Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was among the first customers of the Moulin Rouge, a Montmartre nightclub boasting nightly performances of the cancan (or chahut, a French dance involving a series of titillating high kicks). Lautrec began this canvas—one of the largest and most ambitious of his career—shortly after the venue opened in October 1889. A handwritten inscription on its back, probably by Lautrec, identifies the subject as "the training of the new girls by Valentin ‘the Boneless.’" A nightclub star renowned for his flexibility, Valentin is depicted as a slender hatted figure with pointed toes and rubbery legs facing a female partner whose animated kicks reveal her red stockings and frothy white petticoats. Highlighting an informal moment between performances, the painting offers a survey of the club’s clientele and its scintillating entertainment. It was purchased by the owners of the Moulin Rouge, who hung it above the bar.
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