Archive for the ‘arts and literature’ Category


Giovanni Boldini: Signora Diaz-Albertini


What woman would not wish to be highly desirable? Anyone able to bring on that dream would be well-rewarded. Giovanni Boldini, with his magic brush, made a lucrative career out of injecting voluptuousness into his sitters’ portraits. Everything in his paintings exuded sensuality: not only the woman herself but also her outfit. Jewels gleamed against bare flesh, satins glistened while embracing curves, slick silks slithered, exposing a shoulder, fluffy furs invited a caress.

boldini photo

The Italian painter Giovanni Boldini (born in 1842) settled in Paris in 1872. He died there, a very wealthy man, in 1931

Boldini’s racy paintings touched the extreme limit of convention. His work was the talk of the high society dinners. In the last years of the Belle Époque, at the height of his fame, the demand was so high that he chose his sitters. To have a portrait painted by Boldini was a defining sign of eligibility. It was known that the artist did not deign to honor a portrait commission below one million francs – except for a privileged relationship with the model. (For comparison, the wage of a maid was one franc a day.)


As the Belle Époque sped toward the end of the century, the hefty beauties of the Second Empire gave way to slim, ethereal beings. Not every fashionable woman was able to fit that image. It took the clever brush of a painter to stretch bodies lengthwise and refine features. Boldini was the master of flattery.  


alice regnault

From chubby to lascivious: Alice Regnault, a popular actress, became a red hot item thanks to Boldini’s art



Madame Wertheimer (1902): One of the daring décolletage portraits that made Boldini’s fortune


In the past, before Boldini’s time, a high-ranking courtesan’s ambition—when she had a portrait painted—was to look like a grande dame. Now fashionable titled women wanted to look like courtesans. Below are the portraits of two women, coincidentally both named Marthe, who were vastly apart on the social scale. One is a wealthy prostitute, the other a Romanian princess. Which is which?



Princess Marthe Bibesco and Marthe de(*) Florian


Boldini’s portrait of Marthe de Florian was recently discovered in her Parisian apartment that had remained locked for seventy years. The story was published in an earlier post here: How the Courtesans Lived – A Time Capsule

(*) Celebrated courtesans often appended the aristocratic particle de to their chosen names.


Related posts:

Could You Be a Salonnière?

Bois de Boulogne: The Rendezvous of Wealth and Opulence


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Léon Frédéric: The Boys

An excellent article on the My Daily Art Display blog—where you’ll always find excellent articles—focusing on the Belgian painter Léon Frédéric (1865 – 1940), offers a rare look at the 19th-century peasant clothes. For those who research the history of fashion, such images are uncommon as the material they find prevailingly depicts upper-class clothing. Yet peasants formed the overwhelming part of the 19th-century’s population, and the newly-built railways brought them into cities in large numbers. Their simple clothing, mostly of somber colors, did not differ from that of the working-class city dwellers.

In his cycle, The Age of the Peasant, Frédéric’s portrayal of four peasant generations gives us the opportunity to follow the working-class people as the hardships of life wrote wrinkles on their faces. More about this realistic painter and his work here.

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The Girls

1 the bethroted

The Betrothed

1 married couples

Married Couples

1 the elderly

The Elderly

Related post:

Fashion Enima: The Secrets of Victorian Restroom

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Giuseppe de Nittis: The Salon of Princess Mathilde, 1883

One of the largest differences between the Brits and the French was their attitude toward women. The British gentleman suffered women where he could not avoid them and avoided them where he could by seeking refuge in men-only clubs. The Frenchman, on the contrary, did not feel bright unless there were women around. He sought them out during his leisure time, and he was keen to converse in their company. The French were never afraid of clever women and they allowed them to rule as the salonnières.



A 17th-century literary salon.


The tradition of the Parisian Salon was an old one. It began in the seventeenth century and was largely abandoned during the WW1. The salonnières, who hosted these gatherings in their homes, held power. Political plots were hatched, new literary trends were started, scientific discoveries were publicized, and new artistic talents were launched under their influence.

Could you, yourself, become a salonnière?

