The Moulin Rouge: A Famous French Theater That Held The World's Strangest Artists

By | October 4, 2020

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Moulin Rouge, Paris, April 2011. (Christine Zenino/Wikimedia Commons)

Whether you're a lover of art, dance, or pop musicals, you've probably heard of the famous Moulin Rouge, a popular Parisian cabaret house whose real-life heyday spanned the late 19th to early 20th centuries in an era known as Belle Epoque, or "the beautiful epoch." Originally opened in 1889 by Charles Zidler, the Moulin Rouge was located in Montmartre, a district known for its artistic wonderment and bohemian atmosphere, and with its bright red lights and iconic red windmill roof, it was a pretty easy building to spot. In fact, this establishment was the very first building to receive electricity in the entire city of Paris! While at the time, it was most recognized for inventing the wildly popular burlesque version of the can-can dance, plenty of other amazing art and artists were associated with the establishment.

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Moulin Rouge: La Goulue. (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Wikimedia Commons)

The Stars Of The Moulin Rouge

When it comes to Postimpressionism, you can't do much better than artist and frequent Moulin Rouge patron Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Like many aspiring artists, Toulouse-Latrec moved to Paris at a young age and quickly became enamored with the vibrancy and bohemian feel of the city, but he didn't shy away from its seedier side, often painting portraits of the prostitutes he frequented.

As a result, when the Moulin Rouge reached out for his help with their advertisements, he happily accepted, unlike many other respected artists of the area. Naturally, Toulouse-Lautrec's very first poster for the theater depicted La Goulue, the true star of the Moulin Rouge. The famous performer originally named Louise Weber was a laundry-girl-turned-can-can dancer known for kicking the hats off men in her audience and then downing their drinks when they tried to pick them up. (Some speculate that the can-can originally developed from the dancers' habit of kicking men away when they got too frisky, but the flying skirt action that was a side effect of the dance definitely gave patrons the kind of scandalous entertainment they expected from the Red Mill.)

During her time at the Moulin Rouge, the so-called "Queen of Montmartre" made enough money to develop her own traveling show and left the main stage in 1895. Unfortunately, her show was not successful, and after the death of her only child, she succumbed to alcoholism and died penniless and alone. As for Toulouse-Lautrec, he, too, appreciated the pleasures of the Moulin Rogue a little too much, developing a great fondness for the "green fairy," A.K.A. absinthe, and dying of alcoholism and syphilis at only 36 years old. Still, he is considered one of the greatest artists of 19th-century Europe, and his paintings still sell for tens of millions.