Jeanne Beaudon to Jane Avril, muse of Toulouse-Lautrec
Jane Avril is a name that a good number of people may have heard of. Her association with the Moulin Rouge, the can-can and Toulouse-Lautrec will probably bring her name to light; and yet who would have known that as a young girl Jeanne Beaudon ( her birth name ) suffered sadistic child-abuse?
Born out of wedlock in the Belleville section of Paris, Jeanne was subjected to brutal beatings by her mother at least twice a day. Her father had left when she was a baby so she was without support or any witness to the abuse she endured. In the 1860s there were no social services and children were the property of their parents, even if he or she were drunk and psychopathic.
Jeanne Beaudon was a brave and adaptable young girl, who bore her torment and stress inwardly and alone. Her painful burden lead to her developing a nervous disorder which would indirectly, eventually set her free. On discovering her creative spirit Jeanne recreated herself and bravely entered into a new life as a talented and successful dancer of the Paris theatre.
Jeanne Beaudon as ‘Jane Avril’ makes an important addition to my muse collection. As an icon of the French can-can, muse and friend of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, also a strong, resilient woman in her own right, she is impossible to ignore. Against all the odds Jane Avril made a successful career on the stage, at a time when life was a struggle for single women and professional opportunities in the arts were scarce and tough.
Jeanne Beaudon was a determined and courageous woman who later transformed into ‘Jane Avril’, the 1890’s can-can dancer and star of the Moulin Rouge. She became famous through her unusual talent, which was boosted by a series of stunningly inventive graphic posters of her designed by the Montmartre Post Impressionist artist, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. She came to be a symbolic figure in the artist’s world of dancers, cabaret singers, musicians and prostitutes.
Jane Avril was notable for her bohemian, alluring style and exotic, idiosyncratic persona, however photographs of her emphasised her childlike demeanour, in which she often wore her hair in ringlets and posed in a range of shepherdess bonnets, a look which was popular in 19th-century music hall.
Her fame was firmly established when she metamorphosed into Toulouse-Lautrec’s muse. Through his artistic eye, Jane Avril was remodelled as a more haunted figure, appearing much older than her age, gaunt and angular, sometimes with tired, drained features.
Jane Avril was never Toulouse-Lautrec’s lover; contrary to belief their relationship was more equal and professional than that. There was a mutual sense of being different from others; made distinctive by their defects they were drawn together and became close friends. By any calibre, they made a curious and unlikely pair.
The early Life of Jeanne Beaudon
Jane Avril was born as Jeanne-Louise Beaudon in June 1868, in Belleville, situated in the 20th arrondissement of Paris. Her mother, Léontine Clarisse Beaudon was a Second Empire courtesan, queen of her profession, who was known as ‘La Belle Élise’. Jeanne’s father was alleged to be an Italian marquis named Luigi de Font, who abandoned Élise when baby Jeanne was two years old.
Unable to cope Élise left her child with her elderly parents in Étampes where Jeanne was brought up by her grandparents in the countryside and educated by the nuns at the local convent. When Jeanne’s grandparents died soon after one another she was effectively an orphan. It had been her grandparent’s wish for her to be brought up by the nuns, so she continued her education at the convent and was a bright, happy student.
At the age of nine in 1877, her mother ‘Elise’ discovered Jeanne’s whereabouts and reclaimed her, taking her back to Paris with the intent of turning her into a prostitute. La Belle Élise’s beauty had now faded, she had resorted to drugs and become sour, bloated and fractious. Her clients were less distinguished and less generous. With her income reduced her plan was to live off her daughter’s earnings.
Young Jeanne was pushed into the streets where she was cruelly abused and exploited, by men encouraged by her mother.
At home she was made to do all the household chores and did her utmost to avoid inciting her mother’s temper, but was was beaten like a slave at the merest provocation.
In 1881 aged only thirteen, Jeanne ran away from home, leaving behind her sordid and unhappy residence where she had received no kindness, let alone love from her abusive, alcoholic mother.
As an exposed, neglected teenager on the streets of Paris, young Jeanne was vulnerable prey to sexual predators.
