Toulouse-Lautrec's Jane Avril (La Melinite) French, 1868-1943
I recently visited Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in NYC and happened upon their exhibit about Henri Toulouse-Lautrec. I am not a major fan of his paintings, am familiar with some, was fascinated with his muse, Jane Avril. She was everywhere! Unfortunately, I could not find much about her life and a few photographs survive. So, here is the real woman behind the man.
Jane Avril was born Jeanne Beaudon in Belleville, on 9 June 1868. She grew up in Paris to a French prostitute known as “La Belle Elise”, and the Marchese Luigi de Font who was an aristocratic Italian émigré. She was forced into prostitution at an early age by her mother. She suffered from chorea which was a nervous condition. It was treated at an asylum, Salpetriere by Dr. Jean-Martin Charcot.
At Le Moulin Rouge, Paris, 1888, she started dancing when she returned from a fancy dress ball that her doctor threw. She enjoyed much success as a dancer then a choreographer in numerous cabarets throughout Paris including Le Divan Japonais and Le Jardin de Paris, 1890s. She was nicknamed, ‘La Melinite’ which is a form of explosive or dynamite used by militant anarchists of the time. She performed on the London stage in 1897 and New York in 1901. Henri de Toulouse-Latrec, became a close friend of hers and she modeled for him throughout both their lives. After he died, in 1901, she became an actress; appearing in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and Colette’s Claudine a Paris.
Connected to her nervous condition, she suffered from bouts of what now would be classified as manic depression during which she would not dance or act. In 1905, she married Maurice Biais who was a designer and journalist. She gave birth to a son and stopped dancing. She left Paris around 1919. Her husband died in 1930; financially ruined by the collapse of the stock market. He moved into the home for the elderly in Jouy-en-Josas. She died basically unknown in Jouy-en-Josas, France, 1943 at the age of 75 interred at Pere Lachaise Cemetery.