The Ghost’s Appeal: Man’s Interest in the Superficial in Toulouse-Lautrec’s At the Moulin-Rouge

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The Ghost’s Appeal: Man’s Interest in the Superficial in Toulouse-Lautrec’s At the Moulin-Rouge

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s famous painting, At the Moulin-Rouge, combines striking coloring with abnormal lighting to create a work that addresses men’s superficial interest in women. The dark scene depicted in the painting includes ten people scattered about a restaurant. In the center, two women and three men sit casually around a table while the background portrays two men and a woman peering into mirrors; a second woman (in the foreground) observes the situation. The most arresting aspect of the picture is the dominating, pale face of a woman in the right foreground of the picture. A careful analysis of the painting begins with the study
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This leaves the women looking like actresses preparing for a performance. Enhancing this feeling are both the hair-fixing scene in the mirror and the dramatic pose which occurs in the background. Even the seated woman’s facial expression appears artificial and exaggerated. So the lighting, combined with pose and facial expression, depicts the women as actresses simply putting on an act.

Toulouse-Lautrec again uses color and contrast in making the women appear ghost-like. Most obviously, the previously discussed issue of lighting causes their faces to appear pale. When displayed on a canvas filled with dingy hues, the white stands out and highlights their ghostliness. Beyond that, the women seem merely painted over the original scenery. It feels as though a piercing stare will cut right through the women and reveal the wood floor. This impression is accomplished, in part, by uniting a wrinkle in the foreground character’s dress with a line in the floorboard. Even more strikingly, the dress of the woman posing in the background virtually fades into the floor. These effects drain the women of their substance, enhancing the feeling that they are simply paint on canvas—nothing more. In short, Toulouse-Lautrec curiously bestows a ghostly essence to his female characters.

This careful study of Toulouse-Lautrec’s portrayal of women allows insight into his theme for the painting. As shown earlier, these women form a striking combination of actress

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