Saturday, June 18, 2011

With Jane Avril (La Melinite) At The Moulin Rouge

Unknown photographer, Jane Avril at the Moulin Rouge, c.1892. Musée Montmartre, Paris.

          Nicknamed La Mélinite after a powerful form of explosive, the dancer Jane Avril  (1868-1943) was one of the stars of the Moulin Rouge in the 1890s. Known for her alluring style and exotic persona, her fame was assured by a series of dazzlingly inventive posters designed by the artist  Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901).

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Jane Avril poster, 1899

           An exhibition, Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge, will be on view at The Courtauld Gallery in London from 16 June to 18 September.  

      Jane Avril became an emblematic figure in Lautrec’s world of dancers, cabaret singers, musicians and prostitutes. However, she was also a close friend of the artist and he painted a series of striking portraits of her, which contrast starkly with his exuberant posters.

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Portrait of Jane Avril, 1892

           In contrast to Toulouse-Lautrec, who was a member of one of France’s oldest noble families, Jane Avril was the daughter of a courtesan. Born Jeanne Beaudon, she suffered an abusive childhood and, aged thirteen, ran away from home. The following year she entered the formidable Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris to be treated for a nervous disorder popularly known as St Vitus’ Dance.

16th century reliquary bust of St. Vitus

          It was at one of the bal des folles, the fancy dress balls which the hospital organised for its patients, that she took her first dance steps and found both her cure and her vocation.   New research undertaken for the Courtauld exhibition examines the connections between her eccentric movements, described by one observer as an ‘orchid in a frenzy’, and contemporary medical theories of  female hysteria. Her experiences helped shape her public persona and, as a performer, she was not only known as La Mélinite but also as L’Etrange ("the Strange One") and Jane La Folle ("Crazy Jane").

This person had good reason to be hysterical

             Although she also sang, Jane Avril’s true vocation was as a solo dancer and she devised her own choreographic routines and dress. Combining sensuality and ethereal detachment, her remarkable performances captured the imagination of artists and writers alike.

       Lautrec's  friend, Paul Leclercq, described the scene:

          ‘In the midst of the crowd, there was a stir, and a line of people started to form: Jane Avril was dancing, twirling, gracefully, lightly, a little madly; pale, skinny, thoroughbred, she twirled and reversed, weightless, fed on flowers; Lautrec was shouting out his admiration.’ 

Nadar, Photograph of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec posed in Jane Avril's clothes, 1892


Melinite (picric acid) explosion, June 22, 1887 at the Roberts, Dale and Company plant in Cornbrook, England resulting in the destruction of the factory and the death of one worker.  

Photo: TUC Library Collections, London Metropolitan University.

Reader Note:  The remarkable photograph in first position above (which I had never seen before) of Jane Avril in action prompted this post.  It reminded me (I need constant reminding) that history is real.  (I will not essay an opinion about what reality is.) Based on the picture, I find it very easy to imagine speaking to Jane Avril in the same way that reading Oscar Wilde's letters makes him seem like a person you might very well speak to, and speak to easily, fluently and enjoyably, today.  

Much of the text here is borrowed from the Cortauld press release announcing this very worthy exhibition, which I would like to see, but probably will not.  The photo of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec by Nadar is another image I had never seen before.  It's surprising, but sweet, I think. 

The melinite explosion at Cornbrook is tragic, but more proof that history is real, like the photo I posted Here two days ago of the June 16, 1915 battle on the farm in Hooge, which I discovered, to my great surprise,  by accident on its anniversary date


  1. She made for a perfect- halloween historic figure too. I dressed as her several times in my youth. I love the lautrec dressed as jane image too.

  2. I would love to see a trick-or-treater dressed as Jane Avril. That must have been great. The T-L as JA shot is really something, no? The picture of Jane is captivating. The melinite explosion photo is highly informative in terms of the JA description and period reference, but devastating. It's a beautiful day in the Hudson Valley. Heading to the canyons of Manhattan later. Curtis