Jane Avril.jpg



Jane Avril, 1899


The Moulin Rouge cabaret is surrounded by a haze of timeless glamour. People have always sought entertainment, of course, but this particular time and place, the Montmartre in Paris at the turn of the last century, represents a turning point, a transition between the modern and the ancient, liberation and burlesque, passion and death. A historic and unique meeting place arose here, attracting aristocrats and have-nots alike. What made this come to pass right then, and right there, was a handful of coincidences and the acts of a few individuals. Two of the people involved were artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864–1901) and dancer and entertainer Jane Avril (1868–1943). They were both receptive to the feverish mood of the day, and became good friends as a result of their openness to and interest in new art movements.

This poster from 1899 is their last hurrah of sorts, the swan song of two individuals who have forever left their mark on Paris’s image as a happy, free place. Lautrec would die of illness and alcoholism just a short while later at the age of 37. During his brief life, he managed not only to apply his intense vision to the recording of a legendary and dynamic age for prosperity, but also to radically alter the path of art history.  His mastery, and his significance, is beyond question today. But who was Jane Avril? Her story is fascinating, too.

She ran away from home when she was still a girl, to escape difficult circumstances growing up with a single mother. Due to a hereditary neurological disorder, she ended up at La Salpêtrière, where she was treated in accordance with the medical practices of the day.

It was there, at the hospital, that she discovered dancing, and its therapeutic effects on her physical disability.

Her slender body and her captivatingly jerky onstage motions during her can-can performances set her apart from the other performers at the Moulin-Rouge; her inventive improvised choreographies would soon make her a great attraction in her own right, and a major draw for the pleasure-dome. Toulouse-Lautrec used what we would call a personal public relations strategy–an innovation in those days–to turn her into one of the very first celebrities in the modern sense of the word. 

In this print from 1899, which Jane Avril commissioned personally, we see her at the peak of her spectacular career. She was 37, and despite the bare-boned simplicity of the drawing, it is plain that she is no longer a young woman. Her outfit is tremendous. On her head, she’s wearing an extravagant hat topped with dyed ostrich feathers. But it’s the dress that grabs the viewer’s attention. A snake is wound around her body, its tongue flicking its way up towards her throat. Designing her own stage outfits, and incorporating them into the actual performances, was a conscious strategy she used to make herself more than just a captivating dancer. Perhaps we would have called her a performance artist today.

Arsène Alexander, an art critic of the day, wrote the following about these pioneering advertisement posters:  Painter and model, together, have created a true art of our time, one through movement and one through representation.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril, 1899, Litograph in colours, 55,4 x 37,1 cm

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril, 1899, Litograph in colours, 55,4 x 37,1 cm

Jane Avril (1868–1943)

Jane Avril (1868–1943)