Toulouse-Lautrec epitomised La Belle Époque of 1890s Paris. He spent his nights at nightclubs and theatres, sketching the dancers and clientele, many of them his friends and whom he would then immortalise on canvas. But one dancer at the Moulin Rouge captivated him until his death and inspired some of his most important work, as an exhibition at London’s Courtauld Gallery demonstrates.
They made a strange pair, Lautrec and Jane Avril, He, the diminutive artist in his regular box at the Moulin Rouge, she with her erratic and frenetic dance style, at once unique and mystifying. Yet throughout the 1890s they worked together as artist and model to create paintings, sketches and drawings which are now recognised as a significant and distinct example of Lautrec’s œuvre. The spark for the exhibition, curated by Dr Nancy Ireson, was a quote from the critic Arsène Alexandre who wrote that “painter and model, together, have created a true art of our time, one through movement, one through representation.”
Their backgrounds could not have been more dissimilar. He was the scion of an aristocratic family – his full name was Henri Marie Raymond de Toulouse-Lautrec-Monfa – born in 1864 on the family estate at Albi, in the Midi-Pyrénées region of south-west France. He started drawing at the age of eight when living in Paris with his mother and had informal art lessons. But he was a sickly child, possibly the result of inbreeding as his parents were first cousins, and fractured both his thigh bones by the time he was fourteen. The breaks never healed and his legs ceased to grow. Although some reports say he was only 4 ft. 6 ins. tall, in fact his true height was just over five foot, still significantly shorter, however, than that of the average male in late 19th century France.
He moved to Paris in 1882 and studied under Bonnat and Cormon, before developing his own distinctive style where he would apply paint in long, sweeping brush strokes which left areas of the canvas untouched, emphasising the contours within his work. He was also a prolific worker, producing, in a career which lasted less than twenty years, more than 700 paintings, 275 watercolours, 363 prints and posters, over 5,000 drawings and ceramic and glass artefacts.
Coming from a wealthy background, Lautrec had no need of money, yet his artistic skills meant he also had no need of the family wealth, at least in his early years in the capital.
The only possible connection Jane Avril may have had with Lautrec is that her father was rumoured to be an Italian aristocrat but as her mother was a courtesan, this may just have been a career-enhancing rumour. Born Jeanne Beaudon in the working-class Paris suburb of Belleville in 1868, Avril experienced a truly terrible childhood. Her mother farmed her out to her grandparents and then two convent schools so she could continue her profession, but when her mother’s looks faded, the young Avril was made to sing and beg on street corners, do all the household chores and suffered physical and verbal abuse. When her mother then tried to force her into prostitution, Avril ran away from home.
Her abusive upbringing caused her to suffer from Sydenham’s chorea, an irregular contraction of the muscles resulting in uncoordinated and staccato body movements. She was referred to the eminent physician Professor Jean-Martin Charcot, who ran the Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris. Here he specialised in the study and treatment of hysteria. Now no longer seen as a separate medical entity, but rather as a collection of related illnesses, Charcot used a variety of techniques, ranging from gymnastics in Avril’s case to electric shock therapy in others. She spent almost two years in the hospital which was criticised for its methods, but described it in her memoirs as an ‘Eden’. Her home life must have been unimaginably awful for her to find Charcot’s sometimes brutal regime edenic.
Avril flourished at the Salpêtrière, even becoming a favourite of the Charcot family. She herself thought that the symptoms of her fellow ‘hysterics’ were fake, designed to gain favour and contact with the (male) doctors. “These mad women,” she wrote, “whose illness, called ‘hysteria’, consisted above all in its simulation….Their lot was to find something new with which to eclipse their peers, while around their bed large groups of students, presided over by Charcot, followed their extravagant contortions with interest.” Sometimes, according to Avril, this interest overstepped the bounds of medical ethics whereby patients might have ‘adventures’ with the medical students, resulting in the women disappearing for a while to give birth to the ‘living results.’
