Keri Mills does her own sketch of La Goulue entering Moulin Rouge at the opening day of the Toulouse Lautrec exhibition at the NGA Canberra.                                                                                                                                         14th  December2012.                                                                                                                                                             Photo : Colleen Petch of the Canberra Times

Keri Mills does her own sketch of La Goulue entering Moulin Rouge at the opening day of the Toulouse Lautrec exhibition at the NGA Canberra. Photo: Colleen Petch

''La Goulue danced with such gusto and such verve, doing her high kicks,'' guide Rosanna Hindmarsh explained to her flock of patrons at Friday morning's opening session of the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia.

''She was so lewd that she wore no knickers.''

''Oooooooh!'' went Hindmarsh's mostly matronly flock of patrons.

National Gallery director Ron Radford. Click for more photos

Opening of the Toulouse Lautrec exhibition

National Gallery director Ron Radford. Photo: Karleen Minney

''So you can imagine how popular, how very popular she was,'' Hindmarsh said, and everyone, including this blushing reporter, had a little chortle about that.

We were all ooooohing and laughing and blushing in front of one of the great attractions of the blockbuster, the giant poster Moulin Rouge: La Gouloue (1891). It is the first and the biggest of the posters that Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) designed to advertise the lubricious wares of the Moulin Rouge in Monmartre. The posters were plastered up all over Paris. In the very centre of the poster the Moulin Rouge's star La Goulue is dancing athletically (and hopefully beknickered, although the artist has thank goodness kept this part of the picture indistinct). In the foreground there is the shadowy figure of her sometime dancing partner, the willowy Valentin le desosse known because of his eerie flexibility as ''Valentin the Boneless.''

Although the exhibition will attract jostling hordes, Friday morning's session was simply well attended and allowed for ample time and room to give every work a thorough ogling. This made it the perfect session for Keri Mills, who, armed with her sketchbook, was drawing (truly wonderful ones) the works that most beguiled her. Foremost among them is perhaps the exhibition's star work, La Goulue entering the Moulin Rouge (1892). National Gallery director Ron Radford has said of this portrait that with it Toulouse-Lautrec has captured how La Goulue ''oozed sexuality and self-confidence''.

Later, having just left the exhibition, Mills showed us her sketchbook. The New Zealander, a history teacher who loves to paint, had been very, very busy. The sketchbook's contents were exquisite. Looking at it meant that, lucky me, I saw two exhibitions in one morning.

''I was just sketching a few of the pictures,'' she said. ''The ones that kind of took my fancy or the ones that I really loved and wanted to spend some time looking at. And [laughing] sometimes it's just an excuse to stand in front of a painting for a longer time.

''But when you are trying to copy what the artist is doing, you kind of understand more how they work. These [flipping through the sketchbook] are fun to draw. He's a very fun person to sketch from because he's very loose with his lines so that you can kind of get it wrong at first then put in another line and it still looks all right.''

What did she think of the artist's subject matter? For example the exhibition bristles with his portrayals of prostitutes, a subject it has never occurred to Canberra's artists to attempt.

''Interesting,'' Mills mused.''I was listening to one of the tour guides go by and she was saying that he portrays all the prostitutes sympathetically. But I'm not sure I agree with her. In some cases, maybe, but in other cases he seems quite harsh.''

Toulouse-Lautrec: Paris & The Moulin Rouge continues at the National Gallery until April 2.