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Toulouse Lautrec, Jane Avril and 1890s Paris

Born Jeanne-Louise Beaudon (1868-1943) in Belleville, the dancer was the daughter of a courtesan. She was abused at home, ran away at 16 and lived in the streets. She entered the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris with “female hyster­ical convulsions”, and at one of their fancy dress balls for patients, she found her cure AND her vocation.
 
  La Goulue,1891

Moulin Rouge Cabaret opened in 1889, offering customers nightly perform­ances by its stars. At 20 the young dancer was taken on, adopting the stage name Jane Avril as suggested by an Englishman. Known for her exotic persona and breath-taking gymnast­ics, she became a profes­s­ional dancing stars in the 1890s, and loved devising her own choreographic routines and dress. See the bold portrait called La Goulue/greedy (1891 Museum of Modern Art NY).

Fame arrived with striking portraits and posters in both art and advert­is­ing. They were designed by artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901), a member of one of France’s oldest noble famil­ies. Jane was det­ermined to make her mark on Montmart­re’s flourishing dance-halls and cabarets, starring in Lautrec’s world of dancers, cabaret singers, musicians and prost­itutes.
 
At the Moulin Rouge, c1893
                                                                       
They showed Jane Avril au Jardin de Paris (1893), where transport ran after the Moulin Rouge closed at 11 PM. This dramatic Japanese-style poster, which she credited with launching her career, showed Jane doing the cancan and a musician grasping a double-bass. Also striking was Jane Avril in profile at the venue called Divan Japonais 1893.

Toulouse-Lautrec’s relationship with Jane Avril was closer than his other Montmartre subjects and she remained his friend till death. Their friendship was reflected in portraits in which the star was shown as a private individual, in contrast with her exotic poster image and her Moulin Rouge performances. A striking bust-length Portrait of Avril 1892 focused on her startlingly angular face.

Lautrec was famed for his familiar portraits of 1890s Parisian nightlife, other than Jane Avril. A high-class prostitute, Lucy Jourdain?, was shown elaborately dressed at a café-restaurant: In a Private Dining Room At the Rat Mort (1899). The left lamp cast a green glow and the blurriness suggested seedy night-time entertainment.

Lau­t­rec’s tragically early death in 1901 marked the beginning of the end of Montmartre’s Golden Age. Jane Avril went on to perform briefly as a stage actress. Realising that she couldn’t dance forever, Jane Avril needed marital security, as well as a home for her son Jean-Pierre. She married the talented printmaker Maurice Biais (1875–1926) in 1911 and settled into bourgeois obscur­ity. While in New York, Biais showed his work at the Max Williams Gallery.

But Biais suffered from a lung disease, and couldn’t maintain a stable home for his wife and step-son; by the 1920s, he moved alone to the south of France, dying in 1926. When Jane Avril died in 1943, in Nazi Paris, she was interred in the Biais family vault at Père Lachaise cemetery.
 
Jane Avril au Jardin de Paris, 1893
poster

Divan Japonais 1893. 
poster

Palace Theatre with Madem­ois­elle Eglantine, 1895
poster

The Courtauld Gallery held a 2011 exhibition: Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge. In placing the artist and performer within a larger historical context, the exhibition was successful in demonstrating how significant a celebrity icon she was during the 1890s. 

In Room 1, there were contemporary photos, primary documents and other works by friends and lovers that showed how compelling a subject Jane Avril was to Lautrec. In Room 2 there was valuable historical inform­at­ion about her early life, specifically regarding her hospitalised era.

The exhibition raised significant questions regarding Montmartre’s late C19th culture. And it made it poignantly clear why Lautrec was attracted to Jane’s personality, creat­ivity and unusual beauty. For example in the painting Jane Avril in the Entrance to the Moulin Rouge (1892), the hat and coat on the wall alluded to her male admirers. However she seemed far older than her 22 years.

Avril asserted her personality through Lautrec’s works, becoming a celebrity figure. While she was often not the main Moulin Rouge dancer, remaining in the back­ground in many performances, she was foregrounded by Lautrec in his studies. In Jane Avril Leaving the Moulin Rouge (1892), the artist created a psychological portrait that showed the model lost in her own thoughts and unaware of the other pedestrians. The exhibition also explored the intersection of Avril’s medical history and her public persona.

The artist’s focus to her intelligent, sensitive face revealed Toulouse-Lautrec’s keen understanding of her personality. Since Lautrec portrayed Jane Avril outside the focus of her Moulin Rouge performances, we may wonder if there more to their relationship than thought. Had Lautrec found a kindred artistic soul? Did he fall under her siren’s spell? Questions such as this were hinted at the Courtauld exhibition and in the catalogue.

With the Portrait of Jane Avril (c1892 Clark Art Institute, Massachusetts), the question of artistic ties between Lautrec and Avril was raised once again. The catalogue note on the painting suggested that Jane Avril loved artists, but why? Who were some of the other artists she admired? And another thing. What were Maurice Biais’ ties with the Parisian art scene and his long-standing association with Avril, at a time when Lautrec was busy immortalising her?

At the Moulin Rouge (c1893 Art Institute of Chicago) served as a homage to the venue and his circle. From the rear Jane Avril was instantly recognisable by her red hair. The ghostly face of the English performer May Milton appeared, as did Lautrec’s diminutive figure.

In a Private Dining Room At the Rat Mort,1899

In 1896 Jane travelled to London to perform at Palace Theatre with Madem­ois­elle Eglantine 1895. So Lautrec designed a poster for the per­formance which showed four cancan dancers surrounded by petticoat froth and black stockings. The exhibition included Palace Theatre drawings, Avril and Lautrec letters and Palace Theatre programmes.

To celebrate their remarkable creative partnership, read The Courtauld Gallery catalogue, Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril, Beyond the Moulin Rouge (2011), Nancy Ireson and Anna Gruetzner Robins.










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