Who knows? Maybe you already have every asset to revive this ancient tradition. Let’s see what it takes:

You must be a woman. Salons were always ran by women. It did not matter whether or not they were respectable. A princess could compete with a courtesan for the same guests.

You must be wealthy. Your house must offer an agreeable background for the sophisticated exchange of ideas. A well-run Salon may provide a Wednesday dinner for some thirty seated guests and a Saturday reception for about one hundred. Quality wine was a must. Good food was expected as well.

You must have a complacent husband or no husband at all. Very rarely, a husband would hang around and co-host the events. The ideal husband would content himself with a visit to his mistress and allow his wife to rule the crowd.

You must have a great man. Salons were built around a great man who served as a magnet to attract other desirables. He could be a philosopher, a politician, a music composer, or a famous author. Often, the great man was the salonnière’s lover and her goal was to make him even greater.

You must be attentive to new trends and courageous enough to start one. Depending on the type of your salon, you must be aware of what goes on in politics, culture, or science. You must read the latest novel, meet the latest polar explorer, or recognize the right time to introduce new talent.

You must be a social expert. It is important to be well-informed about your guests and careful not to invite two bitter enemies. Knowing the latest gossip is always helpful in that matter and having your spies in competing salons is a clever way to stay on top of things.

You must be a woman of authority. Your salon, your rules. If the conversation does not go the right way, you stop it politely, but with no room for appeal. It is your choice whether you allow an uncontrolled flow or, on the contrary, whether you choose a subject of conversation and insist that the guests stick within the limits.

You must be ready to make it a full-time job. Seeing new trends coming, finding the right guests, sending out invitations, supervising the staff, choosing wines and menus, listening to all relevant gossip, and all the plotting and scheming that goes into it, will take your entire waking time.


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You can’t miss them, the bouquinists.  Along the Seine, nine hundred of their bottle-green boxes with 400,000 second-hand books figure as one of the symbols of Paris. They hark back to the medieval times when manuscript sellers chose the riverbank near the university to trade their goods.

Booksellers frequently had problems with authorities if the contents of the books displeased the powerful. Should the city police be on the lookout for a forbidden material, the owner of a small folding stand was at an advantage, especially if he offered non-censored pamphlets and scandalous gazettes.

In 1859, after many tribulations with the law, the bouquinists finally obtained the authorization to exercise their profession. The Town Hall set up concessions, allowing the salesmen to install the boxes in fixed places. Only second-hand books, antique art prints, and old magazines can be sold in these stands, although–if you take a closer look– you’ll see plenty of kitschy recent pictures of Paris. The average foreign tourist prefers that to antique French books.

Year after year, the number of the stands keeps increasing: 156 in 1892, 200 in 1900 at the Universal Exhibition, and 240 in 1991, the year in which the second-hand booksellers were listed as the UNESCO Heritage. Today, three kilometers of bouquinist stands can be seen along the Right Bank from Pont Marie to Quai du Louvre and on the Left Bank from the Quai de la Tournelle to the Quai Voltaire.



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Greetings from Paris: Expect the Unexpected

The French Art of Peeing without Getting Wet Feet


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“He who broke the glass will pay!” This painting depict an ambulant lemonade seller in conflict with a customer. The art of Jean Geoffroy is a humorous witness to the ups and downs of the late 19th century childhood.


Henri-Jules-Jean Geoffroy (1853-1924) became the painter of children because during his studies he shared a room with two teachers. When they opened a private school, he found his inspiration there. It was a good choice. The paintings pleased and Geoffroy’s career blossomed under the simple pseudonym of Géo. In 1882, he received his first major commission from the Ministry of National Education and, in 1887, he was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, the highest French order of merit.  























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James Tissot and the Women in Paris

Paris Markets in Victor Gilbert’s Paintings



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When one lives in Paris, nothing is as difficult as staying at home. The city contains so many enticing spectacles, free or paid entertainment, that the temptation often becomes the strongest and that one abandons one’s home, attracted as we are by the charm of the street. We do not know what we are going to see, but we are sure we will see something, and that something will be new. Curiosity is so strong in Paris that the trees themselves undergo it and set themselves in motion.”



