At the Moulin Rouge: The Dance (1890) by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, French, 1864 - 1901Philadelphia Museum of Art
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born in 1864, the son of minor aristocrats, and lived during a golden era of Parisian leisure. He showed a great talent for art from an early age and was encouraged by his parents, who hoped he would become a respected painter.
Instead, Toulouse-Lautrec was drawn to the seedy side of Parisian life. Working as a painter, printmaker, illustrator, and caricaturist he captured the decadent, provocative spirit of the belle epoque; nightclubs, brothels, bars, and cabarets.
In 1899 the Moulin Rouge cabaret opened. It soon became the favorite club of many artists, including Toulouse-Lautrec, who made advertisement posters and paintings of the club in exchange for a reserved table and free drinks.
The Moulin Rouge was a transgressive space where artists and poets mixed with aristocrats and prostitutes, absinthe and champagne flowed, and dances such as the 'Can-Can' and the 'Cha-U-Kao'.
This painting At the Moulin Rouge: The Dance depicts a typical night on the dance floor. The scene is centred on the two women: one flaunting her ankles to her male partner…
…the other stands back, alone in her hat and fur collar. Beside her stands another woman, her face obscured.
Their identities are uncertain, but it's supposed that the lady in pink is an aristocrat accompanied by a chaperone, while the hatless woman is one of the club's notorious dancers.
The view places us on the dance floor, watching these two very different woman from afar.
Meanwhile, the caricatured faces of the clientele suggest all of society has gathered here to frolic and to find someone for the night…
Interior of a Brothel in Yoshiwara (around 1811) by Katsushika HokusaiKobe City Museum
Meanwhile, in Japan. This five panel, panoramic woodblock print by the 19th-century artist Hokusai depicts the interior of a brothel in Yoshiwara, the red light district of Edo, modern-day Tokyo.
Hokusai excelled at this kind of picture, known as ukiyo-e, or 'images of the floating world', a term that described the transitory, pleasure-driven culture of Edo.
Like Toulouse-Lautrec, Hokusai tells the story of a night at the bustling pleasure house. But in this case, we see everything that's going on…
Society men and women gather to drink tea, read poetry, and talk pleasantly.
Servants prepare hot food and boozy drinks for the waiting guests…
…and people enter private rooms for more intimate encounters.
Hokusai pays particular attention to the women's fashionable costumes, lavishly decorated with geometric patterns, and their hair, rolled and pinned into place.
He was a master of observation. It's the details and the individuality in their dresses and in their manners that bring this everyday scene to life.
The similarities in the subject and style of these two artists is more than a coincidence. Hokusai was a near contemporary of Toulouse-Lautrec, and by the late 19th Century his prints were very popular in Europe - part of a wider fashion for all things Japanese.
What they saw as the exoticism of the East appealed to the bohemian western artists, who sought ways of living outside of the social norms of Europe. For them, Japan was a land of aesthetic refinement and unbridled pleasure.