Cafes became all the rage towards the mid to late 19th Century in Paris and its suburbs.  With the advent of more affordable transportation, the bourgeoisie as well as artists could leave Paris on weekends and enjoy the bustle of the outdoors--La Grenouillere was such a destination.

Urban cafes included Cafe Guerbois or Nouvelle-Athenes, often frequented during the day predominantly by male artists and critics. Dance halls like Le Moulin de la Galette, near Montmartre, depicted here by both Renoir and Lautrec were also ver popular.  Cafe-concerts or cabarets bustled in the evening. Degas and especially Lautrec captured the lure and the dreariness of such haunts.

Pierre Auguste Renoir

Le Moulin de la
Galette (1876)

Renoir celebrates "la belle vie" , the beautiful life, of the outdoor dance halls.  With more time on their hands, people can now enjoy leisure--they dance and socialze.At the outdoor cafes and dance halls, romance and gossip are part of the show. In both paintings Renoir revels in playing with sunlight. In the painting of Le Moulin de la Galette, he chooses dappled sunlight to direct our view throughout the composition, so that our gaze dances around the picture imitating the dance depicted in the painting.   The play of light creates a sense of dynamism and impermanence that breaks the rules of the Salon. Dance halls depictions were frowned upon by the Academy, whose style focused on the classical rather than the contemporary.

In A la Grenouillere we see a young girl, stretched out on a chair, her head comfortably perched on her left arm. She has an open, self-assured smile--and she seems comfortable on her own. One has the feeling she is listening attentively to a conversation nearby or is waiting for her friends or her lover to appear. In the background we see a river with a boat in the distance. This painting is about the celebration of leisure.

Since the cafe is a form of leisure that grew up with the advent of industrialism, these are themes that are fascinating to the avant-garde of late 19th Century artists.  Renoir wants to celebrate the reality of bustling parties rather than paint allegories of bacchanalian, classical feasts.

Pierre Auguste Renoir
A la Grenouillere (1879)

Le Moulin de la

Lautrec, on the other hand, is more fascinated by the night scene.

Lautrec is interested in portraying the taudry, the risky, the weird blueish colors of the night, punctuated by lit pale white faces. Only the"tropical" color emanating from hats or wild hairdos brighten up the otherwise dark scene. 

At the Moulin
The painting At the Moulin Rouge is about another French artist of the time, Suzanne Valadon.  Unlike the picture of Renoir we have just discussed, this woman does not have a smile.  She is tired, her lips curve down, as if deeply disappointed.  The night cafe certainly does not seem to be as "friendly" as the cafes depicted by Renoir.  A harsher reality comes through with Lautrec.  This type of grim, depressing reality would have been disdained by the Academy.