So said Crafty, whose real name was Victor Eugène Géruzez (1840 – 1906). This graphic artist, painter, draftsman, and author of literature for youth, authored several picture albums depicting life in Paris in his humorous style. Let’s see how trees moved in Paris (and still do) as well as other spectacles, most of them completely free.





The Aftermath of Fire


A Wedding


The Omnibus Station 

c-poster men

Poster Men Taking a Lunch Rest


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A Runaway Horse


A Guided City Tour



A Downpour


c-AT THE CONFISEUR ( Boulevard de la Madeleine )

At the Confectioner’s

c-AT THE BOOKSELLER ( Boulevard des Italiens )

At the Bookseller’s / Food for the Mind

C-AN ACCIDENT ( Rue de Rivoli )

Running on Empty



Traffic-Stopping Street Hygiene


The Suburban Train

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After Midnight

Related post:

Events in the Street: Female Duel with Sand-Filled Socks

A Traveler’s Bonus:  The Most Beautiful Metro Stations in Paris


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A Belle Epoque courtesan of the first magnitude, Marthe de Florian (1864-1939) has been well forgotten since her “sentimental retirement”. But the reopening of her apartment, seven decades after her death, reminded her to our good memory by the brilliance of her treasures.


Monsieur Olivier Choppin Janvry is not close to forgetting the spring day of  2010 when he was mandated by a provincial notary to open a Parisian apartment which remained hermetically sealed since the beginning of WW2. This real estate of fifteen hundred square feet located in the Pigalle neighborhood was a frozen in sanctuary. Under a thin layer of dust, a whole world of high gallantry began to revive through the correspondence carefully classified and color-coded with silk ribbon ties according to the sender.


France during WW2

The owner of the place died in Trouville-sur-Mer on August 29, 1939, bequeathing the apartment to her granddaughter Solange Beaugiron, then aged 20. During the German occupation, soon after, Solange left Paris to join the Free Zone in the south of France and settled down in the Ardèche. She never returned to the capital but, for the next seventy years, she scrupulously paid the quarterly dues on this Parisian apartment.

When she died in May 2010,  aged 91, the apartment revealed its Art Nouveau treasures, and especially a superb life-size portrait of its former owner clad in a vaporous evening gown of pale pink satin.




An expert identified the author of the portrait: Giovanni Boldini (1842-1931). Executed in 1898, this masterpiece remained an unknown in the work of the famous portrait painter and later sold for more than two million euros. It was common knowledge that the artist did not deign to honor a portrait commission below one million francs – except for a privileged relationship with the model. The wealthy Italian buyer of the painting was offered as a bonus a package of correspondence enlightening the personality of the said model and the gallant history of the Third Republic.


Who was Marthe de Florian? From a midinette to a high-end courtesan, read her story here.

Update: Some details in this article are disputed here.

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The Noon Girl: La Midinette
The Gallery of Achievers: The Inescapable Sarah Bernhardt


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James Tissot: The Fashionable Beauty


Self-portrait, 1885

James Tissot (1836 -1902) was a painter known on both sides of the Channel as he spent important chunks of his life both in England and in France. Born as Jacques Tissot to a prosperous merchant family in Nantes, Brittany, he decided to pursue an artistic career despite his father’s misgivings. He studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris and, in 1859, aged only twenty-three, he already exhibited at the prestigious Paris Salon. He began with depicting the Middle Ages but soon moved to the portrayal of fashionable life, where he excelled. Tissot’s name is evocative of pleasing paintings of pleasing people in pleasing situations. In the 1880s he produced a series of paintings called La Femme à Paris. We had already seen one of them—and the story it depicts—in the post Without a Dowry. More of the series paintings follow here.


The Ladies of the Chariots


The Shop Girl


A Woman of Ambition


The Artists’ Wives


The Woman of Fashion


The Bridesmaid


The Circus Lover


Provincial Women


At the Louvre

A lavish three-part Tissot’s biography can be found here.

