An absent father. An alcoholic, abusive mother. A misdiagnosed mental illness and a stint in an insane asylum. Such cruel adversity to be hoisted upon a young girl in Paris. What would become of her? On paper, the neglected girl would seem doomed for a life of anonymity, unhappiness, and destitution. But a girl with tenacity and a will to survive could overcome the odds.
Born out of wedlock in the Belleville section of Paris, Jane Avril suffered brutal beatings at her mother’s hands. Although her father was a wealthy Italian aristocrat, he abandoned Jane and her mother and took no responsibiilty for his daughter’s welfare or upbringing. At the age of 16, Jane fled her home and lived in the streets, a scared and troubled runaway. When she was picked up by authorities, they determined that she was mentally impaired and placed her in the pysch ward of Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital.
But it was in that psych ward, of all unlikely places, where Jane discovered purely by chance that she possessed a certain talent; a talent for performing, for movement, for dance, for showmanship. The hospital workers organized a party for the patients. At that party, the teenage Jane got up and danced. Her spirited routine impressed everyone, and the hospital staff realized then that Jane was not mentally ill after all, but just a girl who had suffered through tremendous stress, neglect, and ill-treatment, and had to cope with it all alone. She had been deprived of love, nurturing, and an outlet for her expression. Now she had found one.
Jane was released from the hospital but did not return to her mother’s house. And who can blame her? Instead, she seized her freedom and explored Paris, determined to find her way. She performed in the dance halls and cabarets of Montmartre, and worked any day jobs she could find, such as a cashier at the World’s Fair, until she finally ended up at the creme de la creme of Paris nightclubs; the Moulin Rouge.
The timing of Jane’s arrival at the famed Moulin Rouge could not have been more opportune. The celebrated cabaret dancer Louise Weber – known by her stage name “La Goulue” – was finally stepping down after years as reigning headliner. In need of a replacement, the Moulin Rouge hired the young newcomer Jane Avril, and took a chance that she could fill the formidable shoes of the famous Louise Weber. Jane was more than up to the task and filled those shoes with ease.
Unlike the bawdy and bodacious Weber, Jane’s style was more graceful and feminine, her body more thin and lithe, her steps more nimble and smooth. Her obvious charm and appeal were an instant hit, and the regulars of Parisian nightlife warmly embraced her. Among those regulars was the artist Toulouse-Lautrec.
Jane and Lautrec would become very close friends, and possibly brief lovers. Lautrec was attracted not just to Jane’s stage presence and dance talent, but to the sadness he saw inside her, the wounds she had sustained during her difficult youth. He recognized that Jane was inherently a loner in spite of her popularity and lively profession. Jane and Lautrec were both outsiders in some respects, and this was possibly the reason they formed such a strong bond. Some of Lautrec’s most famous posters and lithographs feature Jane Avril as the subject.
Toulouse-Lautrec poster of Jane:
Toulouse-Lautrec used Jane as a model offstage as well. Here, in Divan Japonais, Jane is posed not as a dancer, but a woman dressed elegantly in black, sitting in the audience at the Divan Japonais cabaret. The Divan was a brand new club in Montmartre, decorated with a Japanese theme. The club’s owner commissioned this poster from Toulouse-Lautrec to advertise the new establishment. Lithographed posters saw a surge in popularity during the 1890s and 1900s, largely due to developments in color printing techniques. I really like this poster. I think it’s one of Lautrec’s best, and Jane makes a terrific subject:
Jane gave birth to a son and in 1910 married artist Maurice Biais. She quit dancing and moved out of Paris to live a quiet domestic life. But it was not to be. Jane’s marriage was an unhappy one, and Maurice often disappeared for days at a time. When he died in 1926, Jane was left penniless. It seemed like she had come full circle, back to a life of anonymity, poverty, and tough times. She was the lonely runaway girl all over again. Or was she?
In 1941, the elderly Jane Avril was tracked down by a persistent group of admirers. They pulled her out of obscurity to honor her with a “grand-finale” tribute in Paris. At that bittersweet event, white-haired Jane – former can-can girl and artists’ muse – got up on stage and once again performed a dance to an appreciative audience. Once again, she dazzled the crowd. Just like she did regularly at the Moulin Rouge. And just like she did back when she was 16, in that hospital pysch ward. She did it again . . . Jane did it again Can you imagine what that moment must have been like for her? To realize that she was not forgotten, that her name and career still meant something to people, that her spirit was still alive? If it were me, I’d have been a wreck! Falling apart emotionally and crying my eyes out.
The Nicole Kidman character in the 2001 film Moulin Rouge is based on Jane Avril. The real Jane died in a nursing home in 1943. She was 75 years old. She is interred at Pere-Lachaise cemetery in Paris.