The central characters in the present work are two stars of the Moulin Rouge, the cabaret in Pigalle close to Montmartre. Silhouetted in the foreground is Jacques Renaudin (1843-1907), known as Valentin, le désossé, literally ‘the boneless’, so-called because of the elasticity of his articulations. Beyond him, the center of attention, is La Goulue, ‘the glutton’, born Louise Weber (1866-1929), who rose from an impoverished background to become the highest paid performer in Paris. Her stage-name refers to her habit of draining patrons’ drinks in one draught whilst she danced amongst the tables, whilst her party-piece was said to be flipping the top hats off their heads with the toe of her boot.
Valentin and La Goulue are shown dancing the chahut, an extreme and risqué form of the Can-can. The dance is famous for the liberal use of high-kicks, focusing the audience’s attention on the female dancer’s voluminous underskirts. Lautrec makes these the focus of the poster, yet, skillfully, he leaves this area un-printed, allowing the white paper beneath to create a spot-lit effect. The silhouetted figures who form the frieze-like background are loosely derived from Japanese woodcuts (popular at the time), and from the shadow-plays (ombres chinoises) enacted at the Chat Noir cabaret and elsewhere.
The deceptively simple design was the product of extensive preparatory work, and the result is thoroughly modern. Whereas similar posters by Jules Cheret and other contemporaries traditionally depicted scantily clad dancers appealing directly to the viewer, with the implication that he (for the paying patrons were overwhelmingly male) would be the center of attention. Lautrec however, employs a subtler approach. Neither of the main characters make eye contact with the observer. Instead we are positioned at the edge of the dance-floor and almost have to peer round Valentin to see the star turn. The implication here is that the party is already underway – and wouldn’t we like to join in? Since the target audience was in part wealthy Parisians who were titillated at the prospect of mixing with the demi-monde, this voyeuristic approach was particularly well-chosen. In a further departure from accepted practice, Lautrec took pains to identify the central characters as real people, not generic characters. Valentin’s elongated profile with aquiline nose and prominent chin was instantly recognizable, whilst La Goulue was said to be better-known than the President of the Republic, allowing Lautrec to identify her with the minimum of detail.
Moulin Rouge – La Goulue was produced at a time of poster mania in Paris. A whole industry of print workshops and supporting trades had sprung up, with an elaborate distribution system ensuring that the city resembled an ever changing gallery of advertising art showcasing the products of industry and entertainment. Whilst the majority of posters were employed as intended and pasted on to walls, they were also appreciated as works of art in their own right and dealers specializing in them soon appeared. Examples meant for sale in this fashion were mounted on canvas, and this explains how some at least in good condition have come down to us a century later. However, some collectors sought to avoid the dealers by employing boys to follow the bill posters around town at night, carefully peeling them off the walls before the glue dried.
Moulin Rouge – La Goulue was an instant success – not just with the many critics who had recently begun to review posters, but in terms of its commercial effectiveness. It demonstrated Lautrec’s instinctive grasp of the fundamentals of poster design, which was that the target audience should know in an instant what was being promoted and why it should appeal to them.