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Without a Dowry: The Business of Marriage

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Paris Markets in Victor Gilbert’s Paintings


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If you lived during what the French call the Belle Epoque (1871-1914) in any literate country, you would have stumbled upon Sarah Bernhardt. There was no way of avoiding her name in print. She would shock you with her latest extravagancy or sell you a product of some sort.  People around the world would pay good money to watch Sarah die in French. She was very good at it. Never mind that you did not understand a word she was saying for there was plenty to look at for the price and you could tell with pride that you have seen the Greatest Tragedy Queen Ever.


Just to show you the international weight of Sarah’s personality, here she is as an old lady in the US: urging America to enter World War One

What Bernhardt, also known as The Divine Sarah, meant to her own country is demonstrated in this video which shows that the French Republic staged a funeral worthy of a queen:

A sighting of Sarah Bernhardt in all her glory was a memorable event:

“…Into the gallery one day, as our obscure party moved about, there entered a Personage; a charming figure, with a following of worshippers. The lady was dressed in black lace, strangely fashioned. Though she was small, her step and carriage, slow and gracious as she moved and spoke, were queenly. She was a dazzling blonde, somewhat restored and not beautiful, as one saw her nearer. The striking point in her costume — and there was but one — was that the upper part of her corsage, or yoke, was made entirely of fresh violets, bringing their perfume with them. Everyone, artists and their friends, ceased their examination of the pictures, and openly gazed, murmuring their pride and joy in their idol, Sarah Bernhardt…”

Excerpt from the memoir of the American portrait painter Cecilia Beaux


Quand Même, the motto of Sarah Bernhardt, can be translated in different ways but, in this case, it means Nevertheless. There may be difficulties on the path of life. Nevertheless, they will be overcome.


One of the reasons for Sarah’s early success was that she was different in appearance.  While the beauty canon favored women of substance, she was thin. Where fashion dictated sculptured hairdos, Sarah’s hair was an uncontrollable puff of frizzy hair. Her Jewish nose was a little too prominent and her complexion a little too white. This difference, instead of being a burden, made her stand apart and therefore be noticed. Her thespian talent, along with her flamboyant personality, both on and off the stage, did the rest. In fact, there was no difference between the theater and the off-stage for wherever she was, Sarah never ceased to perform.


Seduction was  Sarah’s main weapon on the road to fame. Seduction of the theatre critics, seduction of the theatre-goers, seduction of the press. And if the press reacted in a contrary way, that was good too. She was the first one to understand that bad publicity was better than none.


After having opened her own theatre, Sarah hired a Czech-born artist Alphonse Mucha for advertising. His posters are successfully sold to this day.

A true Renaissance woman, Sarah had a second source of income: painting and sculpture. She was an excellent sculptor, to the point of making Rodin jealous. “She has the audacity to show this filth,” he was heard saying at one of her shows.  Really, Monsieur Rodin? Let’s scroll down to see what the venerable Master considered filthy:


The Death of Ophelia by Sarah Bernhardt

Like the queen she was, Sarah had her court. Every change of place meant the shifting of a great many objects, animals, and people. In her Paris apartment, she kept a small zoo, which accompanied her on her travels. The live alligator Ali Baba and a coffin featured among her luggage.


Sarah in her coffin. A publicity stunt, no doubt about it, the photo made the round of the world. Sarah kept the coffin in her bedroom and claimed she slept in it.  She died for real some forty years after this picture was taken.

Sarah was a woman of prodigious energy. As the manager of a theatre of which she was the principal attraction, she had little time for rest. She would see the author of a new play at two in the morning because that was the only time she could find in her busy schedule. Trips abroad meant careful planning and exercise in logistics. While everything was done to make travel as comfortable as possible—a special train containing a luxury wagon for Sarah alone was the standard—the conditions in the place were often primitive. She would play in circus tents, suffer cold in unheated dressing rooms, go hungry when food was not readily available, and she would forge ahead quand même. Her support staff might suffer from exhaustion but Sarah would take it all in a stride with one lung, one kidney and, toward the end of her life, with only one leg.


