Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (November 24 1864 - September 9 1901)
Today, November 24th, in the year of 1864, the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born in Albi, in France. He was to grow up and find his fame in the Post Impressionist period, inspired by all the Bohemian excesses of Paris in the 1890's. It was there he created his glamorous paintings - and in many of those creations he was to depict a dancer whose name was Jane Avril.
Jane Avril was a beautiful girl (though she was extremely thin, with pale skin and tresses of red gold hair) who had become quite infamous for performing the Cancan at the Jardin de Paris: a fashionable Parisian dance hall situated in the Champs-Elysees.
Lautrec had been employed to illustrate an advertisement for the hall, and the dancer who featured in his striking 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 very different backgrounds. Lautrec had been born into one of France's oldest noble families, and that family must have been disappointed when this talented young man's ambitions were not quite as lofty as they might have been - being so irresistibly drawn to night clubs such as the Moulin Rouge where he used his art to record the seedier side of Montmarte life; the area that was then a haunt of artists, writers and philosophers.
At the Moulin Rouge (1892-93)
There, amongst all the working girls, he was to meet Jane Avril. She was living in a Parisian brothel where it was said that she was the child of a famous courtesan, her absent father rumoured to have been a foreign aristocrat. She was originally named as Jeanne, but preferred to use Jane for her stage career - thinking it sounded English, and the epitome of 'chic'. Perhaps that renaming was also an attempt to forget an abusive past which resulted in her leaving home when she was only thirteen years old - very soon afterwards taken in by the Paris' Salpetriere psychiatric hospital.
While there, when attending a fancy-dress ball, Jane discovered 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) were never quite lost when she performed, leading 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 Avril as more than a nickname, much more than another dancing girl. He viewed her as a complete being. Yes, she was the flame that shone in the darkness of his demimonde when he painted her in such glamorous poses. But he also presented her everyday - the somewhat more melancholic Jane. In those paintings she often seems to be somewhat older than her years, looking frail and tired, and nervous.
Jane Avril leaving the Moulin Rouge (1892)
Lautrec was prone 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, when she bore an illegitimate son, some suggested the child might be Lautrec's. But others think it doubtful that the friends were ever lovers. Lautrec had many insecurities, acutely aware of his physical defects. He took more and more to drinking (being particularly fond of cocktails with Absinthe and Cognac) and was also infected with Syphilis. He was only 31 years old.
It seemed that Jane was luckier, for a little while at least. 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 French late nineteenth century nightlife. His brave and original style is filled with suh 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