Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec Monfa was born to an aristocratic family in Albi, France (a place I have visited and highly recommend for its spectacular views). He was not, as often thought, a dwarf. He injured his femurs during his teen years, his legs did not develop properly, and ultimately his height reached only 4’8”. He always walked with a cane.
For some reason Toulouse-Lautrec showed an early interest in the seamier side of Paris, and consequently spent most of his adult life in Montmartre, where the seamier of the seamy lived. He regularly frequented night clubs, dance halls, and brothels. and once said that a whore house was the only place in the city where you could get a decent shoe shine. He drank constantly, had terrible hangovers, but every morning was at his easel. No matter how dissipated he became, his genius always shined through.
Toulouse-Lautrec was a competent but relatively unknown painter until 1889 when the Moulin Rouge (“Red Mill”) opened. Its principle dancer was the wild and uninhibited La Goulue (“The Glutton”), whose real name was Louise Weber, known for her high kicks while performing the Cancan. The following year the Rouge owners commissioned him to create a poster advertising their establishment and he decided to execute one featuring La Goulue and her partner, the contortionist, Valentin de Dessosse. Three thousand copies were plastered all over Paris, and Toulouse-Lautrec and La Goulue became famous. La Goulue eventually was the highest paid dancer in Paris, and Toulouse-Lautrec started getting commissions for his work.
For many years the Moulin Rouge was known to be the wildest party in town. Women kicked high, showed their underwear, and sometimes neglected to wear underwear. It became so notorious that the Prince of Wales even reserved a table at the place in 1890 (no doubt at the displeasure of his mother) prompting the effervescent La Goulue to call out, “Hey, Wales, how about some champagne?” The dance floor was something of a free-for-all, with people doing whatever they wished, with extra-curricular activities spilling over into the hallways and outside under the red windmill. The evening officially ended when the female dancers gathered together, linked arms, and provided the patrons with a spirited rendition of the Cancan.
(I found a brief clip of these women, circa 1900 or so, performing the dance dressed in their many petticoats. The images are a bit haunting.)
La Goulue was the queen and lived the part. Toulouse-Lautrec executed many portraits of her and she nearly always is strutting, hand on hip, recognizable by her short, blonde topknot. She was bisexual. During her heyday she lived with another dancer at the Rouge called La Mome Fromage. Their house was pleasant, in a respectable neighborhood, with a nice garden, next door to a priest. La Goulue often laughed at the irony. But when she strolled into the Rouge, every male eye was on her, especially that of Toulouse-Lautrec, who always had his sketch pad with him. La Goulue had what one would call presence, a fact which is clearly revealed in the posters and sketches made a hundred years ago.
One might say Toulouse-Lautrec never met an alcoholic beverage he didn’t like. Beer, wine, champagne, straight or mixed liquor, he imbibed them all. But he was also constantly performing his art, and over a twenty-year career produced 737 canvas paintings, 275 watercolors, 363 prints and posters, and over 5,000 drawings. His posters of the Moulin Rouge are especially notable because they capture the movement and spirit of the era. You almost feel you are there. On the other hand, Toulouse-Lautrec was sensitive to the more humble people performing insignificant tasks. He lived for long periods of time in a brothel where he sketched and painted the prostitutes carrying out their daily chores. These are among his best works. The women called him, affectionately, “Monsieur Toulouse.”
La Goulue was a star at the Rouge for six years but too much beer, food, and the good life caught up with her, and she became overweight. She left and created a one-person traveling show where she danced and used her famous name as a drawing card (Toulouse-Lautrec graciously painted some brilliant stage decorations for her). Unfortunately, the idea didn’t work and eventually she became destitute. La Goulue, once the queen of Montmartre, fell into depression and alcoholism and was reduced to selling peanuts and cigarettes near the same dance club she had done so much to make famous. She died in poverty.
(There is a clip of La Goulue dancing in her old age on YouTube. She is fat and grotesque but still has the incredible grace of a dancer as she demonstrates some of the old moves.)
The owners of the Moulin Rouge could never have imagined their nightclub would still be going strong after a hundred years. Today it is a international destination with spectacular shows produced largely for tourists. There are floor shows and dancing but no Cancan—at least I didn’t see one when I visited the place in the early 1980’s. The show was impressive—most notably a young woman, topless, frolicking with a trained porpoise in a giant water tank built into the stage. I think even La Goulue would have smiled.
A life of dissipation generally catches up with you and it did so with The Master when he was only 36. He died quietly in bed with family members around him, no one realizing how truly famous he would become. The fact is, had it not been for Toulouse-Lautrec, the Moulin Rouge would not exist today and we would never have heard of La Goulue. They were vibrant and alive during his time and they continue to live through his work.