Avril’s subsequent dance career had its roots at the Salpêtrière. Once a year, a ward would be cleared, fancy-dress costumes distributed to the female patients, and members of the public invited to the Bal des Folles – The Madwomen’s Ball. Charcot’s daughter lent her a costume and she danced as if in a dream-like state, carried away by the music and applauded by other dancers when the it stopped. “Alas! I was cured!” she wrote.
“Her dance style seems to have borrowed from the movements of her illness,” says Dr Ireson, “and I think that actually added to her appeal in an age that was fascinated by medicine and illnesses such as hysteria. This was typical of France in the 1890s, a fascination with things out of the ordinary and even with Lautrec, because of his diminutive size, people seemed to think they knew him before they actually ever met him. Lautrec made a lot of the fact that he looked different, not as a victim but as a sort of marketing tool. Likewise, Avril must have realised that being different could actually be a selling point.”
Living with her mother proved impossible for Avril but she was taken in by a brothel madame where – as she euphemistically stated – “I had to learn that one has to pay for one’s board and lodgings.” She went dancing at the Bal Bullier (where single women were admitted for free on the presumption they were looking for ‘business’) where her movements caught the eye of a succession of admirers, but it was only when she was taken on at the Moulin Rouge on its opening in late 1889 that she found her true métier. And it was here, at the ‘Red Windmill’, soon after, that she first met Lautrec.
Although their upbringing had been complete contrasts, both were outsiders. Avril’s erratic and highly individualised dance style, in which she almost seemed to ignore the music and dance to her own rhythm, and her dress sense which was seen as eccentric in 1890s Paris, had already set her apart from the other dancers at the Moulin Rouge. Perhaps it was this distant, otherworldliness, and her manifest intelligence and subtlety, which first attracted her to Lautrec for he was immediately captivated. Although there is no record of a romantic liaison between the two, he seems to have had feelings for Avril which went beyond those of a mere fan.
Lautrec’s first portrayal of Avril appeared in his lithograph Divan Japonais, of 1893. Avril supposedly said of this poster: “Without a doubt I owed him the fame I enjoyed from that very first moment his poster of me appeared.” (Although she is more likely referring to another representation of her that same year.) Whether this poster brought her fame or not, it is certainly striking and emblematic of its age.
The Divan Japonais was a nightclub frequented by the same louche crowd who would also go to the Moulin Rouge and other night spots in and around Montmartre.
Although the star of the club was the singer Yvette Guilbert, she is only shown at top left, recognisable by club regulars from her black gloves. Her head is unseen, out of frame. Instead it is Avril who occupies centre stage, dressed all in black, languidly holding a fan with a glass of champagne by her side. Behind her leers an archetypal Parisian roué, actually Lautrec’s friend Édouard Dujardin, sucking on the top of his cane as he contemplates her svelte beauty.
It is more likely Avril owed her early fame in part to another poster of her, Jane Avril at the Jardin de Paris(1893) where she is shown performing a kick, clasping her yellow skirt beneath her right leg and framed in part by the neck of a double-bass. The poster was a great success and was reissued in different versions. Yet there is something mournful in Avril’s look as Lautrec portrays her and her body seems contorted rather then relaxed. One commentator said of her: “On the stage, like a sad and pained large bird, Jane Avril dances or, rather, hops. Her weary, slender body loses itself in the volume of her red and yellow dress (while) a very distinctive facial expression, framed by her hair, gives the dancer an inexpressible London strangeness.” Londoners – and the English generally – were seen as eccentric and odd by the French and Avril would often play on this aspect of her persona to differentiate herself in a crowded market. However, Ernest Mandron perhaps best sums up Avril’s character here: “Her facial expression is unbelievably sad. One feels the weariness, one sees that the young woman dances for our pleasure, not her own; one reads it as the barely-hidden desire to escape from this existence where her blasé public demands too much.”
Lautrec found something similar in Avril’s nature when he painted her in 1892 in Jane Avril leaving the Moulin Rouge. Avril was a willing model for Lautrec. Plied with food and drink, frequently Lautrec’s own powerful cocktail concoctions, she would adopt poses in his studio.
