Jane Avril

Jane Avril (9 June 1868  17 January 1943) was a French can-can dancer made famous by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec through his paintings. Extremely thin, "given to jerky movements and sudden contortions", she was nicknamed La Mélinite, after an explosive.[1]


She was born Jeanne Louise Beaudon on 9 June 1868 in Belleville, located in the 20th arrondissement of Paris[2][3] (though her biographer, Jose Shercliff—whose account of the dancer's life is highly romanticised—employed the surname “Richepin” in her publication).[4] Her mother Léontine Clarisse Beaudon was a prostitute who was known as "La Belle Élise", and her father was an Italian aristocrat named Luigi de Font who separated from her mother when she was two years old.[5][6]:16 Avril was raised by her grandparents in the countryside until her mother took her back with the intent of turning her into a prostitute.[4]

Living in poverty and abused by her alcoholic mother, she ran away from home as a teenager,[lower-alpha 1] and was eventually admitted to the Salpêtrière Hospital in December 1882,[8] with the movement disorder known as "St Vitus' Dance", with symptoms that included nervous tics, thrashing of limbs, and rhythmic swaying.[7][9] Under the care of Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot, the expert on "female hysteria", she received various kinds of treatment, and claimed in her biography that, when she discovered dance at a social dance for employees and patients at the hospital celebrating Mardi Gras, she was cured, although a modern biography of her argues that this story is unlikely, as she was discharged in June 1884, months before any Mardi Gras celebration would take place.[4]

Regardless, she incorporated some of the mannerisms into her dance style, but it is unclear if she was actually afflicted by the condition[lower-alpha 2] or if it was simply a marketing strategy, as nervous conditions such as hysteria were associated with elegance by writers of the time (or both),[10] She was certainly known for her unusual style, which was described as "an orchid in a frenzy".[7] The Belgian author Frantz Jourdain described her as "this exquisite creature, nervous and neurotic, the captivating flower of artistic corruption and of sickly grace".[10]

On leaving the hospital, after a failed romance with a doctor, Avril pondered committing suicide, but was taken in by Parisian prostitutes.[4] Working at whatever day jobs were available, including as a secretary to Arsène Houssaye,[6]:25 as a rider or acrobat at the Hippodrome de l'Alma and as a cashier at the Exposition Universelle in 1889,[5] at night she pursued a career in dancing by performing at local dance halls and cafés-concerts. In 1888 she met the writer René Boylesve (18671926) who became her lover.[11] Using the stage name Jane Avril, suggested by an English lover,[12] she built a reputation that eventually allowed her to make a living as a full-time dancer. During this time she became known by various nicknames: La Mélinite after an explosive, L'Etrange ("The Strange One"), and Jane la Folle ("Jane the Strange").[7][5]

Hired by the Moulin Rouge nightclub in 1889, within a few years she headlined at the Jardin de Paris, one of the major cafés-concerts on the Champs-Élysées. To advertise the extravaganza, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec painted her portrait on a poster that elevated her stature in the entertainment world even further.[13] The popularity of the can-can became such that Avril travelled with a dance troupe to perform in London in 1896.[12]

In 1895, Louise Weber, known by her stage name La Goulue ("The Glutton") and the most famous dancer in Paris, left the Moulin Rouge, and Avril was chosen to replace her.[14][15] Graceful, soft-spoken, and melancholic, Avril gave a dance presentation that was the opposite of the very boisterous La Goulue. Nevertheless, the club's patrons adored her, and she became one of the most recognizable names of the Parisian nightlife. A younger dancer, May Milton, arrived in Paris in 1895 and she and Avril had a short but passionate affair.[16] From another liaison, she bore a son,[2] and beginning in 1901, appeared in theatre, taking roles in Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt, as well as a stage adaptation of Claudine at School by Colette.[5]

In 1905, she retired from performing altogether and married the French artist, Maurice Biais (18721926) in 1911, who adopted her son. They moved to a home in Jouy-en-Josas at the outskirts of Paris. However, Biais suffered from lung disease and the couple separated in the 1920s, with Biais moving to the south of France, where he died.[2] She was bankrupted by the Great Depression and died on 17 January 1943(1943-01-17) (aged 74) in poverty and obscurity.[5][3] She was interred in the Biais family plot in Paris' Père Lachaise Cemetery.[2]

