Degeneration and Absinthe: Henri Toulouse-Lautrec’s At The Moulin Rouge, 1892-5

Between the 18th and 19th centuries, Paris endured many significant changes after the Napoleonic wars. Society underwent a strong change, recreating itself as more modernist in terms of fashion and social life. New areas of Paris, which were not highly considered, became extremely popular at the end of the revolution. Montmartre was an up and coming neighbourhood, which Parisians affiliated with late nights and entertainment; it was apart of the new intense French desire to lead a new life. Part of the novelty, of this post-war world, was the merger of different classes and backgrounds; Montmartre was undefined, open to all. The Moulin Rouge became the most attended venue in Montmartre for several years. Opened in 1889, it was the first-ever club in Paris, a big transition from the day cafes. The nature of the club made its fame thanks to the distinct type of person who would gather there; the type to drink extensive amounts (especially of absinthe), meet, flirt and have sex. The Moulin Rouge quickly became an emblem of alcoholism, especially amongst women.

At The Moulin Rouge, 1892-5, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec.

Absinthe played a large part in the social life in the Moulin Rouge. Parisians began to associate the drink and its drinkers with what they considered wrong with society; it was judged as decadent and degenerative - in particular, criminality, lesbian sex and alcoholism. The new hedonistic culture that took over was seen as the end to the evolution and growth, which had come in conjunction with the end of the French Revolution.

Henri Toulouse-Lautrec was an artist who was part of this "degenerate" society, and would often socialise at the Moulin Rouge. Born in 1864, from the incestuous marriage of two cousins from an aristocratic family, he naturally had some physical defects; the most noticeable being his small stature. Unhelpful to that, when he was a child, he fell off a horse and broke both his legs, causing issues with his growth and resulting in a disproportionate frame. In his adult life, he was associated with the Parisian bohemian lifestyle and frequented brothels; this became subject matter to many of his artworks, before dying at 37 years of age from syphilis.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Paul Sescau. 1894.

It is important to analyse At The Moulin Rouge in both visual and contextual terms. The painting portrays several figures at the club; ten are depicted clearly, and each are involved in conversations and doings. Toulouse-Lautrec painted a bannister at the centre of the artwork and extended it outside of the painting, toward the viewer who is watching the scene. This creates a division between the viewer and the protagonists of the painting: the viewer is not welcome here. The figure on the right is the only one that has an ambiguous relation towards us: although she is on the other side of the bannister, there is not a clear cut division when compared to the other figures. It is as if there were a small opening to this frenzied world. The woman is unsettling; her expression suggests she is not cognizant, and her face is fluorescent green and lit from the bottom as if the absinthe she’s been drinking has taken over her, almost like a demonic act. It is as if Toulouse-Lautrec has included her as a warning, cautioning the viewer to stay distant and removed from the Moulin Rouge, unless they want to end up like her.

Each figure is unique in its physiognomy, of which the majority represent real people. This is perhaps Toulouse-Lautrec’s acquaintances. Throughout his career Toulouse-Lautrec practised the art of caricature, thus explaining why these figures are so recognisable; for example, Jane Avil (at the table on the left-hand side of the painting, recognisable by her red hair), Le Goule (in the central background tying her hair), May Milton (the green-faced lady in the right foreground) and the artist himself (unmistakably the short man on the left behind the table, walking with his cousin, a renown duo).

The colours, the artwork is made of, are primarily green and brown. The two colours contrast and the tonalities, he has chosen, cause unease. The shade of green Toulouse-Lautrec chose, recalls the green of absinthe - an anxious, hallucinogenic colour, the symbol of decadence. The brown, however, creates a warm, happy and inviting atmosphere, contradicting the sickly green. This furthers the notion of the safe distance the viewer must behave towards the painting, as if Toulouse-Lautrec was inviting us, but reinforcing the notion that it would be at our own risk.

Süddeutsche Zeitung. Anonymous. 1986.

At The Moulin Rouge is a realist painting thanks to the focus Toulouse-Lautrec places on modernity. He depicts modernist life in an impressionist manner, all whilst reintroducing the element of intellect by using colours to express emotions. The representation of real people, the expressive lines and brushstrokes he used for their depiction, communicate a lot about them. It is clear he observed them enough to illustrate them without creating doubts about who they are. For example, the woman standing next to Le Goule, who is tying her hair in the background, has a snobbish and arrogant expression, she haughtily holds herself - her flamboyant hat emphasises this notion. Another example is seen in the figures sitting around the table. The woman sitting facing us has a seemingly smug expression, further supported by the two men to her right; the first man’s poignant expression suggests he is apathetic to whatever seemingly inconvenient situation occurred, while the other man's blasé look also has an air of passive frustration. Despite the abundance of his facial hair, Toulouse-Lautrec has successfully transmitted very specific feelings. Every detail is carefully looked after and chosen, elegantly bringing each individual in tandem, making it obvious to the viewer the woman has been winning the game the group has been playing.

Degeneration and absinthe are what drove the Moulin Rouge; it is what people like Toulouse-Lautrec had to price themselves on after essentially facing ostracization from a society that rejected any sort of ‘improper’ person. At The Moulin Rouge demonstrates that the people who frequented it inevitably became a tight-knit group, wary of newcomers who could bring judgement and the lawfulness of Paris, and this is what Montmartre was desperately trying to avoid.


Birnholz, A. Curtis (2021). Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Heller, R. (1986). Rediscovering Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's "At the Moulin Rouge". Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, 12(2), pp.115–135.

Johnson, L. F. (1956). Time and Motion in Toulouse-Lautrec. College Art Journal, 16(1), pp. 13–22.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. (1985). MoMA, 37, pp. 1–3.

Shiff, R. (1988). Art History and the Nineteenth Century: Realism and Resistance. The Art Bulletin, 70(1), 25–48.

Image Sources:

Toulouse-Lautrec, H. (1892-5). At The Moulin Rouge. Sourced from:

Sescau, P. (1894). Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, photo en pied. Sourced from: (1986). Süddeutsche Zeitung Photo editorial archive. Sourced from:!-nur-redaktionelle-verwendung!-image236316257.html

Author Photo

Cosima Franchetti

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