Jeanne finally found refuge at the home of Madame Hutt, the mother of Monsieur Hutt ( La Belle Élise’s former lover) who had been kind and generous to little Jeanne in the past. She knew that there was a risk that her mother would find her, which made it difficult for her to settle. It was at this time that Jeanne started to experience uncontrollable muscle spasms, traits of a nervous condition she did not yet know that she had.
As time passed Jeanne experienced more frequent fits-like episodes and in 1882 was admitted to the Salpêtrière Hospital, which was at the time a renowned ‘lunatic asylum’ specialising in neuropsychiatry.
Jeanne arrived in a poor state of health, her thin body in convulsion. She was placed in a ward amongst mentally ill women, at fourteen years old she should have been in a children’s ward, yet she was well cared for by the team of Doctors and nurses assigned to her. Jeanne was plainly not mentally ill, though she had suffered immense stress, neglect and ill-treatment and had had to cope all alone.
Unfortunately it was not long before yet again Jeanne’s mother located her whereabouts. She turned up at the hospital pretending to be the distressed parent, but out of sight of the nurses, in the hospital grounds, Élise thumped and screamed at her daughter.
After three more visits from her mother, Jeanne relapsed into her twitching and nervous spasms, reduced to tears.
Dr Charcot questioned his patient discreetly and after that occasion her Mother was banned from visiting her daughter.
St Vitus’ Dance
Jeanne’s condition was diagnosed as the movement disorder then known as ‘St Vitus’ Dance’, classified as one of the ‘dancing manias’ that became central to the study of women and madness at the Fin de siècle.
The condition is now known as ‘Sydenham’s Chorea’, which is characterised by rapid, uncoordinated jerking movements, rhythmic swaying and nervous tics mostly affecting the face, hands and feet. Under the supervision of Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot, a pioneer of neurology and the expert on ‘female hysteria’, Jeanne received various kinds of treatment, including hypnosis.
Having been deprived of love, nurture, and a creative outlet in her childhood, Jeanne felt safe and cared for at at Salpêtrière and spent two happy years there.
Her education flourished, she was taught at a higher grade that was offered by the nuns at the convent school and she now received gymnastic lessons, which she loved.
Salpêtrière hospital under Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot was a progressive teaching centre, liberal in its ideas. Students came from across the world to witness Charcot’s clinical demonstrations, including the young Sigmund Freud. Fashionable members of society, who were fascinated by deviation from the norm, disfigurement and disease, were able to observe surgery and take part in fancy dress balls with the patients.
It was at one of these parties, ‘bal des folles’, that Jeanne claimed she discovered her gift for dance and believed it had cured her.
In the early 1880’s there was an interest in all forms of madness and its treatment, so there was speculation on the connection between Jeanne’s eccentric movements and contemporary, medical theories of female hysteria.
Regardless, Jeanne would incorporate some of these mannerisms into her dance style, whether or not she was cured. It could have been a wise marketing strategy, as nervous conditions such as hysteria were associated with elegance by writers of the time.
The Belgian author Frantz Jourdain described her as,
“this exquisite creature, nervous and neurotic, a captivating flower of artistic corruption and of sickly grace”.
La Belle Époque
Paris was on the cusp of great changes in the late 1880s. Between 1872- 1914, the period known as ‘La Belle Époque’, ( or ‘The Belle Époque’) was a period in French and Belgian history that dated from 1871 and ended when World War 1 began in 1914.
It was a period characterised by optimism, economic prosperity and regional peace. Scientific technology and medical innovations were achieved, the arts in Paris noticeably flourished; with masterpieces of literature, music, theatre, and visual art gaining extensive recognition. However not all people enjoyed these new wonders or standards of living, France had a large economic underclass living in extreme poverty.
In 1884 Jeanne was discharged from the Salpêtrière hospital, suffering from a broken heart after a failed romance with a young doctor. Aged sixteen and not wanting to return to her mother, she was again on the streets, lost and forlorn she took refuge in the theatre until darkness came.
As she left the foyer, a drunk vagrant seized her, yet thankfully she escaped his grip and ran hurriedly to a group of ladies on the street corner.
