07/26/2011 02:56 am ET Updated Sep 24, 2011

The Moulin Rouge comes to London: Toulouse-Lautrec paints Jane Avril

An 1893 article by the critic Arsène Alexandre described the art of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec as "very spontaneous in its execution, yet very calculated in its conception." Lautrec's dazzling portrayals of Jane Avril contributed significantly to the reputation of the flamboyant dancer, who was nicknamed La Mélinite after a powerful explosive; she wrote in her memoirs: "It is more than certain that I owe him the fame that I enjoyed dating from his first poster of me."

One of Lautrec's posters of Avril, advertising an appearance at the Jardin de Paris, is among the most celebrated of all images of Paris' famous dance halls. She is shown with her kicking right leg suspended in mid-air, her orange skirt billowing, her whole figure framed by the enlarged and distorted neck of a double bass in the foreground, as the hair of the musician playing it flies upward, as if carried away by the sheer energy of the enormous notes flowing across the sheet music visible just beyond his instrument. In a current exhibition at London's Courtauld Gallery, a Lautrec gouache of Avril in precisely the same pose hangs beside the famous image -- obviously a preparatory study for the poster, demonstrating clearly the truth of Alexandre's claim that Lautrec's art was "very calculated in its conception." The nuanced colors and visible brushstrokes of the gouache disappear in the simplified image of the poster, which is characterized by the flat fields of color and strong, expressive lines that made Lautrec an early master of the fine art lithograph.

lautrec jane avril
lautrec jane avril

The Courtauld exhibition, Toulouse-Lautrec and Jane Avril: Beyond the Moulin Rouge, has nine of Lautrec's painted images of Avril, and another five prints. All of his portrayals of Avril emphasize the grace and fluidity of her willowy body, and the dramatic poses and colorful costumes that she used to show it to best advantage. But they also contain an element that adds a surprising psychological depth to these ostensibly lighthearted images, for Avril's face is often shown as gaunt and detached, with a world-weariness that is surprising for a woman who was only in her 20s in the 1890s, when Lautrec painted her.

Avril had in fact had a hard life: she had run away from a childhood home of poverty and abuse in her early teens, and had subsequently been hospitalized for more than a year for a neurological disorder. The pensive expression that Lautrec portrays does not appear to us as realistic or photographic, but rather -- like his portrayals of her figure as a whole -- as the stylized product of an extravagantly talented conceptual painter, who was himself only in his 20s and 30s when these works were made (Lautrec died in 1901, at the tragically early age of 36). With images skillfully conjured to be more intense than reality, Lautrec achieved the magic not only of communicating the excitement and gaudiness of Paris' frenetic dance halls in their heyday, but also of making us aware of their somber underlying actuality, and the less than glamorous lives of their performers.

The Courtauld"s superb collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, originally assembled by the great critic Roger Fry (the subject of Virginia Woolf's only biography), always makes it an excellent place to spend a few hours on a trip to London. This exhibition of Lautrec's paintings of his favorite model, on display until Septermber 18, now adds yet another reason to go to the gallery, and to spend a bit more time there.