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Posts Tagged ‘Entertainment in 19th century paris’

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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

 

 

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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?”

 

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

 

 

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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?

 

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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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.

 

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La Goulue with her son Simon

 

deathShe 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

 

 

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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.

 

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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 in 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.

 

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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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