A study in three parts; "The Dancer", "The
Venue", and "The Poster"
1. The rise and fall of La Goulue
"Once La Goulue or 'the glutton' (Louise Weber,
1870-1929) was the most outrageous dancer of the day, her name synonymous with
the Moulin Rouge nightclub. A provincial girl from Alsace who became the shameless
queen of Montmarte.
She appeared at the Moulin Rouge when it first opened
and danced the chalut (a form of Cancan) with her long-limbed partner, Jacques
Renaudin, a wine merchant by day who at night became Valentin le Decosse, literally
translated as 'Valentin the boneless'.
She earned her nickname by her habit
of draining glasses dry in bars. Brought up by a laundress mother, her greatest
pleasure consisted of trying on the fine clothing of the customers. At sixteen
she took a job in a laundry. Her mind, however, was focused on dancing. Without
her mother's knowledge she borrowed garments left by customers and made her entrance
each evening at the local dance halls.
Distinguishing herself not only as
a dancer but also as a laughing, extroverted high stepper, she soon attracted
attention. She fell in love with the painter Auguste Renoir who introduced her
to 'la louee', a popular group of models who posed nude for many artists. Through
these connections she found her way to more increasingly fashionable clubs. When
Joseph Oller met her, he immediately engaged her to dance 'the grand quardrille'
at the Moulin Rouge. Thus she rose from anonymity to become the queen of Parisian
She danced on tables, displayed the heart embroidered on her
drawers, and removed gentleman's hats with her toe at the end of her gallop. For
this she earned about 800 francs a month, not counting her touring fees. Soon
a wealthy woman with a home in Montmarte and a carriage of her own, she considered
herself very much the reigning queen. By 1895 she was thoroughly bored, and announced
her departure from the Moulin Rouge to set up her own business. She invested an
enormous sum in a fairground booth and decided to specialize in belly dancing.
She believed that Paris would continue to come to her, but was disappointed in
the response. La Goulue without Moulin Rouge was a failure.
Her fall was
as spectacular as her rise. She drank more and spent the rest of her fortune in
high living and foolish business investments, including a partnership in an animal-taming
act. Alcoholic, homeless, and old before her time, in 1925 she was found toothless
and white-haired in Neuilly-sur-Marne. She returned to Montmarte in 1928 selling
peanuts, cigarettes, and matches on the streets near the Moulin Rouge. No one
recognized the former beauty queen. She died in 1929, telling a priest that she
was La Goulue" (La Goulue, Article; San Diego Museum of Art)
2. The Moulin Rouge (The Venue) "On October
5, 1889, the Moulin Rouge opened as the 'rendez-vous du high life' at the foot
of Montmarte. At once it's illuminated windmill vanes became a landmark, rotating
above rooftops on the boulevard de Clichy.
A combined dance hall and cabaret,
it housed a big dance floor, mirrored walls, and a fashionable gallery lit by
round glass globes of gas lamps mounted throughout the interior. In the garden
were an outdoor stage and an enormous wooden elephant, with interior stairs leading
to a glass-enclosed howdah, tame monkeys and donkeys that ladies would ride after
removing their stockings.
Masked balls were featured on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
The music was a brassy accompaniment to various new forms of the risque Cancan
which shocked some visitors. Professional dancers appeared on the floor described
in the '1898 Guide des Plaisirs á Paris' as 'a host of young girls who
are there to demonstrate the heavenly Parisian Chahut dance as its traditional
with a physical elasticity as they do the splits, which
promises just as much flexibility in their morals.' Now and then, a representative
from the police moral squad had to be on the watch to be sure the chahuteuses
(Cancan dancers) were wearing underwear. The most famous of the nightclub's dancers
were Jane Avril and La Goulue " (The Moulin Rouge, Article; San Diego Museum
3. "Moulin Rouge" by Toulouse-Lautrec (The Poster)
Toulouse-Lautrec started learning the art of lithography, he mentioned it to Charles
Zidler, the director of the Moulin Rouge, who immediately offered to let him prepare
a new poster of the caberet, to replace Cheret's which had been in use for two
years (see PL.53). The artist rose to the occasion, with
the result that the first poster as well as the first lithograph he ever made
(he was 27 years old) turned out to be his biggest, best and most successful.
It extended his already considerable fame beyond the confines of the art circles
to the broadest cross section of the public, and made him an instant popular celebrity.
Moulin Rouge is, indeed, a masterpiece in every respect. It not only captures
the characteristics of our two subjects, La Goulue the dancer and Valentin Le
Desosse, her partner, but it also instantly explains the very heart of the cancan.
The dazzle of the petticoats, which Toulouse-Lautrec creates simply by leaving
the paper blank. Nothing could be more direct or more illuminating. The artist
gets his point across with an impact no passer-by could resist. In his first lesson,
Toulouse-Lautrec grasps the quintessence of poster language: Catch attention,
speak forcefully, deliver the message"(Wine