Daily Dose of Europe: Renoir’s “Dance at the Moulin de la Galette”

This painting captures the joyful beauty of France’s belle époque, when Paris was a global center of prosperity, technology, opera, ballet, and high fashion. Artists flocked there to catch the magic on canvas.

As America continues to suffer crisis upon crisis, it has never been more important to broaden our perspectives and learn about the people and places that shape our world. And for me, one of the great joys of travel is seeing art masterpieces in person. Learning the stories behind great art can shed new light on our lives today. Here’s one of my favorites.

On Sunday afternoons, working-class Parisians would dress up and head for the bucolic hill overlooking Paris called Montmartre. They’d gather in outdoor cafés to dance, drink, and eat little crêpes (called galettes) until dark. Renoir would go there, too, to paint the common Parisians living and loving in the afternoon sun.

In Renoir’s glowing scene, the sunlight filters through the trees, creating a kaleidoscope of colors, like a 19th-century disco ball throwing darts of light onto the dancers. Renoir conveys the dappled light with quick blobs of yellow paint. The light speckles the ground, the men’s jackets, and the sun-dappled straw hats. You can almost smell the fragrant powder on the ladies’ faces. The painting glows with bright colors. Even the shadows on the ground, which should be gray or black, are colored a warm blue. The paint is thin and translucent, and the outlines are soft, so the figures blend seamlessly with the background. Like a photographer who uses a slow shutter speed to show motion, Renoir paints a waltzing blur.

Along with his good friend Claude Monet, Renoir embraced Impressionism. Stifled by the stuffy atmosphere of the conventional art scene in Paris, they took as their motto, “Out of the studio and into the open air.” They grabbed their berets and scarves (and their newly invented tubes of premixed paint) and set up their easels right on the spot — on riverbanks, hillsides, cafés…or in the fields of Montmartre. Gods, goddesses, nymphs, and fantasy scenes were out. Common people in their everyday lives were in. The result? Light! Color! Vibrations! You don’t hang an Impressionist canvas — you tether it.

Renoir features Impressionism’s trademark bright colors, easygoing open-air scenes, spontaneity, broad brushstrokes, and the play of light. He made this canvas shimmer with a simple but revolutionary technique. Look at the dancing woman to the left, in a “pink” dress. If you look real close, you’d see that the dress is actually a messy patchwork of individual brushstrokes of different colored paint. But as you back up…Voilà! The colors blend in the eye. So while your eye is saying “pink,” your subconscious is shouting, “Red! White! Gray! Blue! Yes!”

Renoir always painted things that were unabashedly pretty — happy scenes of rosy-cheeked women, rendered in a warm, inviting style. As Renoir liked to say, “There are enough ugly things in life.”

This art moment — a sampling of how we share our love of art in our tours — is an excerpt from the new, full-color coffee-table book, “Europe’s Top 100 Masterpieces,” by Rick Steves and Gene Openshaw. Please support local businesses in your community by picking up a copy from your favorite bookstore, or you can find it at my online Travel Store. To enhance your art experience, you can find a clip related to this artwork at Rick Steves Classroom Europe; just search for Renoir.