Yet here again she seems to reveal hidden depths. Alexandre says of her that she walks “pensively along the streets, meditating on the age-old stupidity of men” and there is undoubtedly a world-weary resignation about her, as if she has already seen and experienced too much at the age of only 24.
The same air of withdrawn insularity hangs over the Courtauld’s own Jane Avril in the Entrance to the Moulin Rouge of 1892. As Nancy Ireson says in her catalogue notes “though she could only have been in her early twenties when the portrait was made, her face resembles that of an old woman.”
The Courtauld has also been fortunate to secure the loan of a Lautrec masterpiece, simply titled Jane Avril, a portrait of the dancer dating from 1891-92.
Not seen in London since 1898, it shows Avril wearing an English riding cloak called a Garrick, a garment usually worn by men but worn by Avril presumably to accentuate her eccentric nature and thereby her love of England and all things English, a trait she shared with Lautrec. There was also a trend for bohemian women to cross-dress and mix with lesbians, a grouping of those generally shunned by mainstream society, a relationship of the marginalised, similar in some respects to the friendship between Lautrec and Avril.
The painting is unusual for Lautrec as he typically depicted the women of Montmartre at work, dancing or singing. As Nancy Ireson says: “…in this instance he made no suggestion of profession. Avril’s gaze is direct; she appears as an individual, alert and intelligent, on a level with the painter.”
A contrast can clearly be seen in his depictions of the Moulin Rouge’s most famous dancer, La Goulue, ‘the glutton’. So named because of her voracious sexual appetite for both men and women, Louise Weber was everything that Avril was not. Earthy, unsubtle in her movements, wearing dresses cut to her navel and transparent underwear, she was provocative, a force of nature. Lautrec painted her dancing many times but the exhibition has secured the loan of La Goulue at the Moulin Rouge (1891-92), the only Lautrec painting owned by New York’s Museum of Modern Art.
She stands arm-in-arm with her sister on her right and her lover to her left. She was already a star when she moved to the Moulin Rouge on its opening in 1889, and her fans followed over en masse. She typified the Belle Époque, her exuberant and sexual dancing seemed to epitomise the age and she was a much bigger star than Avril. Yet, as Nancy Ireson points out, “the boldness and the blatant corporeality of Weber’s act must have given Avril a model against which to define her own identity.”
In an interview, Dr Ireson highlighted the importance of the work to the exhibition. “We asked and were delighted in securing the loan. That’s been the thing that has struck us in setting up this show; lenders have been excited by the project and the idea that people will learn something new, so they have been generous.” The exhibition is also a one-off due to conservation and loan issues. Some of the works need to be carefully handled and preserved; many are on cardboard and would not withstand too long a period of time away from ‘base’ and their normal environment.
The Daily Telegraph’s art critic Richard Dorment has touched upon this issue in an article on the forthcoming Leonardo exhibition at London’s National Gallery, and it demonstrates the achievement of Nancy Ireson and her colleagues at the Courtauld in securing so many famous loans. Dorment points out that it is not sufficient to simply think up an idea for a show and ask other galleries for a loan. The curator has to be clear that something new is being said, that the theme has not been done before and that the catalogue will be a serious work of scholarship. Another advantage is to assure any potential lender that the exhibition is a one-off and will not travel, thereby reducing the risk of damage to fragile objects. The Courtauld’s show ticked all these boxes.
Another loan from MoMA, this time a lithograph, clearly displays Lautrec’s admiration for Avril. Dating from 1893, and never previously exhibited in London, it is the cover of L’Estampe originale, a distinguished publication which provided its subscribers with prints by progressive artists such as Renoir and Pissarro in limited editions.
The artist was a frequent visitor to the print works shown here, the Imprimerie Ancourt, run by its venerable master printer, Le père Cotelle, who did so much to help create the posters and prints for which Lautrec is famous. Yet Avril is afforded a position of importance as well. She inspects the proof, as if she, as well as the artist, had a direct say in its finalisation. As Nancy ireson writes: “Effectively, by casting his friend in the role of overseer, Lautrec not only seems to have offered his own work for her approval; he also deigned her fit to pass judgement on the efforts of his fellow practitioners. No other performer he frequented received such a distinction; perhaps no other performer’s good opinion was so important to him.” It is impossible to imagine the more earthy Goulue taking time to go to the printers to see a proof of herself or Lautrec portraying her in such a way.
