Painted in 1876, Bal du Moulin de la Galette (or Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette) is one of the most famous impressionist paintings of all time.
Created by Pierre Auguste Renoir, the painting represents a Sunday afternoon spent by patrons at the Moulin de la Galette. Situated near the top of the Montmartre district in Paris, this seventeenth century windmill was a popular bar and restaurant.
Indeed, towards the end of the nineteenth century, establishments such as this were enormously popular. Various classes of French society mixed together, with working classes rubbing shoulders with creatives and elites.
Everyone dressed-up in their finest clothes, dancing, drinking and dining late into the evening. One of the most popular dishes was (unsurprisingly) galettes. A form of round pastry or pancake pie usually with a savory or fruit filling, it’s common all over France.
Frequented by much of the Parisian avant-garde, other artists such as Vincent van Gogh, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Camille Pissarro also painted the iconic building. For instance, it appears in Van Gogh’s Moulin de la Galette (1886) as well as Pablo Picasso’s Le Moulin de La Galette (1900).
Stylistically, the work is incredibly similar to other early Pierre Auguste Renoir paintings. In terms of meaning, it simply reflects the artist’s interest in portraying a true snapshot of everyday life.
The colors are light and bright, the people smiling and crowded into the space. The painting’s rich forms, full composition, fluid brushstrokes and flickering sun-filled effects, reflect other Renoir masterpieces of this period. Perhaps his best-known light-filled creation is Le Déjeuner des Canotiers (Luncheon of the Boating Party) painted in 1881.
Intriguingly, Renoir also painted a smaller version of the artwork. Both depicting dancing at the Moulin de la Galette, the two versions are almost entirely identical in their color and composition.
Despite this, the smaller version is much more fluid and free form, suggesting a quicker artistic study. It is still unknown which painting is the true “original” however.
Indeed, we don’t even know which version first appeared at the “Third Impressionist Exhibition” of 1877. We do know the painting received incredibly favorable reviews from critics and the public alike, though.
Renoir discussed the concept of painting energetic dancing at Le Moulin de la Galette in the spring of 1876. On his reasons for creating the work, he simply aimed to depict the reality and beauty of everyday life.
Amazingly for posterity, Renoir’s friend Georges Rivière described the artwork’s execution in minute detail. In a memoir titled Renoir et ses Amis, Rivière describes how Renoir painted his masterpiece on the spot.
Comically, he also spoke of the wind threatening to blow Renoir’s canvas away multiple times. To perfect the painting, Renoir rented a studio near the windmill. He located an appropriate space in the nearby Rue Cortot; an abandoned cottage with a beautiful park-like garden. Some of the most well-known and popular Renoir paintings were also painted here, including La Balançoire (The Swing).
Painting “en plein air” was a key characteristic of impressionist artists. The movement prioritized the depiction of the effects of light, the passage of time and “ordinary” everyday life subject matter.
Emerging in the early 1870s, Renoir was a key participant and early pioneer of the style. Collaborating with artists such as Claude Monet and Frédéric Bazille, he unceasingly championed their innovative approach.
Renoir’s short “broken” brushstrokes (perfectly exemplified in Bal du Moulin de la Galette) and lack of traditional blending masterfully achieved the sense of flickering light and the heady vibration of Parisian life so prized by impressionist artists.
Renoir painted the artwork to depict contemporary French society in general. Despite this (and likely to save on models’ fees), many of the individuals in the painting were close acquaintances.
In Georges Rivière’s memoirs, he identified many of the sitters.
Renoir tried persuading his favorite model Jeanne Samary (a local sixteen-year-old girl) to pose for the painting. Uninterested, she remained uninvolved. Consequently, Jeanne’s sister Estelle appears as the young girl in a blue and pink striped dress.
The sisters came to Le Moulin every weekend alongside their family. Chaperoned by their mother, the pair enjoyed the festivities and dancing all throughout the warm French summer.
In the group next to Estelle, other identifiable figures include Pierre-Franc Lamy, Norbert Goeneutte and Rivière himself. Goeneutte also features in Renoir’s La Balançoire (The Swing).
Amongst the swirl of dancers behind, other friends of Renoir (including Eugène Pierre Lestringuezand Henri Gervex) appear. Moving further back into the depths of dancers, Don Pedro Vidal de Solares y Cárdenas (a leading Cuban painter) wears striped trousers. He dances with a model named Marguerite Legrand.
