Jane Avril in the Entrance to the Moulin Rouge
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More about Jane Avril in the Entrance to the Moulin Rouge

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Long before Katniss Everdeen, Jane Avril was the girl on fire.  

With her convulsive dance style and flaming red hair, she was nicknamed le Melanite, after a powerful explosive used in gunpowder.

She was born Jeanne Beaudon, the love-child of a French courtesan and an Italian aristocrat.  Her father abandoned them, and her mother brutally beat her as a child.  She ran away at 16, lived in the streets, and ended up in an insane asylum because of her hysterical convulsions, thought to be Sydenham’s Chorea.  At an Asylum Mardi Gras ball, Jane discovered that her twitchy movements produced an exhilarating effect while dancing, and was miraculously cured of her supposed insanity.  According to a highly suspect memoir, she was released the same day.

Back on the streets and suicidal after a failed romance, Jeanne was rescued by a kind-hearted brothel madam.  She took the name Jane Avril on the suggestion of an English lover, who was also friends with Oscar Wilde, and set out to conquer Paris with her newfound passion for dance.  She moonlighted nightclubs and worked odd jobs as a circus acrobat, horseback rider and cashier at the great Paris Exhibition of 1889, where she may have crossed paths with Buffalo Bill and artist Rosa Bonheur.

The Moulin Rouge proved to be her big break, where the peculiar mixture of her twitching vibrations and demure gracefulness was a big hit with audiences.  There she met Toulouse-Lautrec, and the two became good friends and creative partners.  Lautrec publicized her image in a series of iconic poster ads, and also did several intimate portraits of her.  This is one of those personal portraits of Jane as a more private individual.

Lautrec catches her off guard as she crosses the entrance of the famed cabaret, probably on her way backstage to get ready for the night’s performance.  Offstage, she is a sad, withdrawn figure, worn beyond her youthful years.  Contemporary photos of Jane show a pretty, fresh-faced girl.  The artistic tradition was to flatter subjects, but Lautrec was always more fascinated by people two steps from the gutter.  He seems to have accentuated Jane’s irregular facial features and the tired bags under her eyes for a real Grinch-who-stole-Christmas effect. He may not capture Jane’s natural beauty, but he captures her downtrodden spirit perfectly.

Jane and Lautrec were so close that he once he borrowed her clothing for a drag ball and had himself photographed dressed as her.  In the photo, he’s wearing a hat and fur boa or collar like the ones seen here, so it’s possible Lautrec once wore this very outfit.