abstraction.
The Moulin Rouge — known as a revue where the Can-Can dance emerged — was situated in the Montmartre district in Paris. Toulouse-Lautrec immersed himself in the colorful and theatrical environment around the Moulin Rouge. It was a nightclub meant to titillate and entertain. It was also a crossroads. Toulouse-Lautrec was one of a handful of post-impressionist artists known for conveying images of “Modern life” in their paintings. Toulouse-Lautrec conveyed his idea of “Modern life” through unsparing (although non judgmental) representations of the people to whom he was drawn. The paintings don’t necessarily flatter, nor do they necessarily reveal the individual. They do however reveal Toulouse-Lautrec’s position within an important moment in Parisian culture, and from his rarified point of entry. He pursued a form of realism that relates to the realist artist Millet: real people.
Toulouse Lautrec painted people he interacted with directly and often. The subjects of his paintings and drawings are generally at work. These are performative, portraits conveying the spirit of the gender dynamic at the time – animated representations of women and, on the whole, uniformly dressed men. At the Moulin Rouge the women are lit, glowing, colorful – there isn’t a sensible, consistent light source; female figures are highlighted and animated by the light. On the other hand the men portrayed in the work have a different kind of visibility. They recede, adorned by women. His subjects could appear provocative, decadent or taciturn – depending on who you (as the viewer) are.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s growth was stunted by an injury in childhood. His family wealth and access privileged him but health issues put him at odds with the aristocratic culture he was born into. His relationship to his sitters was direct – while he came from a different class he wasn’t living outside of the worlds he portrayed. He was between worlds. At the Moulin Rouge is a portrait of the convergence of Toulouse-Lautrec, the class he represented and the proletariat world of the Montmartre. He painted the people with whom he lived and worked. He wasn’t making a project or curiosity out of his subjects. His interest is an indication of a change in society.
While his relationships were authentic he could elect to move through this world of his own volition, and he did. At the Moulin Rouge is a snapshot of a romanticized moment in time – a place where bourgeois and aristocrats could gather and experience what might be called anti-bourgeois and anti-aristocratic plebian entertainment. *(1) Toulouse-Lautrec’s complex identity afforded him the opportunity to move among the people he painted, in some ways like a tourist, perhaps — but in the end he was not a tourist. He was a painter with an attraction to the colorful worlds that he could engage in as an artist– part documentarian, part connoisseur.
In an essay published by the Art Institute of Chicago, author Reinhold Heller discusses the history of At the Moulin Rouge and gives and exhaustive account of the destruction and reconstruction of the painting. It seems that the painting was cut into two sections for a time. May Milton was cut out of the painting – maybe for commercial purposes. It seems that the melding of these classes of people was not something that could be easily sold.
Because of my own practice, I have an interest in the complicated and sometimes contradictory nature of artists’ relationships to their subjects and At the Moulin Rouge is at the center of this dynamic that continues to compel me as well as many other writers and critics (Kehinde Wiley’s 2015 Brooklyn Museum exhibition review in the Village Voice is a great example).
We move quickly through influences as young artists, and have voracious appetites for work and artists who compel us. Some stick with us throughout our varied life experiences and travels. If we reflect on our interests long enough (and have the opportunity) we can begin to reimagine and make sense of some of those early, initial attractions. Thinking about painting reveals that there is always more than what is on the surface and the painting changes the viewer in this respect. The poet Rilke puts it this way:
…For here there is no place that does not see you.
You must change your life*(2).
*1) Rediscovering Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s “At the Moulin Rouge” Author(s): Reinhold Heller and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Source: Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Vol. 12, No. 2, The Helen Birch Bartlett Memorial Collection (1986), pp. 114-135 Published by: The Art Institute of Chicago
*(2)”Archaic Torso Of Apollo” – Poem by Rainer Maria Rilke