Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette by Renoir
Explanation of Impressionist Genre Painting

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Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette (1876)

Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette (1876) by Renoir.
One of the greatest modern paintings of the 19th century.


Analysis of Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette
Explanation of Other Impressionist Paintings


Name: Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette (1876) (Bal du moulin de la Galette)
Artist: Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Type: Genre painting
Style: French Impressionism
Location: Musee d'Orsay

For an interpretation of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).


A masterpiece of modern art, the Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette is one of the most famous Impressionist paintings and a dazzling example of Renoir's talent for capturing dappled light. Its modernism derives both from its chosen theme - an ordinary scene of working class Parisians at leisure, during a typical Sunday afternoon at the Moulin de la Galette - as well as its loose Impressionist-style brushwork. The eye of the viewer darts across the form-filled and motion-filled surface, aware of the vibrant, brightly coloured brushstrokes but unable to dwell on any one form. A million individual observations are compressed onto a surface scarcely less active than a Jackson Pollock "drip" painting of the early 1950s. For another of Renoir's greatest genre paintings, please see: Luncheon Of the Boating Party (1881, Phillips Collection, Washington DC).

NOTE: For the story behind French Impressionism and the group of talented artists who created it, see our 10-part series, beginning: Impressionism: Origins, Influences. For more about the style itself, see: Characteristics of Impressionism (c.1870-1930).

The Moulin de la Galette was one of several windmills located on the Butte Montmartre. Inside, one could sit and eat its famous cakes, while outside there was an open-air eating and dancing area where the locals came and danced on Sundays, along with a variety of students and artists. Entrance was free for all women at Le Moulin, including those with looser morals. Intrigued by the mixed character of this vivacious and cheerful crowd, Renoir wanted to paint it. In 1876, with this in mind, he sought and found a lodging nearby at 78 Rue Cortot. It had two living rooms and a kind of stable which he could use as a studio. It looked on to a large abandoned garden, with a lawn covered with flowers, and surrounded by big trees. This scene served as background for other portraits - indeed several of Renoir's major works were painted in this garden at this time, including The Swing (La Balancoire) - for he remained here till 1880. (The gardens and its buildings are now preserved as the Musee de Montmartre.) He started work as soon as he had moved in. According to the art critic Georges Riviere (1855-1943), a good friend of Renoir: "Every day, we carried the canvas from the Rue Cortot to the windmill, for the picture was painted in its entirety on the spot."

NOTE: Renoir also painted a smaller, more fluid version of the scene (roughly two-thirds the size of the main picture), although which one is the original is not clear. In addition, he also produced a preliminary and rapidly executed oil sketch, which is now in the Ordrupgaard Museum, Copenhagen.

Analysis of Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette by Renoir

Renoir's Dance at the Moulin de la Galette occupied a wall of its own at the Third Impressionist exhibition of 1877 and was the set-piece of the catalog produced by Georges Riviere. For more, see: Impressionist Exhibitions in Paris (1874-86).

Although the somewhat blurred portrayal of the dance scene prompted a few negative reactions from the critics, the work was well received, particularly by the poet Stephane Mallarme who wrote: "The strong daylight is filtered through the greenery, setting the blonde hair and pink cheeks of the girls aglow and making their ribbons sparkle. The joyful light fills every corner of the canvas and even the shadows reflect it. The whole painting shimmers like a rainbow and makes one think of the dainty Chinese princess described by the German writer Heinrich Heine (1797-1856): 'her greatest pleasure in life was to tear up satin and silk with polished, jade-like nails and watch the shreds of yellow, blue and pink drift away in the breeze like so many butterflies.'"



NOTE: The general tonality of this oicture has been much modified by time. The disappearance of the lake colours which Renoir foolishly mixed with his whites has given the work a predominantly blue colour which it did not have originally.

Many critics prefer the socially charged paintings of Degas and Manet to Renoir's optimistic and prosperous modernism. The people who crowd Renoir's dance hall cavort on a Sunday, enjoying a "pay-as-you-drink-and-dance" entertainment. Most of them worked for a living - both men and women - and relished this moment of pleasure with a healthy abandon that sets them apart from the melancholy figures captured by Degas and others. Renoir's is indeed, a modernist vision of an urban Utopia of workers freed by their wages to dance and drink. Like several of Renoir's early Impressionist paintings Bal du Moulin de la Galette is a wonderful snapshot of real life, a moment of movement, noise and light, now gone for ever.

Riviere identified many of the figures in the painting as specific artists, writers, journalists, and even a civil servant; the women were models, milliners, and waitresses, and all of them gathered in Renoir's nearby garden studio on the Rue Cortot.

Riviere identified several of the figures in the painting, mostly friends of Renoir, and all of them gathered in his nearby garden studio on the Rue Cortot. They included artists, writers, journalists, models, milliners, and waitresses. Estelle, the sister of Renoir's favourite model Jeanne (who appears in The Swing), is the principal model for the painting, who sits at the front of the picture in the blue and pink striped dress. Next to her around the table, nursing glasses of grenadine are painters Pierre-Franc Lamy and Norbert Goeneutte, and Rivière himself.

Interestingly, none of Renoir's Impressionist colleagues are present, not even Gustave Caillebotte, the painting's first owner. Instead, the artists depicted were part of the academic or official world of painting, which was anathema to Impressionism. Thus, the painting represents not only a time in the history of France, after the horrors of the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune had begun to fade, but also a generational time, before the younger men and women of Renoir's circle began to marry and enter the "proper" realm of bourgeois civility that was to be the subject of the artist's later oeuvre. His Impressionist friends Claude Monet (1840-1926), Alfred Sisley (1839-99), Berthe Morisot (1841-95), and Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) — had already married and started families, and were no longer free to dance on Sundays.

From 1879 to 1894 Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette was owned by the French painter Gustave Caillebotte; on his death it was accepted by the French Republic in lieu of death duties. From 1896 to 1929 the painting was displayed in the Musee du Luxembourg in Paris; from 1929 to 1986 in the Louvre; until finally it was moved to the Musee d'Orsay.

Explanation of Other Modern French Paintings

La Grenouillere (1869) by Claude Monet.
Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The Ballet Class (1871-4) by Edgar Degas.
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

Absinthe (1876) by Edgar Degas.
Musee d'Orsay, Paris.

The Road-Menders, Rue de Berne (1878) by Edouard Manet.
Private Collection.

A Bar at the Folies Bergere (1881-2) by Edouard Manet.
Courtauld Gallery, London.

Water Lilies series (1897-1926) by Claude Monet.
Various art museums.


• For the meaning of other Impressionist genre paintings, see: Homepage.

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