Cinema Revival 2020: Toulouse-Lautrec in John Huston's Moulin Rouge

Lauren M. Caskey

Feb 20, 2020

Two male and two female dancers in vintage dress face the camera with smiles and arms spread wide in a still from the 1952 John Huston film Moulin Rouge

In the 1952 film Moulin Rouge, director John Huston brings la vie de bohème of artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec to the big screen. As we prepare to present a newly restored version as part of Cinema Revival, Lauren Caskey, an assistant in the Wex's Education department, took the opportunity to consider the movie from an art historical perspective.

(Warning: spoilers ahead)

Fittingly, John Huston’s Moulin Rouge opens with a display of spectacle, artistic aspiration, and a depiction of the delightfully seedy nature of the Parisian underground. While these aspects are often associated with late nineteenth-century French society in general, in art-historical circles they are most frequently connected to the eccentric artist Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. In the film, Moulin Rouge, viewers are immersed within the epoch’s popular café concert and surrounding art culture through the gas-lit lens of Toulouse-Lautrec.

German movie poster for the 1952 release of John Huston's Moulin Rouge, an illustration of a man in a suit and top hat drawing a can can dancer, done in the style of artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec

German original theatrical poster for Moulin Rouge, illustrated in the style of Toulouse-Lautrec's 1891 work Moulin Rouge: La Goulue


The film opens mid-dance performance at popular Parisian concert hall the Moulin Rouge. Located on the boulevard de Clichy in the 18th arrondissement of Paris, the Moulin Rouge was one of several entertainment venues that grew in notoriety toward the end of the century. These over-the-top performance spaces featured dancers, vocalists, actors, and sometimes acrobats—many of whom achieved celebrity status during the fin-de-siècle. Huston’s Moulin Rouge showcases Jane Avril (Zsa Zsa Gábor), Louise Weber (Katherine Kath), and Valentine le Désossé (Walter Crisham), in particular, because their prominence in café concerts were memorialized in paintings and lithographs by Toulouse-Lautrec.

In fact, the film’s opening scene deliberately reproduces Toulouse-Lautrec’s famous image entitled Moulin Rouge: La Goulue. Huston immerses the film audience into the exact performance captured by the artist’s print, while simultaneously exposing them to the moment of inspiration. Through editing and various cropped shots, viewers take the point-of-view of Toulouse-Lautrec as the artist’s hands transform the live performers into caricatures on the paper before him. 

A colorful image of can can dancers kicking black-stockinged legs high, exposing frilly petticoats in a scene from John Huston's 1952 film Moulin Rouge

Soon after, Maurice Joyant, a gallery owner and friend of the artist, joins Toulouse-Lautrec at the table with news of a potential buyer for the latter’s artwork. However, this exchange is cut short by several other interactions which foreshadow the artist’s own historical distractions—a female muse, artistic success, and the struggle to find acceptance.

The Moulin Rouge was Toulouse-Lautrec’s hangout and a part of the Parisian demi-monde, a French term meaning “half-world” invented by the author and playwright Alexandre Dumas (fils) to describe a portion of Parisian society that rejected traditional bourgeois values. Again, the personalities Toulouse-Lautrec came into contact with became the subjects of his work. Yet they and the darker side of Parisian society that the artist aimed to represent were significantly different from the people and places of his upbringing. Toulouse-Lautrec was born to an aristocratic family and, ironically, their ill-acceptance of his career choice was only magnified by the artist’s physical disabilities, which many scholars attribute to the family’s history of marriage to insufficiently distant relatives. Nevertheless, Toulouse-Lautrec, like many other Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists, found an aberrant sense of belonging among the performers and patrons of the demi-monde café-concert. Those within the demi-monde were often steeped in alcohol and drug use, prostitution, and gambling. Though this extravagant behavior was clearly a coping mechanism for the artist’s familial and physical difficulties, it ultimately led to the demise of Toulouse-Lautrec and many of his avant-garde colleagues. Fortunately, however, the artist’s time within the demi-monde allowed him to produce an iconic body of work.

Huston’s film foregrounds Toulouse-Lautrec’s relationships with three women—Marie Charlet, a Montmartre prostitute and one of his early love interests; Jane Avril, the French can-can dancer and singer popularized within Lautrec’s posters; and Myriamme Hayam, a fictionalized hybrid of upper-class female models the artist encountered during his prime.  

Though little is known about the actual Marie-Charlet, her presence in the film is representative of a broader tendency by artists at the time to utilize prostitutes as models. It is commonly held that the semi-nude woman depicted in La Toilette is Marie-Chalet. She sits hunched over on the floor, auburn hair tied at the base of her neck. A black stocking hangs loosely around her right calf and a blue-grey sheet covers her waist. A small bathtub is situated in front of her slightly to the left. Huston reaffirms the belief that this woman is Marie-Charlet when, in the film, the character exclaims to Henri, “Oh! You have a bathtub!” upon visiting his apartment for the first time. 

A female model in white blouse and purple skirt sits and looks at the portrait of her being painted by an artist in straw hat and white coat with his back to the camera in a scene from John Huston's 1952 film Moulin Rouge

The café-concert not only provided artists with inexpensive models, but it also provided wealthy bourgeois men with the opportunity to proposition lower-class women for sexual favors. This type of encounter was so common, that Toulouse-Lautrec’s contemporary, Édouard Manet, depicted it in A Bar at the Folies-Bergère, a painting that Huston recreated in the film. Manet shows a young woman behind a café-concert bar in the center of the composition. The mirror behind her reveals that a bourgeois man wearing a suit and top hat has approached the counter. One could assume by the look on the young woman’s face that she is rather detached from the patron’s request for her services. Though obtaining a refreshment could provide the man with some pretext, Manet has deliberately positioned the bartender in the free space among the counter’s wares. Her corseted waist and golden-brown hair echo the champagne bottles for sale on her right. 

In the film, however, it is Toulouse-Lautrec who approaches the counter. He has returned to the Moulin Rouge after a long absence with a poster for the café. Charles Zidler, the venue’s owner, Jane Avril, the Moulin Rouge headliner, and the dancer Valentine le Désossé join the artist at the bar to view the new advertisement. Zidler worriedly comments on the poster’s unconventionality, but Lautrec responds that its novelty was intentional. The 1891 lithograph demonstrates what would become the artist’s characteristic style—exaggerated silhouettes, awkward poses, and swaths of color separated by strong outlines. The acidic palette and humorous composition varied significantly from more normative poster designs—such as those by Jules Chéret

A head-and-shoulders group image of four individuals—three men and one woman—huddling around a poster seen from behind in a scene from John Huston's 1952 film Moulin Rouge

Lautrec’s poster suggests the darker side of the Parisian demi-monde, while Chéret’s poster of the same subject displays a more playful and fantastical evening. Chéret’s smiling acrobats are replaced with a queue of shadowy figures and strangely proportioned dancers. This style was polarizing for the time; yet it gained traction among the Parisian avant-garde, specifically among those advocating for the fine art potential of lithography. Huston references this evolution in poster style by showing Lautrec walk past a boulevard full of Chéret-inspired posters at the beginning of the film and having the artist stop and look at his own poster toward the end.

Despite Toulouse-Lautrec’s artistic success in portraying the Parisian demi-monde, he continued to struggle with its vices. Throughout the film, the viewer is reminded that the artist’s on-going struggle with acceptance was nursed by alcohol abuse and volatile relationships until his death. In the film’s closing scene, however, Huston surrounds the artist with memories of the Moulin Rouge—positioning the café-concert and its community as his true family.