Known as Margot, Legrand attempted to entertain surly Solares by dancing energetic polkas and singing risqué local songs. Another favorite model of Renoir, she sadly died just two years after this painting. Renoir helped care for Margot (suffering from typhoid) until her death, paying for both her funeral and hospital treatment.
Even amongst Pierre-Auguste Renoir famous paintings, Bal du Moulin de la Galette is particularly highly prized. Whilst the larger painting remained in France, the smaller version resided with John Hay Whitney (US ambassador to the United Kingdom) for many years.
In 1990, Whitney’s surviving family sold the painting for $78 million at Sotheby’s auction house, New York. Purchased by Ryoei Saito (chairperson of the Daishowa Paper Manufacturing Company in Japan), it was one of the most expensive artworks ever sold.
At the time, the only more expensive artwork was Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr Gachet (also controversially purchased by Saito). Indeed, Saito sparked international outrage when he announced he intended to cremate the two paintings on his death.
Despite this, the paintings were saved when Saito later sold them through Sotheby’s to an unknown Swiss collector.
Today, the larger Bal du Moulin de la Galette resides in Paris.
From 1897 to 1894, Gustave Caillebotte (the French painter and patron of the impressionist movement) owned the painting. On his death, ownership transferred to the French state, in part-payment for estate tax.
Thereafter, the painting hung in the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris until 1929. It moved again to the Musée du Louvre in 1929, where the painting stayed until 1986. From this point onward, the painting hung in the Musée d'Orsay in Paris, where it remains to this day.
Bal du Moulin de la Galette continues as one of the most famous French oil on canvas paintings of the impressionist age. Of course, the artwork is also one of the most loved Pierre Auguste Renoir paintings, providing a fascinating insight into Parisian life and culture at the end of the nineteenth century.
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Pierre-Auguste Renoir was born on 25th February 1841 in Limoges. The Renoir family moved to Paris in 1844 where his father made a living as a tailor. Renoir left school in 1854, and showing great skill for drawing he started work as a porcelain painter where his talent as an artist became apparent. However, the company he worked for went bankrupt in 1858 and it was then that Renoir decided he would become a full time artist.
In 1860 Renoir was given permission to copy Old Masters in the Louvre and in 1861 he attended the school of a Swiss art teacher, Gleyer. It was there that Renoir met Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley and Frederic Bazille and began plein air painting. Renoir oil paintings would later form the Impressionist Art Movement with Monet, Sisley and Bazille.
In 1863 Renoir had his first painting accepted by the Official Salon, Esmeralda Dancing with her Goat, but he destroyed the painting after the exhibition.
Renoir and Monet painted together at La Grenouillere 1869, on the river Seine, in 1869, where both artists concentrated on painting the effects of light and water. Their styles and techniques were almost identical at this time, and in 1874 Renoir participated in the first Impressionist Exhibition with his work La Loge 1874, The Theatre Box, alongside Monet, Sisley, Edgar Degas, Camille Pissarro and Berthe Morisot.
In the 1870’s Renoir was successful in finding patrons for his work, and was backed by Caillebotte and the art dealer Durand-Ruel, as well as collectors such as Choquet, the Charpentiers and the Daidets. A famous portrait of this period is Madame Charpentier and Her Children, 1878, which is a fine example of how Renoir adapted the Impressionist landscape style to portraiture painting.
In the 1880’s and following The Luncheon of the Boating Party 1881, Renoir did not like the direction in which his painting style was heading and he went to Italy for fresh inspiration and finding it in the works of Raphael. With a more precise classical approach, Renoir began what is known as his "dry" period, with works such as The Umbrellas in 1883.
Renoir’s The Wave Seascape is on view at the Art Institute of Chicago. The original was painted in 1879 and is available from our art reproductions on canvas catalog.
In his later career, in the 1890’s, Renoir returned to a more generous and flowing style with works such as Young Girls at the Piano 1892, and Sleeping Bather, 1897 which are considered some of his best.
During the early part of the 1900’s Renoir’s health declined severely; he suffered from rheumatism that crippled his fingers, although he managed to carry on working by tying a paint brush to his hand.
Many popular Renoir paintings are held by the Louvre in Paris, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Gallery in London.
In 1990 Renoir’s painting Bal du Moulin de la Galette 1876 sold for $78,000,000. At that time it was the highest price paid for any Impressionist painting and the third most expensive painting of all time.
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