Between the 1870s and 1930s, there was hardly an artist who came to Paris who didn’t fall under the spell of the Moulin de la Galette. Aged, impassive, and positively wooden, it’s not your typical muse, but the mill and the parties which took place in its shadow feature in some of art history’s most beloved paintings.
A little history
Of the Butte Montmartre’s 13 historic mills, only two remain. Collectively, they are known as the Moulin de la Galette. The oldest of the pair, which was built in 1622, is called the Blute-Fin and overlooks Paris from its position above Rue Tholozé. The Radet, which came along in 1717, sits atop the mill’s eponymous restaurant at the crossroads of Rue Lepic and Rue Girardon.
In 1812, Nicolas-Charles Debray purchased the Blute-Fin, its surrounding farm and the Radet, which originally stood on a neighboring property. For a while, Debray put them to their original use, the elder producing flour for the capital’s bakers and the younger grinding grain, until the idea struck him of transforming the Radet into a guinguette. These popular establishments were a mix of restaurant, bar, and dance hall.
By 1834, the Radet was one of the most popular places in Paris, particularly on Sundays and public holidays. Parisians came to savor the freshly baked galettes, sip on Sacalie wine from the local vineyard, and take dance lessons from the miller’s son. The festive atmosphere made it a magnet for local artists, who sought to capture the spirit of Montmartre and of the age.
The windmill’s place in art history
In the latter decades of the 19th century, the Moulin de la Galette became an object of fascination for Paris’ artists, especially those who lived in the artistic community of Montmartre. Some of the biggest names in art history, both from this period and the early 20th century, painted the mills and the lively parties that took place there.
Renoir’s Bal du Moulin de la Galette (1877), considered to be his most important work of the decade and a masterpiece of early Impressionism, fueled artistic interest in the mills. His main aim was to convey the joy and vibrancy of the dance garden and its crowd. Although the slightly blurred look of the scene provoked negative criticism at the time, the imposing format, bright brushstrokes, and innovative style have captivated viewers for generations. Today, a copy of the painting hangs inside the restaurant and the original can be seen at the Musée d’Orsay.
Vincent van Gogh
Van Gogh arrived in Paris in 1886, the year of the last of the eight Impressionist exhibitions that paved the way for modern art. The Impressionists were at the height of their mature style and artists like Cézanne and Gauguin were investing their energies in new and innovative approaches to art. This was the milieu into which Van Gogh stepped when he took a studio on Rue Lepic, just a few hundred meters from the Radet. “The air of France is clarifying my ideas,” he wrote, “and is doing me good, a lot of good, all the good in the world.” He painted his neighborhood frequently during his stay, with the windmill featuring prominently in many of these works.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
This painting established Toulouse-Lautrec as the premier painter-chronicler of Montmartre’s nightlife. By thinning his paint with turpentine and applying it to the canvas in loose washes, a technique known as peinture à l’essence, he achieved an unfinished look that reinforces the immediacy of observation and the lackluster appearance of some of his subjects. Crucially, the wooden barrier that cuts diagonally across the painting divides the exuberant, almost frantic, swirling of the dancers from the listlessness of those waiting on the sidelines.
Ramon Casas, a significant early Modernist and proponent of Catalan painting at the end of the 19th century, came to Paris to study at just 15. He stayed for three years and, between the winter of 1890 and the summer of 1891, he worked on a series of paintings of the Moulin de la Galette. Instead of jubilant fair or hectic night scenes, which had become associated with the venue, he focused on its interiors and quiet daytime hours. In the picture below, an attractive girl contemplates space, indifferent to the canoodling of the couple across from her or the music emanating from the piano on the mezzanine.
Picasso painted the Moulin de la Galette before he had even moved to Paris. Still a resident of Barcelona, he visited the French capital for two months in 1900 to take in the World Fair exhibitions. During this time, he toured the city’s art galleries as well as the bohemian cafés and dance halls of Montmartre. His depiction of the neighborhood’s most famous mill is the first of his Parisian paintings. While not considered one of his masterpieces (he was only 19 when he finished it), it is still a remarkable work, which evokes the allure of the chic patrons with bright colors and a strong sense of movement.
Kees van Dongen
Van Dongen painted the Moulin de la Galette just after he moved into a new studio in the same building as Picasso. He wanted to reimagine Renoir’s depiction of it, to transform it into an image of revelry. He set about creating a monumental work, measuring over two meters in height, that was alive with the energy of the dancefloor, which he achieved by using bright colors and impasto. The work was the artist’s contribution to the Salon des Indépendants in 1906 but remained in his possession until the 1950s when he cut it up into six pieces that he sold separately.
Maurice Utrillo was a painter of prodigious talent who lived a remarkable if tragic life at the center of Paris’ art world. The illegitimate son of Suzanne Valadon, the model-turned-artist who was taken under the wing of Degas, a muse to Toulouse-Lautrec, and a close friend of Modigliani, he grew up in Montmartre. Over the course of his career, which was dogged by madness and alcoholism, he painted almost every inch of the hilltop neighborhood. While never formally trained, Utrillo’s strange landscapes stunned common folk and critics alike and inspired a generation of artists to re-examine their worldview and the benefits of recreating reality over abstraction.
In the 1980s, the Moulin de la Galette was converted into an Italian restaurant and became a glitzy hangout for French celebrities like Dalida, who lived just across the street. However, it was recently re-opened by food-loving entrepreneurs Cédric Barbier and Nicolas Tourneville, both of whom are enthralled by the charm of the mill as a chic brasserie. It has sunny terraces to the fore and rear and the menu celebrates the best of traditional French cuisine. The delights of the menu include pumpkin soup with Beaufort cheese, scallop carpaccio, thyme-roasted cod, and delicious grilled calves’ livers.
Le Moulin de la Galette, 83 Rue Lepic, 75018 Paris, France. +33 01 46 06 84 77.
Open daily from 12pm to 11.30pm.