Sarah during one of her overseas travels


In the American West, cowboys greet Sarah (on the right, in the dark coat) on her arrival. Later, during the performance, they would manifest their enthusiasm with aiming shots at the ceiling

Sarah lived long enough to appear in the early movies. She hated to see herself on the screen: stripped of her voice, of her three-dimensional personality, and her interaction with the public, she was nothing more than an unappetizing shadow of her true self. By that time, she already suffered from excruciating pain in her leg. Furniture had to be strategically placed on the scene so that there would always be a point of support where she could take the weight off her aching leg. As her agony grew beyond endurance, she opted for amputation.


Being without a leg at the age of seventy did not slow Sarah down. She purchased a portable chair and off she went to war.  Since the Franco-Prussian War, forty years earlier, Sarah harbored a hatred for the Germans. The French troops needed to be cheered up with a good tragedy play.

Sarah died of uremia after an agony that was partly caught on film. She left behind an unfinished movie she was making during her last illness. Ever the hard worker, she took only three days off work to die. She was seventy-eight.

I purposefully left out Sarah’s rich private life which would need a separate post. To understand her drive for success, it is necessary to say that she was the neglected child of a Dutch courtesan. Her father could have been any of the rich and famous men her mother had serviced, among them Rossini, Dumas the Elder, or the Emperor’s half-brother, the Duke de Morny. It was to the latter that the mother turned for advice concerning the future of her awkward teenage offspring. It was he who suggested the stage.  And it was there, on the stage, that Sarah found the love, the adoration, she missed in her childhood.

In my opinion, the truly successful women of that age had this in common: they were mostly illegitimate, without the father’s authority figure. They had a wide range of freedom and their talent was not stifled by the bourgeois set of morals.


And now some free advertising: The model in the picture Sarah is painting is the protagonist of the novel Fame and Infamy by the author of this post. More on the sidebar.

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The Franco-Prussian War is described in The Bloodbath of the Paris Commune




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The Moulin Rouge. Polychrome photo, 1914


With nearly 600,000 visitors every year, Moulin Rouge is in the top ten must-see items on the tourist’s list. Located at the bottom of a hill in the Montmartre neighborhood—then a semi-rural setting favored by artists—Moulin Rouge opened its doors in 1889 to offer champagne-filled parties during which remarkable dancers and singers performed. Very soon, the establishment became world-famous for a scandalous dance called the can-can. No one has described the can-can in better words than Mark Twain here.


With enough champagne bottles emptied, spectators found themselves willing participants on the dance floor that was installed to admire the performers up close. The great painter, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, immortalized these scenes of night-time delirium in some of his famous works. It is mainly thanks to Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters, that the two most colorful Moulin Rouge dancers remain in our consciousness.


Moulin Rouge’s top star La Goulue with the silhouette of her dance partner Valentin the Boneless



No less popular is this Toulouse-Lautrec’s poster featuring Jane Avril


The two women had only one thing in common: they both excelled on the dance floor. La Goulue, low-born and vulgar, was the prototype of the working-class girl found in the dancing halls. Louise Weber—her real name— was born in 1868 and passed to posterity as La Goulue for her greedy behavior: she liked to empty the guests’ glasses that stood within her reach.   The other dancers did not fare any better as to the choice of their nom d’artiste. There was the Cheese Kid, the Sewer Grid, or Nini the Paws-in-the-Air. This joyful band was not impressed with royalty. “Hey, Wales,” La Goulue addressed the heir to the British throne, “the champagne is in your name so is it you who pays or is your Mama [Queen Victoria] inviting us?”


La Goulue’s sensual, provocative body corresponded to the taste of the time that appreciated generous femininity.


La Goulue entering the Moulin-Rouge. 1892. Lautrec painted her with a smirk on her face that is difficult to interpret: is it the arrogance of a diva or simple tiredness?


Toulouse-Lautrec remained La Goulue’s friend well after her triumphs. In this picture, they sit side by side with La Môme Fromage (the Cheese Kid) opposite


Soon, La Goulue ceased to please and turned to her painter-friend for help. Now self-employed, she would sell her renown in the fairgrounds.  To recall her prestigious past, Lautrec painted two large panels exposed on the front of her fairground hut.  A few years later, when in debt, she had to sell these panels and they were cut into smaller canvasses by a greedy merchant.  In 1929, they were bought and restored by the Louvre and can be seen at the Musée d’Orsay.


