Jane Avril – Muse of the Moulin Rouge

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.

17 thoughts on “Jane Avril – Muse of the Moulin Rouge

  1. Well told as always Claudia.

  2. ColdSilverMoon says:

    Another great post, Claudia! Very interesting history of Jane Avril. I think this once again illustrates (no pun intended!) that the best models are those with an inner vitality and life that they exude through their physical form. Thanks for the interesting read…

  3. ray says:

    Great story, I never knew about her but always came across her name in a book I have about Toulouse Lautrec. There is something about that whole paris caboret seen thats unhealthy. There are many holes in the story that we dont know about. Lautrec always gave the impression of someone very unhappy, drowning his misery with absenthe, opium, ultimately ending from a terminal case of syphallis. It’s amazing she lived as long as she did. Starting out life with all those strikes against her , and then being involed in that parisian night life scene. Having the child and moving away probably saved her from an early death, but also brought her more heart ache What happened to the child?

  4. artmodel says:

    Robert, thanks! You’re so sweet.

  5. artmodel says:

    ColdSilverMoon,

    I’m starting to think that you express my ideas and the gists of my arguments better than I do! And that’s just fine. “inner vitality” that emanates from the model’s “physical form” is just perfect. That was certainly Jane.

    Thanks for commenting, as always.

    Claudia

  6. artmodel says:

    Ray,

    I’m glad you enjoyed this post. The Parisian nightclub scene was pretty wild indeed, and took it’s toll on many of its participants, like Toulouse-Lautrec. A lot of drinking, and a lot of prostitution.

    I couldn’t find out what happened to Jane’s child, but I will look into it one more time and see if a second stab at research produces anything.

    Claudia

  7. Ray says:

    I was thinking , may be she became a famous dancer, or on the other hand got the gene for alcholism and abuse .What would be great is if she immigrated to the U.S.A. married and had children living here that could possibly be looked up. Sort of like a continuation of the story. May be she was someone else’s muse,Like her mom?
    William Merrit Chase Perhaps ,Passing thru the halls of the A.S.L.?

    PS wish your mom a Happy Birthyday from me!

    Ray

  8. Amanda says:

    This is one of the best posts I’ve read lately. So interesting. Thank you! I actually got to see Moulin Rouge in Paris. Sadly the day-time building does not impress. Oh to live back in those seedy days 🙂

  9. artmodel says:

    Amanda,

    Thank you! Really glad you enjoyed this post on Jane, as she definitely deserved a Museworthy honor.

    I saw the Moulin Rouge also, but is was many, many years ago. Like 20! I remember it vaguely, and don’t recall it being spectacular in any way. But I’m sure the ghosts of those “seedy days” were haunting every crevice.

    Thanks for commenting!

    Claudia

  10. Craig Robert Whitfield says:

    The child “Jaques” (according to the biography by Jose Shercliff in 1954) ran away from his wife and was never heard off again – any further news would be great.
    Jane did visit her daughter in law and indeed her grandchild (a boy) in later life and often wondered what was in her heart at that moment.

    Any news or comments are a joy to read

    Craig

    Oh to have seen Jane dance!

    • artmodel says:

      Craig,

      Thanks so much for sharing that bit of information about Jane and her family. Much appreciated! After writing this blog for almost two years, I’m constantly heartened by the amount of interest expressed in the lives of the great muses. They are, in many cases, more compelling and sympathetic figures than the artists themselves.

      Oh and yes, imagine to have seen Jane dance! 🙂

      Thanks again for posting a comment on this post.

      Claudia

  11. craigrobert says:

    I am currently attempting to translate Mes Memoires by Jane Avril which were released in the Paris Midi Newspaper in 1933. I’m about half way through it and perhaps a little is lost in the translation which I will work on in an attempt to let it make sense. It’s for personal benefit really and a labour of love.

    I’ve also been in contact with Gyles Brandreth who is currently writing a series of murder mysteries (9 in total) told through the narrative of Robert Sherard with the detective being non other than Oscar Wilde.

    I made Mr Brandreth aware of Robert Sherard’s relationship with Jane Avril and he was taken by surprise at this news. I have provided him the reference (Jane Avril of the Moulin Rouge by Jose Shercliff) and he has since bought the book.

    His 3rd novel Oscar Wilde and the Dead Man’s Smile is set in part in Paris and expressed the news to me that he wished he had this information before starting this novel. He did, however, express that he would look for a means to use it in the future.
    My hope is that he does and brings her once more to life through one of the remaining novels and introduce her to a modern audience who may just ask the question….wow, who is this girl?

    I shall respond with any further news.
    MERRY CHRSITMAS

    Craig

    • artmodel says:

      Craig,

      Thanks for the update! What a tremendous project, and your efforts are impressive. Jane is fortunate to have such a passionate champion as yourself. You’re doing great work.

      Thanks again, and Merry Christmas!

      Claudia

  12. Bee says:

    I stumbled across this post while doing research on Toulouse-Lautrec and I absolutely love what you’ve written about Jane Avril! I definitely hadn’t considered how museworthy she was, but your post is definitely inspiring for me to look at her in such a positive way.

    Subscribing to your blog feed- keep up the great posts!

    • artmodel says:

      Bee, thank you so much! I enjoyed writing about Jane, and she was most definitely museworthy.

      I’m so happy that you’ve subscribed! I’m honored to have you among my readership. Welcome! 🙂

      Claudia

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