Zsa Zsa Gabor portrayed Avril in the original Moulin Rouge (1952);[17] half a century later, the semi-fictionalized character was reinterpreted by Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge! (2001).[18] Avril is one of the characters in Per Olov Enquist's book The Book of Blanche and Marie, which portrays the lives of Marie "Blanche" Wittmann and Marie Curie.[19]


  1. Sources state this was either at the age of 13[7] or 16.[5]
  2. Maximillien de Lafayette's biography of her claims that Avril's mother had her committed against her will and that the doctors soon discovered she was unaffected by disorder.[6]:21


  1. Hamilton, Adrian (20 June 2011). "Dancer to the music of time". The Independent. Retrieved 24 May 2019.
  2. Weisberg, Gabriel P. (Spring 2012). "Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril, Beyond the Moulin Rouge". Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide. 11 (1).
  3. "Jane Avril (1868–1943)" (in French). Bibliothèque nationale de France. Retrieved 24 May 2019.
  4. Olsen, Victoria (1 October 2015). "Turning Points: Jane Avril in Paris". Open Letters Monthly. Retrieved 24 May 2019.
  5. Helmick-Brunet, Kristin (15 October 2013). Jiminez, Jill Berk (ed.). Dictionary of Artists' Models. Routledge. pp. 52–56. ISBN 9781135959142.
  6. de Lafayette, Maximillien (12 November 2015). Jane Avril, Queen of the French Can Can. Translated by Berthier, Solange. Times Square Press. ISBN 9781329684997.
  7. Hughes, Kathryn (12 June 2011). "Jane Avril: Toulouse-Lautrec's muse". The Telegraph. ISSN 0307-1235. Retrieved 24 May 2019.
  8. Giménez-Roldán, S. (23 March 2017). "Clinical history of Blanche Wittman and current knowledge of psychogenic non-epileptic seizures" (PDF). Neurosciences and History. 4 (4): 122–129.
  9. "The Beauty and the Sorrow: Being Jane Avril, Toulouse-Lautrec's Muse". Rennert's Gallery. 14 June 2017. Retrieved 24 May 2019.
  10. Chapin, Mary Weaver (December 2012). "Review: Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril". Print Quarterly. 29 (4): 478–481. JSTOR 43826332.
  11. Trémouilloux, François (2010). René Boylesve: Un romancier du sensible (PDF) (in French). Presses universitaires François-Rabelais.
  12. "Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond The Moulin Rouge". The Courtauld Institute of Art. Retrieved 24 May 2019.
  13. "Women in an Artist's Life". Life. Vol. 57 no. 16. 16 October 1964. pp. 82–90. 'It is to Lautrec', said Jane Avril, 'that I owe my fame.'
  14. de Lafayette, Maximillien (12 November 2015). The Rise and Fall of Louise Weber La Goulue, Creator of the French Can Can (10th ed.). Times Square Press. p. 44. ISBN 9781329684836.
  15. Merrill, Jane (26 November 2018). The Showgirl Costume: An Illustrated History. McFarland. p. 98. ISBN 9781476671741.
  16. Casselaer, Catherine Van (1986). Lot's Wife: Lesbian Paris, 1890–1914. Janus Press. pp. 57–58. ISBN 9780950963068.
  17. Ulaby, Neda (18 December 2016). "Zsa Zsa Gabor, An Icon Of Camp, Glitz And Glam, Dies At 99". National Public Radio. Retrieved 25 May 2019.
  18. Levy, Paul (17 June 2011). "The Artistry of Toulouse-Lautrec and His Dancing Muse Jane Avril". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 25 May 2019.
  19. Bogousslavsky, J. (23 June 2014). Hysteria: The Rise of an Enigma. Karger Medical and Scientific Publishers. p. 116. ISBN 9783318026474. Retrieved 25 May 2019.


  • Shercliff, Jose (1952). Jane Avril of the Moulin Rouge. London: Jarrolds Publishers, Ltd. OCLC 1477795.
  • Avril, Jane; Ramiro, Érastène (2019) [2005]. Mes memoires (in French). Paris: La Gibecière à Mots. ISBN 9782374633206.

Further reading

  • Caradec, François (2001). Jane Avril : au Moulin Rouge avec Toulouse-Lautrec (in French). Paris: Fayard. ISBN 2-213-60888-1.
  • Ireson, Nancy (2011). Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge. Courtauld Galleries. ISBN 9781907372247.
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