Dance at the Moulin de la Galette (1870)
Location Musee d’Orsay, Paris. (Image source: Google Arts and Culture)
The setting is a beautiful Sunday afternoon, rosy cheeked young girls dance with handsome young men as the warm afternoon sun filters through the leaves. Renoir’s loose brushstrokes catch the fleeting play of light that dot the entire canvas to give this impressionist masterpiece a feeling of vibrancy. The crowd is mainly working-class people, many of whom were known to him; fellow artists, writers and models. We can almost hear the flirtatious laughter and the clinking of glasses; the painting is a snapshot of Parisian life in the 1870’s. Undoubtedly, Auguste Renoir was an artistic giant and the ‘Moulin de la Galette’ his most celebrated work. One of the leading artists of the impressionist movement his paintings are infused with color and dazzling light.
The Moulin de la Galette, is named after a windmill on a hill in the Montmartre area of Paris. It was a place where grain was ground and the owners made a flat, round bread out of it called galette, which they served with a glass of milk. The place became so popular with the local folk and the artistic community that the owners decided to start serving wine and converted the place into a guinguette, a place of entertainment where dances were held every Sunday from early afternoon until late into the night.
Renoir has immortalized one such afternoon in his painting, but art is all about perception both from the viewers perspective as well as the artists’ who create it. The creator and viewer bring their own life experiences, their psychological states, culture, gender, political and social viewpoints to the work of art. The Moulin de la Galette was also painted by Vincent Van Gogh, Toulouse Lautrec and Picasso. When put together, it’s extremely fascinating to see how each artist saw the reality of the same place so differently.
Vincent Van Gogh
Le Moulin de la Galette (1886) Location: Neue Nationalalerie,Berlin. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons)
Van Gogh’s Moulin de la Galette is a desolate painting. The broad brushstrokes and thick application of paint (Impasto) create this scene of loneliness. His figures are created out of a few brushstrokes and his limited color palette mainly consists of browns, deep red, black and white.
Van Gogh moved to Paris from Antwerp in February 1886 and lived with his brother Theo. His studio was down the road on rue Lepic, here he created many paintings of the surrounding area including a series on the windmills of the Montmartre area.
Although his Paris years were pivotal for him from an artistic view point, and are viewed as a transitional phase in his art that led to his later unique style, it’s hard to separate his paintings from his troubled mind. Loneliness, bouts of anger and hallucinations remained his constant companions. Three years later he got himself admitted to a mental institution and on the 27th of July 1890 in a field near Auvers, Van Gogh shot himself in the chest and died two days later.
Do watch the Sotheby’s video below to see another masterpiece by Van Gogh from his time in Montmartre.
|Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901)|
Henri de Toulouse- Lautrec’s Moulin de la Galette, doesn’t shy away from the grimmer realities of the dance hall. The seediness of the place, the rugged, tired faces of the shop girls, prostitutes, pimps and labourers; Lautrec is a voyeuristic observer of the scene.
A wooden barrier divides the composition, creating a contrast between the electric atmosphere on the dancefloor and the stillness of the people in the foreground. He made sketches at the dance hall and completed the painting in his studio, the technique of applying a thin layer of paint in washes gives the painting an overall sketchy effect.
An extremely gifted artist, he had to face his share of ridicule and humiliation in his personal life. Born into one of the most prestigious and aristocratic families of France, Toulouse- Lautrec suffered from a genetic disorder (most likely due to family inbreeding) which stunted the growth of his legs. Unfortunately, he also fractured both his femurs and as a result he stood at just four feet eleven inches. In spite of his pedigree, he moved to the Bohemian area of Montmartre, famous for its night life and brothels. A well-known figure in the artistic circles and a close friend of Van Gogh, he immortalized the famous Moulin Rouge through his posters and prints. Eventually, his bohemian lifestyle, opium addiction and alcoholism took a toll on him and he died at his mother’s estate before his thirty-seventh birthday on the 9th of September 1901.
Le Moulin de la Galette (1900) Location: Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, Spain. (Image Source: Gugghenheim.org)
Parisian nightlife in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century was brimming with uninhibited decadence and gaudy glamour of the Belle Epoque. Picasso arrived in Paris in 1900, young, talented and extremely ambitious. An admirer of Toulouse- Lautrec’s work and style, he visited all the famous haunts and bohemian cafes. Picasso’s first painting here as a nineteen-year-old was of the famous dance hall where the Parisian bourgeoise hobnobbed with prostitutes. In his version of the famous Moulin de la Galette, we see a group of fashionable figures, painted in bright colors, an influence perhaps of his Spanish background, you can almost smell the heavy perfume of couples dancing close to each other in the background, a gay couple in the foreground, the faces, without expression are masked behind garish makeup. The painting with its blurry style is full of movement and color.
While we all have our individual viewpoints when engaging with a work of art, and there is always space for different perspectives and discussion, engaging with the mind of the artist, his or her influences in the creative process and how it interacts with our own life is always enriching. Which of the four paintings do you relate to the most and why?
Today the windmill still stands tall and the Moulin de la Galette is a chic restaurant with a terrific menu according to the review in ‘The Good Life France.’ Seen through the eyes of four different artists, in their own unique styles we don’t get just a glimpse into the lives of the common Parisian folk of that time but also an understanding of the influences and struggles of each artist who captured this famous dance hall on the top of a hill in Montmartre for eternity.