The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.
Nat King Cole
Probably when talking about the Moulin Rouge and la vie Bohème you think of Baz Luhrmann's movie starring Nicole Kidman. With music belonging to pop culture and an explosive cinematography, Moulin Rouge is a modern interpretation of a historical place in a time of abundant creativity and social reorganization. Moulin Rouge is an eclectic mixture of Bollywood and la vie bohème, so naturally if we want a visual legacy to remember this heady era we must look elsewhere.
When the legendary French district of Montmartre joined the City of Light, it left its windmills behind, which marked it as one of the poorest regions of the country, to become a glamorous and disruptive place. It became a hotspot where illegality and crimes were the norm.
Brothels were known as "Maisons Closes" or "Maisons de Tolérance" and these were controlled by the State and by law had to be run by a woman.
At the start of the glorious 1900s, the neighborhood was filled with bars, cabarets, saloons, and coffee houses that stood side by side with houses occupied by the working class. Soon, these nightclubs were filled with bourgeois men who gravitated to this district to find pleasure. Artists also began to frequent the establishments, for they were captivated by the charms and wildness that lived within the walls of these great clubs.
Nowadays only customers and hustlers are penalized, but in those days brothels abounded, from the most expensive and popular where royalty attended, to the most sordid, where quick and dirty services were offered. The only requirement was for these establishments to be discreet from the outside.
Artists like Cézanne, Manet, Degas, Van Gogh, Kupka, Munch, and, of course, Toulouse-Lautrec portrayed this world of women who during the day worked in regular jobs but at nights lead a Bohemian and exotic life, where lust was the protagonist. Often, these mixtures of activities made it hard to trace the boundaries of prostitution and the enjoyment of artistic pleasures.
Attempts to reproduce the reality of these women's life has only ignited the imagination of the public and the mysteries surrounding La Belle Époque. However, some recently published photographic registers reveal the open secret about this period of Paris' history, a felony that was silenced for the sake of desire.
With costumes that represent both pagan and fantastic themes, these "cancan" dancers were immortalized by the revolutionary arts of the fin de siècle. The most emblematic clubs of the time were the Moulin Rouge, Moulin de la Galette, Cabaret des Quat’z’Arts, Cabaret des Truands, Cabaret du Néant, Chat Noir, Le Ciel, L’Enfer, Cabaret d’Aristide Bruant, Cabaret du Rat Mort, Lapin Agile, Cabaret du Chat Rouge, Folies Bergere, and La Boíte á Fursy, among others.
The most remembered performers are Jeanne-Marie Bourgeois “Mistinguett,” Miss Dorothy Dickson, Indian Mira Devi, Russians Mademoiselle Melsass and Natacha Nattova, Edmonde Guydens, Jane Avril, and La Goulue.
The Belle Époque is extremely broad in terms of art and social revolution. Many currents of that time portrayed the excess, creativity, and violence of a city flooding with emotions. In 1914, the panorama changed drastically: WWI destroyed the vigor of this community, and with it, the cultural abundance and blending of social classes. Prostitution was debated and discussed and strict regulations were put in place. Perhaps, the coup de grace that ended this era was the legal regulations and the severity with which the government started to prosecute those involved in this hyper-exploited business in Paris. To follow the account on this fantastic period, take a look at The Decadent Parisian Brothels That Drove The Nazis Mad.