This fascinating impression of dancers in line on the stage of the Moulin Rouge recreates the fast movement of the dance called the ‘can-can'. Although the mingling of black and white appears abstract at first glance, the black stockings of the dancers are suggested by lines of watery pigment. Dabs of white describe the full petticoats revealed underneath the dancers' dresses as they move the gathered fabric from side to side to kick their legs up high.
Although pre-dating the Moulin Rouge, the ‘can-can' became representative of the scene there, made famous by the paintings and promotional posters of the French artist Toulouse-Lautrec. As the nineteenth century drew to a close, the British increasingly viewed French culture as the height of modern extravagance, which was probably part of its appeal to young British artists working in Paris.
This drawing dates from a trip that Melville made to Paris in 1889 to see the Exposition Universelle, a huge world fair held on the anniversary of the French Revolution. In October 1889, the Moulin Rouge first opened to the public and it was probably then that Melville made this sketch of the dancers. The drawing belongs to a set of several small watercolour sketches that he made of the can-can dancers. They were a popular subject with French artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec. The sketches have a vivid sense of immediacy. Melville captures the whirling petticoats and high-kicking legs of the dancers on stage bathed in brightly coloured lights.
Melville's travels in Europe and the Middle East inspired his vibrant paintings in oil and watercolour. He developed a distinctive technique of watercolour painting, described as 'blottesque', using dabs of pigment on wet paper and blotting them with a sponge. Melville, born in Angus, studied painting in Edinburgh before moving to Paris in 1878. He gravitated to the artists' colony in Grez-sur-Long and sold the paintings he produced there to finance his journeys from North Africa to India. From around 1884 he worked closely with several of the Glasgow Boys in Scotland and in London, before his untimely death from typhoid.