Cabaret Culture: Discovering Montmartre

When Lautrec discovered Montmarte he found not only a new and exciting repository of subject-matter, but also a way of life. Montmartre had become popular with artists as a cheap place to live and work, and provided a fascinating subject for Lautrec – he had found his ‘promised land’.

The artist’s great contribution to nineteenth century French art was his choice of subjects from popular culture and the infamous nightspots of Paris. His subjects performed in a world where the distinctions were blurred between entertainer and spectator, the working class and the aristocracy; and in the case of Lautrec's own work between high and low art.

The characters depicted by Lautrec were the inhabitants of the Parisian demi-monde. Aristide Bruant, the singer songwriter and impresario, La Goulue the Moulin Rouge dancer of the lewd chahut, Yvette Guilbert, who sang the haunting songs of desperate people, and Jane Avril, with her ethereal dynamic dancing: all thrilled audiences with their performances and enthralled Lautrec.

Though he was to struggle with poor health, Lautrec remained a prodigious artist as well as a dominating figure in the French art world. He was a well educated, widely known and much loved character with a lively wit and entertaining personality. In the words of Jules Renard, a friend and collaborator from Lautrec’s La Revue blanche days: ‘The more one sees him … the taller he grows’.

Image detail: Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec La Goulue entering the Moulin Rouge [La Goulue entrant au Moulin Rouge] 1892
The Museum of Modern Art, New York Gift of Mrs David M. Levy