La Goulue’s fairground hut with panels painted by Toulouse-Lautrec


The next adventure began in 1900 when La Goulue married. With her husband, a magician in trade, she learned to tame wild beasts.  Unfortunately, they were both assaulted during the show.



By that time, La Gouloue’s life was on a sharp downward slide. Her husband was shot in 1914, the victim of a German bullet in the WW1. Her son, who she claimed was fathered by a prince, died at 27.


La Goulue with her son Simon


She lived miserably in a caravan, where she gathered ailing circus animals, and she returned to the Moulin Rouge for financial support. She was allowed to sell peanuts and cigarettes on the sidewalk. Now and then, she’d get drunk and shout: “I’m La Goulue! Can’t you see it? I was the greatest star here!”

The newspapers announced La Goulue’s death in 1929.

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Jane Avril by Edgar Chahine


Jane Avril, charcoal sketch by Picasso

Born near Paris, but seemingly coming from another planet, was Jane Avril, the other celebrated Moulin Rouge star. Strange and mysterious, she did not need the raw sensuality of La Goulue to seduce her audience. She’d come and go as she pleased –no salaried employment for her—and simply danced with every nerve in her body. Except for that, she had nothing in common with the other dancers. They did not understand her and they did not like her. For them, she was Mad Jane. But Mad Jane did not care. She found her friends and lovers in intellectual circles.  She could marry if she wanted to for there were willing takers but she loved her freedom.


Toulouse-Lautrec: Jane Avril Leaving the Moulin Rouge, a lonely, mysterious figure


Her story of an enfant-martyre explains a lot. Born Jeanne Beaudon, in 1868, to a Second Empire courtesan, and fathered by an Italian aristocrat to whom she was an embarrassment, she was first brought up by her maternal grandparents. Her life took a turn for the worse when her sadistic mother decided that Jane should live with her in Paris. She was nine when she entered hell. Today, Jane’s mother would be identified as a dangerous psychopath but the science in Jane’s childhood did not yet reach that stage. Nor did the social services function as they do today. The children, then, were the property of their parents. Several people knew that Jane was beaten at least twice a day for invented offenses, but none reported the abuse to the police. It was just not done. The constant stress had to show somewhere and Jane developed a chorea minor, then referred to as Saint Vitus Dance. It is a nervous disorder characterized by rapid, involuntary jerking movements. At fourteen, she ran away from home. Finally, she found herself in a madhouse and happy as a lark. One can fully appreciate the degree of her suffering when a child finds the madhouse a step above her home.

In her biography, Jane relates that during a musical entertainment at the hospital, she suddenly got up and began to dance. In front of her audience’s eyes, she changed from a timid, shivering nonentity into a graceful nymph. Her condition improved and, soon, she was released to her mother’s care. She ran away—for good— at sixteen to live with a student. She gave all of herself to this first love, only to find herself betrayed. This was too heavy a load for her fragile constitution. Immediately after the discovery, she ran toward the Seine to jump from a bridge. A prostitute talked her out of the idea. Jane spent that night in a brothel. The next day the inmates went to a public ball, taking their new protégé with them.

avrilThe public ball was Jane’s second awakening. From then on, her life became divided into two: a day job to keep her from hunger and a night life to keep away her demons. Her talent led to prestigious theatrical engagements when an exceptional dance number was needed and, for a time, she was the ambassador of French can-can in London and in Madrid. Her poise, grace, and intelligence made her a welcome guest at dinner parties. A friend of novelists, dramatists, artists, philosophers, and scientists, she also captured the heart of Toulouse-Lautrec who saw in her a sister soul. He too was a victim of physical suffering. He, too, had an unusual childhood. They remained friends until the painter’s premature death.


Such was Jane Avril’s status in the world of entertainment that her presence in the audience recommended any show (poster by Toulouse-Lautrec)


In her forties, Jane finally settled down to sixteen years of quiet married life. She died in 1943 at the age of seventy-five.



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