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]

Jane Avril, photo ca. 1893
Jane Avril, c. 1892, by Toulouse-Lautrec


She was born Jeanne Louise Beaudon on 9 June 1868 in Belleville, 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 Avril 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,[a] 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 ball 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[b] 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]

Jane Avril, poster, 1893, by Toulouse-Lautrec
Bust of Jane Avril on a wave by Antoine Bourdelle

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 [fr] 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 (1867–1926) 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 Crazy").[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.[citation needed] 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 (1872–1926) 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" Wittman 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. ^ a b c d Weisberg, Gabriel P. (Spring 2012). "Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril, Beyond the Moulin Rouge". Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide. 11 (1).
  3. ^ a b "Jane Avril (1868–1943)" (in French). Bibliothèque nationale de France. Retrieved 24 May 2019.
  4. ^ a b c d Olsen, Victoria (1 October 2015). "Turning Points: Jane Avril in Paris". Open Letters Monthly. Archived from the original on 24 May 2019. Retrieved 24 May 2019.
  5. ^ a b c d e f Helmick-Brunet, Kristin (15 October 2013). Jiminez, Jill Berk (ed.). Dictionary of Artists' Models. Routledge. pp. 52–56. ISBN 9781135959142.
  6. ^ a b c de Lafayette, Maximillien (12 November 2015). Jane Avril, Queen of the French Can Can. Translated by Berthier, Solange. Times Square Press. ISBN 9781329684997.
  7. ^ a b c d 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. ^ a b 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. ^ a b "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 readingEdit

  • 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.

External linksEdit