When wandering among the crowd of the Parisian night life, performing the duties of a flâneur, one will almost certainly be bound to run into some strange people. This is true of contemporary times, and it was true back in the 1880s and 1890s. You stepped into a strange environment (or at least, what seemed strange) when walking into a night club within the less reputable districts of the city, and as the given painter of Modern life, the artist must portray this side to society as well as the more commonly seen subjects. Henri Toulouse-Lautrec was just such a figure. Standing at just four and a half feet tall, Toulouse-Lautrec was a midget whose physical disabilities inspired him to seek a career in art. But his art tapped into a newly developing style that would eventually break away from Impressionism and extend to Post-Impressionism and Art Nouveau. His art style took inspiration from the Modern art theories of Charles Baudelaire and Édouard Manet and further implemented influences from Japonism and Bohemianism in addition to the established Impressionistic approaches to subject matter. He was another one of the artists who adopted the flâneur lifestyle, and it took him to places like the Moulin Rouge in Paris.
Prostitutes, criminals, freaks—a host of odd characters would flock to these night clubs and brothels where Toulouse-Lautrec spent his time observing the people and environment around him for his art. The late Victorian brothels and pleasure houses were strange places indeed. Here one could be introduced to new phenomena of Modern life, to drunkenness, prostitution, gambling, lesbianism, drug use, crime, and no telling what else. This had grown to become a staple part of public society by the late 1800s, and artists like Toulouse-Lautrec were among the first to publish on a blatantly open and deliberate level graphic images of these aspects to Modern society, his observations as a flâneur. And he found a level of honesty within the society of alcoholics, scoundrels, and whores, and he also discovered a world of constant energy and variability. (A character in Dostoevsky expresses it in his confession: "I like the public, even the cancan public.") The sociology of this sect of the public breathed fashion, commercialism, and an independent style of etiquette and patois all its own. This inspired Toulouse-Lautrec to paint his canvases with a vibrant style that was outspokenly distinctive and unique. He often drew with pastels and chalk in addition to oil paints, and instead of traditional canvases he frequently chose to use paper or cardboard. His art is about style, the style to convey the manner of characters he portrays.
In this painting of the Moulin Rouge (a newly opened cabaret that the artist frequented) Toulouse-Lautrec characterizes his subjects through his style. Wavy lines convey a sense of erraticism that describes each of the figures' often vibrant and changeable personalities. Scribbled and undefined lines and outlines express the people's ambivalent personalities and natures. They are painted stylistically because these people are all about style. Their expensive frock coats and ornate hats which communicated to the fashion of their time was now a chief element the artist needed to convey through his medium. How else does one paint style except stylistically? In relaying his observations as a flâneur Toulouse-Lautrec had to develop a style that matched the stylishness of the people he observed. This is the Impressionistic approach he took to his subject matter, and because his adopted techniques became so stylistic, his art quickly began to deviate from realism.
This was, after all, a bizarre world of strange people and peculiar places. Here the artist has painted the Moulin Rouge with warm golds and cozy browns to communicate the warmth and perhaps stuffiness of the crowded nightclub, but he has also contrasted that with muddy greens and murky turquoises to make the place seem slightly less inviting. A circle of friends and acquaintances sits around a table, each as uniquely distinguishing as the next. Some have been given richly colored faces, some sickly colored faces, and some pale. And notice the woman walking toward us in the immediate foreground on the right. She is one of the cabaret performers. Toulouse-Lautrec has given her face a ghastly appearance, being characterized most bizarrely and almost unsettlingly by the lighting of the nightclub. She looks green and quite menacingly alien. Her presence seems to convey the notion that we're not in Kansas anymore (maybe because she vaguely resembles the Wicked Witch of the West—ha!) and that we are entering a mysterious and strange world when we walk around the crowd of the Modern metropolitan sphere as artists, flâneurs, or even simply as ordinary people. The artist has painted himself at the far right of the table, the man sitting in profile, wearing the top hat, a fitting addition to this scene of social oddballs, strangers, and freaks. But Toulouse-Lautrec, the midget, appears comfortable within the scene; he identifies with this crowd.