Avril’s reputation for style and sophistication was further bolstered when she appeared in a famous production of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt in Paris in 1896. Directed by the playwright and absurdist Alfred Jarry, Avril played the role of Anitra, daughter of the Bedouin chief who dances for Gynt in the desert. Avril also performed in London in 1896 with the Troupe d’Églantine, having previously visited the city with her friend and fellow dancer May Milton three years earlier. The Troupe played the Palace Theatre of Varieties on Cambridge Circus for a month but were well down the bill and Avril’s supposedly eccentric ‘English’ style did not fare well with the sophisticated London audiences who were more used to seeing trained dancers rather than self-taught ones such as Avril. However, she loved London and felt more comfortable in the city than in Paris, writing in her memoirs that “over there, one lives freely without bothering others or making fun of them, as happens so often at home.”
Lautrec’s last depiction of Avril in 1899 was made just a few weeks before his breakdown. Avril wears a full-length black dress. A serpent coils round her body, its head nestling at her breast, Cleopatra-like. Avril appears startled by the snake curling its way around her body. She twists to one side, her fingers splayed as if in fear and her lips are parted. “Here,” says Nancy Ireson, “more than in any other image of the dancer, she appears as provocative and sexualised.” The English poet Arthur Symons, writing as late as 1929, likened the ‘living cobra’ within her body to ‘Lautrec’s depravity’, making a clear link between the dancer and the artist as unorthodox individuals. Surprisingly, the work was not used as a poster, despite its striking design, and had only a small print run.
By now, however, the naughty ’90s were drawing to a close and the not-quite-so-naughty noughties were about to arrive. Oscar Wilde, one of the key figures of the era and a habitué of the Paris clubs and bars, died in 1900, his body exploding in the summer heat, a symbolic marking of the passing of the old order. The Prince of Wales became king in 1901 and, while not curbing all his old habits when in Paris, was now more concerned with the Entente Cordiale, the 1904 treaty intended to remove the threat of war between France and Britain forever. Lautrec himself died an alcoholic, riddled with syphilis, in 1901 and Montmartre had by now become commercialised and less vibrant. By the time Picasso drew Avril for a risqué magazine called Le Frou-Frou that same year, she is, in Nancy Ireson’s words, “almost a parody of the Belle Époque, seen as a near skeletal figure.”
Avril danced on for a few more years then married the German artist Maurice Biais in 1911 and settled down to a quiet life in Parisian suburbia with him and her son from a previous liaison. However, her final years were not kind. Biais was often away from home on unexplained and lengthy trips, he drank and gambled. Finally, she discovered a trunk of women’s clothes he had hidden in their house and his double life as a transvestite. She left him (her son had already abandoned the family home) and rented a room from a local postman.
She danced once more in her sixties at a Lautrec memorial ball but the experience left her ill and unhappy. A fundraiser for her in the 1930s raised little cash and she eked out a life of genteel poverty until her death in 1943 under Nazi occupation, her last written words allegedly being: “I hate Hitler.”
Yet this is not how Avril should be remembered. Far better to see her, even if it is only her elegant back, as she sits at a table in Lautrec’s At the Moulin Rouge (c. 1892-95), surrounded by friends and admirers, her hair bright red and her left hand delicately poised. In the background walk the diminutive Lautrec and his painfully-shy and gangling cousin, Tapié de Céleyran. La Goulue is seen adjusting her hair while to her right is a woman who bears a striking resemblance to her companion in La Goulue at the Moulin Rouge. The ghost-like apparition on the right is actually Avril’s friend May Milton, looming out of the shadows.
It is fitting that this depiction of some of the most prominent figures of the bohemian world of 1890s Paris should have Avril at its heart for she gave it lustre and sophistication.
Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril Beyond the Moulin Rouge is at the Courtauld Gallery, London until 18 September, 2011