The women took pity on her and decided to take her home with them, where she was welcomed by the kindly Madame of a Parisian brothel, who saw to it that Jeanne was fed and housed.
Le Jardin Bullier
A few weeks of Madame Marcelle’s care and affection restored Jeanne’s well being, and confidence. One day as a treat she was invited to go to ‘Le Jardin Bullier’, a popular pleasure garden where the ladies applied their trade and Parisians would listen to musicians playing in the orchestra. There was a huge dance floor which Jeanne could not resist when the orchestra started to play, when in full swing her spontaneous dance drew delight and applause from the crowd around her.
“I let myself be driven and directed, astonished as much as dazzled, opening my eyes wide to the discovery of this new life that offered itself to me, I thought I was dreaming….And so off I went to dance and leap, like a runaway goat, or rather, like the mad woman that I must have been to an extent.” Jeanne Beaudon.
After her dancing sessions Jeanne visited ‘La Closerie des Lilas’, the neighbouring brasserie, where she made new friends who invited her to, ‘Le Chat Noir’. The nightclub was situated in bohemian Montmartre, it was the first modern Cabaret bar, where patrons sat at tables and drank alcoholic drinks, while being entertained by a variety show on stage. Jeanne became a frequent visitor to both venues.
In the 1880s La Closerie des Lilas and Le Chat Noir were popular rendezvous for poets and painters and Jeanne befriended many of them, including brilliant figures of literature, Oscar Wilde, Stéphane Mallarmé, Arsène Houssaye, Jean Moreas and Paul Verlaine. She lived for dance and as a result of her regular, individual performances at ‘Le Jardin Bullier’Jeanne became a well known character in the Latin Quarter.
Charming and strikingly intelligent, Jeanne captured the attention of French novelist Arsène Houssaye, who readily employed her as his secretary, giving her a respectable day job. At night she pursued her dream of a career in dance by performing at local dance halls and Café-chantant (café-concerts.)
Alongside her evening routines, Jeanne would later work in two very different day jobs; a rider and acrobat at the ‘Hippodrome de l’Alma and a cashier at the Exposition Universelle in 1889.
Jeanne had many friends, some protective and platonic, others developed into passionate affairs. She met Robert Sherard, a friend and first biographer of Oscar Wilde and fell in love with him.
It was he who suggested to Jeanne that she should use a stage name and came up with the anglicised ‘Jane Avril’. By changing her name it would serve two purposes, it would create an exotic facade for her stage career and protect her identity from her mother, who as her fame grew, she had no wish to see.
Jeanne Beaudon becomes Jane Avril
Jeanne’s life experiences helped shape her public persona as well as her style as a performer, she now used her new name ‘Jane Avril’ and gradually built up a reputation that would enable her to make a living as a full time dancer. Jane was exceptionally thin, bordering on anorexic, this was noticed by her audience, who referred to her as ‘Fil de Soie’, meaning ‘silk thread’.
Jane Avril became recognised for her unusual spasmodic movements and her distinctive manner of dance, her style described as ‘an orchid in a frenzy’. Jane was also known by other nick-names; L’Etrange ( the strange one), Jane La Folle (crazy Jane) and ‘La Mélinite’, after an explosive, probably relating to her flashing, fiery motion.
Frantz Jourdain wrote that ‘Jane Avril’s strange and aristocratic pale mask, intelligent look, sometimes tinged with sadness and spiritual legs enchanted Toulouse-Lautrec.’
Jane Avril at the Moulin Rouge 1889
In 1889 Jane Avril was hired by well regarded impresario, Charles-Joseph Zidler, co-founder of the Moulin Rouge Cabaret club. Zidler was very good to Jane, realising her talent, he allowed her to take liberties he wouldn’t permit the other dancers to take.
Jane refused to wear the classic white undergarments that the regular Can-can girls wore, instead she took pleasure in forming her own colour schemes. She would also not take her place in the regular Quadrille dance, preferring her own free-spirited, solo style.
Jane created her own choreographic routines and dress designs, combining sensuality with an ethereal detachment. Her remarkable performances captured the imagination of her audience and she became the favourite in artistic, intellectual and fashionable circles.
