Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Bal du moulin de la Galette (1876)

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“The painting depicts a typical Sunday afternoon at Moulin de la Galette in the district of Montmartre in Paris. In the late 19th century, working class Parisians would dress up and spend time there dancing, drinking, and eating galettes into the evening. 

“Renoir’s friend Georges Rivière identified several of the personalities in the painting. Despite Renoir's resource of distributing a sought after fashionable hat of the time amongst his models (the straw bonnet with a wide red ribbon top right is an example of this hat, called a timbale), he was unable to persuade his favourite sixteen-year-old model Jeanne, to pose as principal for the painting. It is her sister Estelle who poses as the girl wearing a blue and pink striped dress. These two girls came to Le Moulin every Sunday with their family; with two younger sisters barely taller than the tables, and their mother and father, properly chaperoned by their mother (entry was free for girls at Le Moulin and not all were models of virtue). Beside her is a group consisting of Pierre-Franc Lamy and Norbert Goeneutte, fellow painters, as well as Rivière himself. Behind her, amongst the dancers, are to be found Henri Gervex, Eugène Pierre Lestringuez and Paul Lhote. In the middle distance, in the middle of the dance hall, the Cuban painter Don Pedro Vidal de Solares y Cardenas is depicted in striped trousers dancing with the model called Margot (Marguerite Legrand). Apparently the exuberant Margot found Solares too reserved and was endeavouring to loosen him up by dancing polkas with him and teaching him dubious songs in the local argot.” — Wikipedia

Nevertheless, there are some amateurish technical lapses in the Renoir. Look at the male dancer's right arm. Now try to imagine how it connects to his shoulder.

In the right detail: does the woman, whose right hand rests on her friend's shoulder, suffer from arthritis in her little finger? And how about here forefinger?

For many years it was owned by John Hay Whitney. On May 17, 1990, his widow sold the painting for US$78 million at Sotheby's in New York City to Ryoei Saito (Saitō Ryōei), the honorary chairman of Daishowa Paper Manufacturing Company, Japan.

“At the time of sale, it was one of the top two most expensive artworks ever sold, together with van Gogh's Portrait of Dr. Gachet, which was also purchased by Saito. Saito caused international outrage when he suggested in 1991 that he intended to cremate both paintings with him when he died. However, when Saito and his companies ran into severe financial difficulties, bankers who held the painting as collateral for loans arranged a confidential sale through Sotheby's to an undisclosed buyer.” — Wikipedia

Charles Hermans, At Dawn (Bij dageraad), 1875

The Flemish workers

The Flemish workers

The rich (Latin -- French and Spanish?) revelers

It is possible to see this painting as an instance of the conflict between the Flemish and the French cultures of Belgium.

In the Gutter

“I tried to be as sincere as possible, while avoiding being both too sentimental and too realistic. The workers of the foreground, refreshed, peacefully go to work in the morning, while the dissolute, dressed in black, stagger noisily out of the golden pleasure-shacks where they spent the night. On one carnival day, I went out before sunrise to watch the parade of my actors. I have reproduced the scene completely as she made an impression on my imagination, contenting myself to stay as simple as possible. 

“It was claimed that my painting had a socialist reach. That is a mistake. I never thought of ennobling the worker by showing the decline of debauched.” — Charles Hermans


If we were to say which of the two images is prettier -- lovely coloring, agreeable setting -- we would have to award the prize to Renoir. But if we were to ask which was more profound --  expressed a deeper sense of the human condition -- which would we choose? 

Bal du Moulin de la Galette shows us a pleasant side of working class life in Paris in the the last quarter of the nineteenth century. It is the belle époque: nice consumer goods for all classes, no qualms about colonialism, the humiliating and tragic  année terrible passed into history. Here we find only a easy-going afternoon of dining, dancing, and socializing among artists and workers. No message here: not even carpe diem, since we are given no negative circumstances to place against the soft-lit gaiety.

The rich folks in At Dawn also revel in the belle époque -- that part reserved for wealthy pleasure-seekers who do not have to rise up at dawn to go to work. But, unlike the Monet party, this shows us at least two, and possibly three reactions to the disparity of lifestyles. However, as the painter himself insisted, this is no screed against the idle rich: it's just they way things are, when two life courses come together in a moment. The conclusions Hermans leaves to us to think over.

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