Bal Du Moulin De La Galette Analysis: An Impressionist Masterpiece Renoir Painted on Spot

Bal Du Moulin De La Galette (Dance at Le moulin de la Galette) analysis
Bal Du Moulin De La Galette (Musée d’Orsay version)

For Bal Du Moulin De La Galette (Dance at Le moulin de la Galette) analysis we need to know the context and history of the making of this masterpiece. It is to know that this art remains a masterpiece and become one of the most expensive paintings in the world. This work is undoubtedly Renoir’s most important work in the mid-1870s and was exhibited at the exhibition of the Impressionist group of 1877. The study of the moving crowd in both natural and artificial light is treated with vibrant and colorful touches. The feeling of a certain dissolution of forms was one of the causes of the negative reactions of the critics of the time.

Historical Context of Bal Du Moulin De La Galette

According to the testimony of Georges Rivière, a friend and an occasional model for Renoir, the painting was painted “entirely on the spot”, in 1876. Pierre-Auguste Renoir visited this place during the dance in a tavern in Montmartre. Apparently, it took its name from one of the last remaining mills on the Butte.

Many windmills have punctuated life on the Butte since the Middle Ages. A sort of large hangar, the Moulin de la Galette was one of the many taverns. It took off as the entertainment industry and the leisure age developed, and where one could dance on Sundays, from 3 p.m., and until nightfall, eating pancakes. The joyful atmosphere of freedom and pleasure then attracted the bohemian and the artists who found non-professional models there. The common people liked to be entertained there, but also the bourgeois came to slaughter.

On a Sunday afternoon, the inhabitants of the district and many painters gathered to dance. After Renoir had decided to attend this popular entertaining event. At each auspicious occasion, the painter’s friends helped him transport his canvas from his studio in rue Cortot. 

Bal Du Moulin De La Galette Analysis

Renoir’s Friends are The Models of the Painting

Meticulously elaborated on the basis of numerous preparatory studies and two overall sketches, this complex composition features multiple characters in motion. Among these, it is possible to recognize the writer Georges Rivière, the painters Franc-Lamy and Goeneutte seated in the foreground, with the models Jeanne and Estelle around grenadine glasses. Among the dancers of the second painting, the painters Cordey, Gervex, and Pedro Vidal are busy dancing with Margot, as well as the journalist Paul Lhote and Pierre-Eugène Lestringuez, a friend from the youth of Renoir.

At Van Dongen, you can only guess the crowd. The artist prefers to focus on two couples in the foreground, which echo those of Renoir. But their attitudes and gestures are more eloquent, and the framing itself is more meaningful. The impression of grace and ardent naivety that permeates Renoir’s work here gives way to more assertive flirtations. This entire gathering raised a question, weren’t these popular balls also the occasion to meet prostitutes?

Analysis of The Color and Lighting of Bal Du Moulin De La Galette

For the first time, in this ambitious composition, Renoir transposes the spontaneous technique he has been experimenting with since 1874 into works of a more modest format. The study of light reflections and colored shadows has been engaging here on a large scale. Here he seeks to translate the effects of a complex light, filtered by the foliage of acacias.

Similarly, the painting also engraves splashing round spots on the canotiers of the dancers. The forehead of the dancer on the left, the black jacket of the character sitting with his back in the foreground. All these are filtered by vegetation and the sun which determines zones of varying light intensities, in particular on the faces and clothes. These effects are rendered by juxtaposed keys, clearly visible, which unify the whole in a vast colored vibration.

In addition, the canvas gives off a sensitive impression of freshness and joy, obtained by the play of light colors and by the smiles that animate the faces. Finally, the unity of the whole is due to the mobility of light, distributed in pink, yellow, and blue spots on the dresses, the boaters, or the ground. The resulting impression of the “fluttering” of light reproduces the light effects observed in the open air.

In one as in the other canvas, the colors are posed by free, visible, sensual touches. However, they are wider and thicker with Van Dongen, but also livelier, more exalted (the pinks turning red, and the blues turning black), and they perfectly correspond to the fawn aesthetic, of which he was a great representative.

The Canvas

Renoir’s work is the largest and most ambitious of his Impressionist period. By its theme, it is part of the suite of guinguettes on the banks of the Seine, where bears witness to the pictorial research dictated by the impressionist technique.

Despite a large number of characters, Renoir’s composition is solidly built around a large diagonal that separates the background of the foreground. The space of the dance form that of the young drinkers seated at the tables to the right.

Locations of Exhibition and The Success of Bal Du Moulin De La Galette

Renoir painted two almost identical versions of the “Moulin de la Galette”. They are in the collection of the Musée d’Orsay, a museum in Paris, and that of the John Hay Whitney collection. The first was bought by Gustave Caillebotte during the Third Impressionist Exhibition in 1877. On Caillebotte’s death, the French State received the painting as a bequest. After that, it was exhibited at the Musée du Luxembourg, and later it was transferred to the Louvre. Shortly after it was in the Jeu de Paume and then it is permanently displayed in the Musée d’Orsay. 

Bal Du Moulin De La Galette John Hay Whitney Version
Bal Du Moulin De La Galette (John Hay Whitney Version)

The exhibition of the painting in 1883 and 1892, and Renoir at Durand-Ruel, confirmed his success. And, when this painting arrived at the Luxembourg Museum in 1896, with all the paintings bequeathed to the State by the painter Gustave Caillebotte, it saw itself unanimously described as a “masterpiece”.

Bal Du Moulin De La Galette Took Over Impressionist Criticism

During its presentation at the third exhibition of the Impressionist group, in 1877, refractory critics did not fail to deride this painting. The Universal Monitor wondered how dancers could evolve on “a ground like those purplish clouds which obscure the sky on a stormy evening”. But the painting, praised by Émile Zola, was also the object of several laudatory reviews, such as that of Gustave Geffroy. He wrote in 1883,

“The Moulin de la Galette is one of those complete summaries of vital observation and of the light atmosphere: the exhilaration of the dance, the noise, the sun, the dust of an open-air party, excitement of the faces, letting go of the poses, a rhythm in which the pink dresses turn and stop, light blue, dark blue, black, a movement of passion, a winning shadow, a running fire, pleasure and fatigue, all the poor heroines of romance with fine faces, expressive hands, lightly soaring attitudes, or weary, who express hope, drunkenness, abandonment, fierce boredom.”

Like the public, many critics were baffled by the fluid forms and unusual lighting effects that characterize this painting. One of them even makes fun of the characters “who dance on the ground like those clouds which obscure the sky on a stormy day”. The critic Charles O’Squarr, on the other hand, enthusiastically defends Renoir’s masterpiece saying that “The painter has very exactly made the whole showy and slightly unkempt of this tavern”.

Renoir’s canvas deliberately takes a positive point of view. Everything contributes to expressing the joy and gaiety which have earned the artist the title of “painter of happiness”. Contrary to Van Dongen’s canvas, it is a good-natured atmosphere that prevails here. At the latter, the atmosphere is more rascal, but also more sensual. It gives a glimpse of other aspects of these popular balls (prostitution, which implies illness, poverty, etc.), aspects which Toulouse-Lautrec or Picasso also had to focus on.

Whatever the approach, these paintings sing of a bygone era of a Montmartre whose low rents attract artists and the bohemian like Delacroix, Renoir, Berlioz, Nerval, Gautier, etc. On the other hand, the prostitutes made the Butte a tumultuous neighborhood. Many cabarets open their doors there. These names remain synonymous with the heyday of the Butte before it was eclipsed by Montparnasse.