Jane Avril was the dancer and the star of the Moulin Rouge in the 1890s. Her legend is alive until this day – her semi-fictionalized character was reinterpreted by Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge! (2001). She also became an emblematic figure in Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s world of dancers, cabaret singers, musicians and prostitutes. Known for her alluring style and exotic persona, her fame was assured by a series of dazzlingly inventive posters designed by the artist, who also became her close friend.
Jane Avril was born as Jeanne Beaudon. Her mother was a prostitute and her father was an Italian aristocrat. As a teenager he ran away from home, and was eventually admitted to the Salpêtrière Hospital, with the movement disorder ‘St Vitus’ Dance’, now thought to be Sydenham’s Chorea, which is characterized by rapid, uncoordinated jerking movements primarily affecting the face, hands and feet. Some latest research examines the connections between Jane’s eccentric movements, described by one observer as an ‘orchid in a frenzy’, and contemporary medical theories of female hysteria. Her experiences helped shape her public persona and, as a performer, she was also known as L’Etrange (the Strange One) and Jane La Folle (Crazy Jane).
In the hospital Jane received various kinds of treatment, and claimed in her biography that, when she discovered dance at a social dance for employees and patients at the hospital, she was cured. On leaving the hospital, after a failed romance, Jeanne thought to kill herself, but was taken in by the Madame of a Parisian brothel. She started to work as a dancer, and used the stage name Jane Avril given by her lover. This is when her career started. She was hired by the Moulin Rouge nightclub in 1889 and everyone wanted to see her famous dance.
That was the time when Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec created his most famous images of her. This poster was commissioned by Jane to advertise her cabaret show at the Jardin de Paris in 1893. Through his innovative composition, Lautrec contrasts Avril’s aloof and emotionally vacant expression with the erotic nature of her performance.
Despite her fragile and rather ethereal look, on stage she proved to be an acrobatic dancer, full of energy and grace. She was even regarded by her contemporaries as the ‘incarnation of dance’.
At age 42 she met and married the German artist, Maurice Biais, and the couple moved to a home at the outskirts of Paris. However, her husband soon began to stray, often disappearing for days at a time, and for years she lived a miserable existence. Without any financial support following his death in 1926, Avril lived in near poverty on what little was left of her savings. The dancer died in a seniors’ home in 1943 at the age of 75. She was buried in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s relationship with Jane was closer than with any of his other Montmartre subjects and she remained the artist’s loyal friend until his death. Toulouse-Lautrec created a magnificent series of remarkable portraits in which the dancer is shown as a private individual, in contrast with her exotic poster image and her performances at the Moulin Rouge.
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