Jane Avril (1899 Poster)
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More about Jane Avril (1899 Poster)

gstecyk's picture


Jane Avril had the best publicist in the business.  

Toulouse-Lautrec revolutionized the world of advertising, producing a series of iconic posters of Avril in her nightclub act at the Moulin Rouge.  It is tempting to use the sexist cliché that “he made her famous,” but in fact she was so successful in her own right she may very well have made him famous through his use of her image.  Either way, it was an equal partnership of two brilliant artists.

She was born the bastard daughter of a courtesan and an Italian aristocrat, fled home at 16 to escape hideous abuse, and ended up in a mental institution for a hysterical disorder (most likely Sydenham’s Chorea).  It turned out the convulsive twitching of her disorder gave her a uniquely entrancing quality while dancing, which she discovered at a “mad ball” in the asylum.

Jane went out in search of fame and fortune, only to find heartbreak and near suicide until some kind-hearted hookers took her in, and moonlighting at nightclubs landed her a job at the Moulin Rouge.  The notorious cabaret had just let go of its headliner, La Goulue, a vulgar but fascinating performer known for her plunging necklines, zest for the party life, and manic can-can style.  

Jane Avril was an entirely different artist from the wantonly sexy, in-your-face Goulue, and the public was intrigued by the contrast.  Her signature twitching movement coupled with her fragile, graceful physique produced a hypnotic kabuki quality, described by an admirer as “an orchid in a frenzy.”  This hysterical, volatile sensuality also earned her the nicknames “Crazy Jane” and “le melanite” (an explosive used in gunpowder).  Her talent was so singular, it is said she was the only can-can dancer in Paris allowed to wear colored petticoats.

Offstage, Jane was unlucky in love, with a series of affairs with writers and artists that resulted in a bastard son, a disastrous marriage and financial ruin.  She died penniless in a nursing home during the Nazi occupation, far from the golden Paris of her youth.

This is perhaps the most famous of Toulouse-Lautrec’s many depictions of Jane Avril, probably because she’s such a BAMF in that skin-tight black snake dress, fit for Lady Gaga at the Oscars.  There’s a publicity photo of the real Jane in the same costume and pose, but it’s hard to say if the photo inspired the poster, or if the poster inspired the photo.  The image was recreated with Zsa Zsa Gabor in the role of Jane for the 1952 film "Moulin Rouge."  Nicole Kidman’s character in the 2001 film was also very loosely based on Jane Avril.  Sartle highly recommends both movies...just don’t base your term paper on the 2001 version.