Friday, 8 June 2012


Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (November 24 1864 - September 9 1901)

During the Post Impressionist period, and inspired by the Bohemian excesses of Paris in the 1890's, an artist called Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec created his glamorous paintings - and in many of those creations he was to depict the sensual dancer, Jane Avril.

A beautiful girl, though extremely thin, with pale skin and tresses of red gold hair, Jane Avril soon became infamous for performing the cancan at the Jardin de Paris, a fashionable dance hall in the Champs-Elysees.

Lautrec had been employed to produce an advertising illustration, and the dancer who featured in that poster soon became very fond indeed of the diminutive artist (for whom congenital childhood illnesses resulted in legs which did not grow, with an adult height of around five foot).

The two friends came from different backgrounds, with Lautrec being born into one of France's oldest noble families - a family which must have been  disappointed when the ambitions of this talented young man were not quite as lofty as they might have been - irresistibly drawn to night clubs such as the Moulin Rouge, recording the seedier side of life in the area known as Montmarte; then a haunt of other louche artists, philosophers and writers.

At the Moulin Rouge (1892-93)

There, among other working girls he was to meet Jane Avril. Living in a Parisian brother, Jane was said to be the daughter of a courtesan, with an absent father romantically rumoured to have been a foreign aristocrat. She was originally named as Jeanne but in later life preferred to use the stage name of Jane - thinking it sounded English and the epitome of 'chic'. And, perhaps that renaming was also an attempt to forget an unhappy, abusive past which resulted in her leaving home when she was only thirteen years old, soon afterwards ending up in the care of Paris' Salpetriere psychiatric hospital.

While there, when attending a fancy-dress ball, Jane was to discover her love of dance - the art form that would become her cure. However some nervous mannerisms exhibited during her illness (perhaps the condition St Vitus' Dance) continued to appear whenever she was performing, which led to some observers saying that she looked like a big jerky bird or 'an orchid in a frenzy'. She was also known as 'La Melinite' (a form of explosive dynamite) and Jane La Folle (Crazy Jane).

Jane Avril (1891-92) - looking somewhat artistocratic

Lautrec saw her as a woman rather than simply another dancing girl; more than a flame that flickered bright only in the demi-monde. Yes, he painted her in glamorous poses, but he also presented the graceful and melancholic Jane in the day to day routine of her life - paintings in which she often seems to be somewhat older than her years, looking frail and tired and nervous.

Jane Avril leaving the Moulin Rouge (1892)

Lautrec used to visit his muse at all hours of the day and night, often studying her features and mannerisms while taking her out to restaurants. In 1895 she bore an illegitimate son but the child was not thought to be Lautrec's, and  it is extremely doubtful that the friends ever became lovers - which may have been due to his own insecurities, the artist always being aware of his physical imperfections, taking more and more to drink (particularly fond of cocktails mixed with Absinthe and Cognac) and eventually dying of that excess whilst also infected with Syphilis. He was only 31 years old.

It seemed that Jane was luckier when, at the age of 42, she met and married the German artist, Biais. The couple duly set up home in the Parisian outskirts. But her husband soon began to stray and when he died in 1926 she was left to live in poverty, eventually dying in an old people's home when she was seventy-five years old.

But her youth will always be preserved in the portraits created by Lautrec, along with his other visions of the late nineteenth century Parisian nightlife; all depicted in a brave and original style that is filled with colour and vibrant life - which still continues to lure us now - as does the life of Jane Avril, more recently reinterpreted when, in 2001, Nicole Kidman played the part of the dancer in the film Moulin Rouge.

Signature of Toulouse-Lautrec


  1. One of the most important books of my childhood was MOULIN ROUGE by Pierre La Mure. A fictionalized biography which I mother read it and I did too. I couldn't have been more than about 9 and it made a HUGE impression on me. I've always loved Lautrec's work and that skinny redhead look is one I give my heroines all the time. THis is a lovely post!

  2. Thank you, Adele - and isn't it strange how childhood influences can affect us so much in later life, and creatively?

    As always, I feel I have only brushed the tip of the subject - so many fascinating characters.

  3. I did enjoy your post, such an interesting look into his life. Patricia

  4. Oh, how I love Toulouse Lautrec's artwork. I didn't know much about Jane Avril and their friendship. Thanks for sharing what you know. It adds another layer of interest to Lautrec's artwork.

  5. Toulouse-Lautrec is one of my favourite artists. There was a really good documentary shown on him some years ago which one can still watch here. He did have a tragic life but would we have had the art without the tragedy. Thanks for this blog about his muse -

  6. Thank you Patricia and Melissa. His work was amazing.

  7. Great post. Thank you for the insight! ... I didn't realise Lautrec was SO YOUNG when worked and died, and the relationship between the two is fascinating. Surely a rich book could be written, if it hasn't been already?

  8. sent you an email VV, this is getting so eerie in a wonderful way :)

  9. Blackbird, Yes, he was very young, wasn't he.

    Rehan - thank you so much for that link.

    Gondal-girl - have found your email. Thank you for getting in touch - very good to hear from you!

  10. I understand that Henri didn't sleep with Jane because she was his friend, confidant and muse. But he had VD so he was certainly getting sex somewhere. Didn't he live in a brothel, amongst a whole group of working women?

  11. Hello Hels.

    Yes, I think he did. I wonder if, with Jane believing that her father was somewhat aristocratic, and Henri coming from a noble French family, that gave them some deeper connection and understanding of each other?

  12. Fascinating to learn about a woman whose image is so familiar. Thank you for this post.