By 1893, Jane Avril headlined at the ‘Jardin de Paris’, one of the major café-concerts on the Champs-Élysées. As a protege of the prominent Joseph Zidler her fame grew and everyone wanted to see her celebrated dance.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was commissioned to create the poster to advertise this extravaganza, which would elevate Jane Avril’s reputation in the world of entertainment further still, as well as becoming the artist’s most famous image of her.
Through his dynamic composition, Lautrec’s design captured the drama, contrasting Jane’s aloof and emotionally vacant expression, with the erotic nature of her performance. Lautrec’s depictions of Avril in the 1890s helped to create the concept of the modern poster and blurred the line between advertising and art, which defined Bohemian Paris.
The Moulin Rouge’s patrons adored her, and Jane Avril became one of the most recognisable names of the Parisian nightlife scene.
Off stage Jane was one of the best dressed women in Paris, now with money coming in she could afford to be stylish and create her own identity. Jane had an independent, educated mind with a personality which naturally drew people to her, but she was astute and would not be exploited, knowing full well how to look after her affairs.
Jane Avril rarely mixed with the other dancers, instead she associated herself with writers, poets and artists, people that interested her. Nevertheless there was one exception, a younger English dancer named May Milton arrived in Paris in 1895 and she and Jane had a short but passionate romance. They shared rooms on Montmartre Hill and became inseparable, although unfortunately their love was short lived.
Jane Avril had soon become Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s favourite model and she was well aware that by casting her in his vividly coloured, sensational designs, Lautrec widened her appeal immeasurably.
Jane Avril and Toulouse-Lautrec had a friendly working relationship, with trust and understanding. Sometimes she practised her dance routine while he worked in his studio, other times she persuaded him to visit Le Chat Noir with her.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec
About Henri’s life
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec was born in November 1864, he was the descendant of one of the noblest families in the south-west of France. He inherited a rare genetic disorder thought to be pycnodysostosis, resulting in a form of dwarfism, a variant disorder similar to osteopetrosis( literally meaning “stone bone”, where the bones grow abnormally dense and short, making them prone to fracture.)
He was fully grown above the waist but had the legs of a child, which were additionally shortened by two riding accidents in his teens. His parents were first cousins and it is believed Toulouse-Lautrec’s congenital health problems were ascribed to a history of in breeding within his aristocratic family.
His younger brother was born in 1867, but sadly died the following year. Both sons were endowed with a courtesy title of ‘Count’ which, if Henri had outlived his father, he would have been awarded the family title of ‘Count de Toulouse-Lautrec’.
After the death of his brother, Toulouse-Lautrec’s parents separated and a nanny took care of him. He was reunited with his mother in Paris at the age of eight, where he became interested in sketching, making elaborate doodles and caricatures in his school exercise books.
The family promptly realised that his talents lay in drawing and painting. Toulouse-Lautrec was physically unable to take part in many activities enjoyed by boys his age, so instead he absorbed himself in art.
A friend of his father, René Princeteau, a deaf and mute artist who specialised in painting horses, sometimes visited Henri to give him informal lessons. Some of Toulouse-Lautrec’s early paintings are of horses.
As an adult Toulouse-Lautrec became fascinated by the Parisian world of performance and entertainment; from the brothels in which he spent time sketching, to the dance halls where he got to know and promote the chief dancers.
He would frequently visit a brothel located in Rue d’Amboise, where he had a favourite lady called Mireille, who was one of the women he would regularly draw.
Although he used the services of some of the prostitutes, it was not chiefly sex which attracted him to these women of the night. He immersed himself in the colourful and theatrical life of Montmartre because he found the place stimulating; the women, the music and lights inspired the artist to create a multitude of enticing and provocative images of the rather decadent, modern Paris of the 1890’s.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s diminutive stature permitted him a certain degree of invisibility, allowing him to observe people closely without apprehension. Prostitutes and performers on the margins of society, who were accustomed to being judged were not worried by him.
They were his companions with whom he socialised and were like his adopted family. Lautrec identified with them and regarded them as equals, with whom he was extremely generous. They also looked out for him as his Montmartre neighbourhood friends.
