Auguste Renoir, Moulin de la Galette

Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Moulin de la Galette, 1876, oil on canvas, 51 1/2 x 68 7/8 in. (131 x 175 cm), (Musée d’Orsay, Paris) 

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[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:06] We’re in the Musée d’Orsay, looking at Auguste Renoir’s “Moulin de la Galette.”

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:11] Such a pleasurable scene of people socializing, flirting, dancing.

Dr. Zucker: [0:16] It seems a perfect subject for the style of Impressionism, which is concerned with fleeting visual moments.

Dr. Harris: [0:23] With leisure, the new idea of spending your free time socializing in the cafes in Paris.

Dr. Zucker: [0:30] This is a beer hall, an outside place to gather, perhaps after work.

Dr. Harris: [0:34] It was frequented not by the highest levels of society but by people who are more working class.

Dr. Zucker: [0:40] We can actually see that, especially in the garb of the men, where we see very few top hats.

Dr. Harris: [0:45] The women are fashionably dressed. You can tell there’s a love of fashion here by Renoir.

Dr. Zucker: [0:49] And a love of interaction. Renoir seems drawn to intimacies, the interactions between people.

Dr. Harris: [0:54] Look at the two female figures in the center foreground. The one who’s standing and leans over and talks to the man just to the right, puts her shoulder on the seated figure on the bench dressed in that lovely pink-and-blue striped dress. There’s interaction among groups.

Dr. Zucker: [1:09] Renoir has provided us with all of these little vignettes. You have the two men seated at the right; one of them seems to be writing. The group of three in the lower center, pairs of dancers that move across the left side.

[1:21] If you look at the tree that’s to the right, you see a man perhaps whispering something in the ear of the woman just in front of him.

Dr. Harris: [1:27] Below him, the face of a little boy who peeks out. What is so interesting about this painting is its all-overness. Our eye isn’t drawn to any single place here, to any single couple.

[1:39] That’s one of the things that made this painting so radical in the 19th century. Academic paintings, paintings sanctioned by the Royal Academy of Fine Arts exhibited at the official Salon, had a focus. The artist brought your attention to somewhere using the composition. Here, all of the figures are spread across, and our eye rests in a multitude of places.

Dr. Zucker: [1:59] Part of that has to do with the overall handling of the paint and the handling of color. This painting is a kaleidoscope of pinks and yellows and blues and greens. All of those colors — with the possible exception of greens, which dominate at the top — are found everywhere across this canvas, as is Renoir’s loose brushwork, which feels fleeting.

Dr. Harris: [2:17] A capturing of the momentary, which was so important to the Impressionists. And that looseness of brushwork, that sense of being able to see the paint itself, was also something that violated those rules of academic painting. According to what you learned at the École de Beaux-Arts, paintings had perfect finish. You didn’t see the hand of the artist.

Dr. Zucker: [2:38] Look, for instance, at the still life, the glasses and bottles to the lower right of the canvas. The shine is so much pure white paint.

Dr. Harris: [2:45] Then we have this asymmetry in the composition, too, with the bulk of the figures on the lower right and some empty space to the left with a single couple dancing.

Dr. Zucker: [2:56] Who seem almost spotlighted by the dappled sunlight filtering through the leaves of the trees above.

Dr. Harris: [3:01] This is exhibited at the third Impressionist exhibition. That’s important because what the Impressionists did was decide to hold their own exhibition, to not submit their paintings to the official exhibition, to the Salon, and instead to go directly to the public, unmediated by the jury.

Dr. Zucker: [3:19] It is that very same public that Renoir is here depicting.

Dr. Harris: [3:22] Another important part of this painting is that interest in capturing the fleeting effects of light. You see the dappled sunlight on the faces of some of the figures, particularly the figure on the right who’s smoking a pipe, who’s just got that patch of sunlight on his temple.

Dr. Zucker: [3:36] Or the woman leaning in the center who’s got just a little bit of light picking up one of the locks of her hair.

Dr. Harris: [3:41] Perhaps the best example of dappled sunlight is on the back of the figure in the right foreground, where his jacket almost looks polka-dotted because of that filtered sunlight coming through the trees.

Dr. Zucker: [3:52] But because of the handling of the canvas as a whole, there’s a perfect logic. We don’t see it as polka dots. We see it as dappled sunlight.

Dr. Harris: [3:58] Artists like Monet, in contrast, are doing that with the landscape. but Renoir is doing something really daring here, which is to do that with figures on a large canvas. This is an ambitious painting. It’s remarkable to think that this was painted entirely out-of-doors.

[4:14] Normally, an artist would do sketches outside and then paint something like this in the studio. But here, an entirely different way of approaching and painting the subject.

Dr. Zucker: [4:24] One of the things that’s so compelling, that feels so modern about this painting, is the sense of the arbitrary. The way in which a photograph, a snapshot, might catch a moment in time that is not perfectly composed.

[4:34] We see the front of figures as we would in a traditional painting. But we also see the sides and the backs of figures. We get the feeling that we have entered into this space, that we can join in this pleasure.

[4:44] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Auguste Renoir, Moulin de la Galette," in Smarthistory, November 27, 2015, accessed May 18, 2024,