Jane Avril and Toulouse-Lautrec

Art has long had an affinity with stardom. It goes back many years before Andy Warhol started making silk-screen pictures of Marilyn Monroe, as is demonstrated by a delightful small exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery: Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge (until September 18).

It charts an alliance between two misfits. The details of the life Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) are almost as familiar as the story of Van Gogh and his ear. He was the victim of a genetic disorder – probably pycnodysostosis – with the result that his legs failed to grow after two fractures in early adolescence. As an adult, his legs were very short, his upper body of normal proportions. Alcoholic, aristocratic but marginalised, he was drawn to the bohemian night-life of Montmartre.

Jane Avril – real name Jeanne Beudon – was a similarly unusual being. She was the illegitimate daughter of a courtesan, born in 1868. In her early teens she was sent to a psychiatric hospital, the Saltpêtrière, suffering from chorea – a nervous condition also known as St Vitus’s Dance. Two years later at a bal des folles – Ball of the Mad – held at the hospital she danced, carried away by the music, and found herself applauded for the first time.

Later, after a period of working and living in a brothel, she found her way to the night spots of Montmartre and quickly became well-known for her waif-like appearance and unconventional dancing style, apparently modelled on the movements of her fellow patients. But Avril credited a particular poster by Toulouse-Lautrec, however, with really making her famous.

Her wry, melancholic face and elegantly emaciated figure frequently appeared in his work. He made her the emblem, the spirit, of glamorous Parisian decadence (perhaps why Picasso later depicted her). This exhibition brings together a fine group of his paintings and advertisements featuring her, including “At the Moulin Rouge” ((1892-95), one of his masterpieces in which he walks past in the distance, she sits, got up in a flamboyant outfit, back to the viewer at the front.

There seems to have been if not a romance, a close alliance between these two brilliant oddities, even a bit of identification with Avril on the artist’s part. A photograph catches him dressed in her clothes for a fancy dress party arranged by a racy magazine of the day.

Their fates, however, were rather different. He died, of alcoholism possibly complicated by syphilis in 1901. She eventually retired from the stage in 1911, married an artist and wrote her memoirs before eventually dying in 1943.

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