In later life Toulouse-Lautrec suffered from alcoholism and would seek refuge in the brothels, moving into their premises for periods of time. The prostitutes treated him with a level of kindness and humanity to which he was unaccustomed and although he was known for his louche behaviour he did not spend time with these women for sex alone. He enjoyed their camaraderie and understood their common status as outsiders. Lautrec’s friend and fellow painter Édouard Vuillard commented:
“ Lautrec was too proud to submit to his lot, as a physical freak, an aristocrat cut off from his kind by his grotesque appearance, he found an affinity between his condition and the moral penury of the prostitute”.
During the ‘Belle Époque’ many notable artists lived and worked in Montmartre, where the rents were low and the atmosphere congenial. These included Pierre-August Renoir, Vincent Van Gogh, Edgar Degas and many more over time.
Interestingly an ex-circus acrobat and occasional lover who modelled for Toulouse-Lautrec, was Suzanne Valadon. She took art lessons with him as well as other Montmartre artists/ lovers, eventually moving on to a significant and successful career as an artist herself.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s relationship with Jane was closer than with any of his other Montmartre subjects. She remained the artist’s loyal friend until his death in 1901, he was only thirty-six, he died from complications due to alcoholism and syphilis at his mother’s estate in Saint-André-du-Bois.
After her season at the ‘Jardin de Paris’ on the Champs-Élysées, Jane Avril returned to the Moulin Rouge and found it was now under new ownership. She was finally persuaded by Joseph Oller, the new owner of the club, to join the Quadrille, which she had refused up until now.
Jane had ideas of forming her own can-can troupe, as she wanted independence and the freedom to travel, especially to England. She formed a group of four dancers while continuing her solo career at the Moulin Rouge and ‘Les Décadents’. By now her fame was renowned, she danced at the acclaimed Café-chantant, ‘Le Divan Japonais’, before triumphing at ‘Les Folies-Bergère’.
In 1896, Jane Avril headed for England with her Quadrille dance troupe which included Mademoiselle Eglantine, Cléopâtre and Gazelle. At Jane’s request Toulouse-Lautrec designed a poster for the performance which shows Avril at the end of the line of four cancan dancers, captured in a frivolous froth of petticoats and black stockings.
Their debut at the Palace Theatre, London was a great success, they were applauded and encored. Jane Avril admired England and in her memoirs she noted, ‘over there, one lives freely, without bothering others, or making fun of them, as happens so often at home’.
Poster for London performance of the Troupe of Mademoiselle Eglantine at the Palace Theatre of Varieties in 1896, by Toulouse-Lautrec. The poster depicts Jane Avril, the legendary cabaret star at the left of the line, as the troupe enthusiastically performs the cancan in a cloud of flying petticoats.
Jane Avril fell in love many times but the relationships didn’t last. There was one liaison from which she became pregnant and was absent from the Moulin Rouge, retiring to the suburbs for her confinement.
She gave birth to a son on July 17th 1897, naming him Jean-Pierre Adolphe, the father was not known, so Jane entrusted his care to foster parents, while she returned to the Moulin Rouge to dance and earn her living. Jane visited her son on a regular basis and was bountiful with gifts, watching over him from a distance during his early childhood. Jane rarely spoke of him to friends.
In the autumn of 1900, Jane Avril’s Quadrille travelled to Clermont-Ferrand, in central France, Nice, Lyons and Geneva in Switzerland. The following year they travelled to Brussels, Madrid and Russia. Their experience in Madrid was discouraging, the troupe were subjected to insults and abuse, so Jane refused all other further offers to perform in Spain.
In 1901 Jane Avril was thirty-two, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec had died and Jane felt his loss deeply. Montmartre would not be the same without him, trends, fashion and attitudes were changing in Paris and younger dancers were emerging, keen for the spotlight.
Jane Avril went on to perform briefly as a singer and an actress, appearing in ‘La Belle de New York’, then later a stage version of Colette’s novel, ‘Claudine a Paris’ put on at the ‘Bouffes Parisiennes’. In 1905 Jane retired from performing altogether.
