Paris and Montmartre
When Napoleon III and his city planner Baron Haussmann planned out how to make Paris the most beautiful city in Europe, the first step, naturally, was to grant large sweeps of land near the center of the city to Haussmann's friends and financial supporters. This drove the original inhabitants to the edges of the city: to the districts of Clichy, Le Villette, and the hill with a view of the city, Montmartre.
Since Montmartre was officially outside the city and free of its taxes, and the nuns there made wine, the hill did not take long to become the place to go to get drunk cheaply. From there, it was only a short step for Montmartre to become the center of free-wheeling and decadent entertainment.
Life in the Montmartre district of Paris near the turn of the last century was filled with characters like you might find in a movie. Nowhere was this more true than in the popular cabaret called the Moulin Rouge.
The red mill
When the Moulin Rouge opened on October 5, 1889, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec had already gained much popularity within the bohemian community and was one of the invite-only guests at the opening night party.
The Moulin Rouge, which means "red mill," was just that: a huge windmill painted red. It became a landmark, and a symbol of the joie de vivre — the joy of life — in Paris at the time.
The Moulin Rouge was the "rendezvous du high life." It was a theater, a concert hall, and a dance hall — all at the same time.
People came from all over to dance, to watch the dancers, and to watch each other watching the dancers. And Lautrec was there, at the same table every night, drinking and sketching everything which caught his fancy, particularly the dancers.
Click here for more information about Lautrec's Moulin Rouge posters.