Jane Avril became involved in a romantic relationship with the relatively unknown French graphic artist, Maurice Biais who was a talented printmaker. By now Jane knew she couldn’t dance forever, perhaps she hoped to find some security in the relationship as well as a home and a legitimate family name for her son.
Maurice Biais’s family did not approve of Jane Avril or their son’s profession, so they organised a job for him in New York, hoping that he would settle down and perhaps forget Jane. However this was not the couple’s plan, mindful of his wishes that she should join Biais in New York, Jane agreed to follow him.
Life in New York was demanding for them both and they quarrelled with one another. Maurice Biais found no satisfaction in his new employment, especially as it gave him little time for his own art. They were both homesick, so after only a short time in the United States they returned to France.
At the age of forty two, in 1911 Jane Avril married Maurice Biais (1875-1926). As promised Biais adopted Jane’s son, Jean-Pierre Adolphe. The new family moved to a home in Jouy-en-Josas on the outskirts of Paris where they lived happily for two years, or so it seemed.
Unbeknown to Jane her husband had been dismissed from his employment for irresponsible behaviour. Biais was a troubled creative and a charismatic personality in the progressive art world, he soon began to stray, often disappearing for days at a time.
The truth once revealed blighted Jane’s happiness and her marriage. She discovered that her husband had been stealing her jewels and paintings to fund his new lifestyle and vices. Biais was a gambler in debt, a drunk and a transvestite who had secretly returned to a dual life of excess in underworld Paris.
Jane eventually left her husband and rented a room from an old postman, her son Jean-Pierre had already run away from home. Without any financial support Jane had to resort to selling her remaining jewellery and paintings. She still had her portrait by Renoir and works by Daumier, Forain, and drawings by Picasso. During the First World War Jane performed and danced for charities, visited the wounded and served the war effort in whatever way she could, even serving in the canteens.
Jane was fifty when the war ended, her husband was wounded and severely ill with lung disease in a military hospital. After Maurice Biais’ death in 1926, Jane Avril was left nothing, she lived in near poverty on what little was left of her savings.
A friend persuaded Jane to to write to Maurice’s sisters requesting financial assistance, they kindly responded and set up a pension for her of 600 francs a month, which would at least keep her comfortable.
Revival of the ‘naughty nineties’
In the early 1930s there was a revival of interest in Jane Avril’s era of the ‘naughty nineties’, and a journalist named Jose Shercliff met up with Jane after having tracked her down. They became friends and it was agreed that Shercliff would write Jane Avril’s biography after her death. This friendship encouraged Jane to return to Paris and revisit old haunts, reliving and reciting her past for her biographer.
War and the Depression
In her sixties Jane Avril was invited to dance at a Lautrec memorial ball, but the experience left her unhappy. The costume was a parody of what she used to wear in her heyday and she felt foolish, but she performed on stage regardless, not wanting to disappoint her fans.
Like many people Jane suffered from rationing during the First World War and then barely existed through the Great Depression, she was bankrupt and living in abject poverty.
A fundraiser in the mid 1930s enabled Jane to live out her remaining years contentedly and respectably in a home for ‘Les Vieilles’, ( the Old girls ). With her financial concerns now covered Jane could buy the new spectacles and teeth she needed, and take rest to regain her health.
In 1939 war broke out for the second time in Jane Avril’s life and again she became accustomed to rationing. She remained in her room during raids rather than risking the cold and damp of the air raid shelter, as her health was declining with age. The winter of 1942-3 was bitter cold, food and heat were scarce and it took its’ toll on Jane.
Jane Avril passed away peacefully in her seniors home in January 1943, during the Nazi occupation of Paris, she was seventy-five, . Her remains were interred in the Biais family vault at Père Lachaise cemetery with her name noted on the tombstone.
Toulouse-Lautrec’s touchingly honest portraits of Jane Avril demonstrate his affection and affinity with her. His striking poster images of her dancing, assure that her talent as a vivacious dancer, with vibrant energy will be remembered.
Jane Avril, ‘The Orchid in a Frenzy’. 1868-1943
Acknowledgements and further reading:
Jane Avril, Queen of the French Can Can, 3rd Edition, Times Square Press, 2015
Jane Avril of The Moulin Rouge www.janeavril.net