This is the third part of my blog, looking at the life of Balthazar Klossowski (Balthus) and I want to look at his first true love, his first wife Antoinette de Watteville and his time in exile during the Second World War.
The financial situation of the Klossowski family in the mid 1920’s was perilous, so much so, Balthus and his brother Pierre had to suspend their studies due to lack of money. In 1924 Balthus joined his brother in Paris and a few months later their mother, Baladine, moved to the French capital where they lived in an apartment close to the Pantheon. In 1926, aged eighteen years of age, Balthus journeyed to Italy and spent part of the summer in Florence where he set about copying some of the works of the Italian Masters.
As far as romance was concerned, Balthus’ great love was for a young girl, Rose Alice Antoinette de Watteville. She was born in 1912 and was the sister of Robert de Watteville, who was a close friend of Balthus. Balthus and Antoinette first met in 1924 when she was twelve years of age and he was nineteen. Antoinette’s upbringing was one of opulence as the de Wattevilles family were descendents of one of the most established aristocratic families in Switzerland. Balthus fell in love with this young girl but it was an unrequited love, but despite this, she and Balthus carried on exchanging many letters. Antoinette’s family were unimpressed with Balthus, not just because he was a struggling artist but also because his family lineage was nothing compared to that of the de Watteville family.
In the 1930’s Balthus was concentrating on society portraits and in an attempt to win over Antoinette’s parents he completed a portrait of Antoinette, entitled The Bernese Hat. The painting was devoid of any accoutrements that would imply Antoinette’s social and financial standing and the setting for the work was described as “severe”.
Much to the horror of Balthus, Antoinette married a diplomat in 1934 and so as not to upset her husband she asked Balthus to stop writing to her. This was too much to take in for Balthus. He was devastated and suffered what was termed an emotional breakdown, and he attempted suicide. He was so depressed that he virtually gave up painting for a year. His mood only lightened when she started to write to him again and in Bern on April 2nd 1937 she married Balthus. They went on to have two sons, Stanislaus, born in October 1942 and Thadée, born in February 1944 who co-authored a biography of their father which included many of the letters between Antoinette and Balthus.
One of the first painting Balthus did of his wife was The White Skirt which he painted in late 1937, some months after they were married and the story of the painting has an unusual twist to it. What we see in this provocative painting is Antoinette lounging in a chair. She is dressed in a full length white tennis skirt that used to belong to her mother. The jacket has fallen open and we cannot help but notice her semi-transparent bra which allows us to see her nipples which strain against the silky material. There is an aristocratic self-confident grace about her pose and in some way this appealed to Balthus to know that he had married into the aristocracy, although he still believed himself to be of the de Rola aristocracy. Balthus sold the painting to his friend the Paris art dealer Pierre Colle, who had introduced him to Derrain. It is obvious that Balthus regretted that decision for he had now lost a painting which portrayed his aristocratic trophy, Antoinette. Pierre Colle died in 1948 and Balthus approached his widow to have back The White Skirt painting.
She agreed but on one condition – that Balthus completed a painting featuring her three daughters, Marie-Pierre, Béatrice and Sylvia and she would then exchange it for the portrait of Antoinette which Balthus desperately wanted. Balthus agreed to the exchange and completed one of the versions of the painting, The Three Sisters in 1954.
When the Second World War broke out in 1939 Balthus was called up to the French army and was sent into battle near the town of Saarbrucken in the Alsace region. His time in the army lasted only a few months as he was invalided out with a leg injury and had also suffered a nervous breakdown. He went to the Savoie region of France and Switzerland to recuperate and in March 1940 he returns to Paris and is demobilised. In June 1940, the Germans occupied Paris and so Balthus and his wife Antoinette left the French capital and relocated in a seventeenth century manor house Champrovent in the village of Vernatel close to the town of Chambery in the Savoie. Here they shared a farmhouse manor with another family, the Coslins.
The Coslin’s twelve year old daughter, Gertrude, appeared in the first painting completed by Balthus whilst they were in exile. The painting, which was entitled Still Life with a Figure, is essentially a still life on a table composition. We see the young girl in profile whose figure is cut off at the right hand side border and all we see of her is her head, her wavy reddish- blonde hair, and the yellow-green sleeve of her blouse. She leans forward to look at the table. Her left hand rests on the table whilst her right hand seems to draw back the red and gold brocade curtain. She has a glowering facial expression as she stares at the meagre food that has been set aside for lunch. At the far end of the table from her is an ornate stemmed Victorian silver fruit bowl which holds several green and red apples all of which still retain their stalks. A wine glass can be seen which may be half-filled with cider. On the table, close to the girl, we see a chunk of home-baked bread, through which a black-handled knife has been thrust. The setting for this painting was one of the rooms of the farmhouse, in which Balthus and Antoinette were staying, but not the parlour, which appeared in later paintings by Balthus (Salon I and Salon II). The colourful wall and brocade curtain along with the deep claret of the tablecloth are in stark contrast to the plain dull walls of his Paris studio which was the background for many of Balthus’ paintings. The painting can be seen in the Tate Gallery in London
Balthus completed many paintings featuring Antoinette. One unusual one, which he completed in 1944 was entitled Girl in Green and Red. At the time of this painting Antoinette was thirty-two years of age but Balthus’ depiction of her makes her look as if she is a teenager. We see Antoinette wearing a green and red tricot with a brown cape over her right shoulder. She said in a later interview that she had specially bought the tricot for the sitting. Antoinette had blonde hair but in the painting Balthus had changed it to brown so it could match the colour of the cape. As well as the two colours of the tricot, of which the red is highlighted, her face is made to look two toned by the same light source which emanates from the left of the painting. Antoinette sits at a table. On the table, which is covered by a white tablecloth, are a silver cup, half a loaf of bread, which has a black handled knife pushed into it, and a candlestick which she is grasping. The bread and the protruding knife also appeared in his Still Life with a Figure painting of the same year. The way Antoinette is portrayed in this painting has often been likened to that of a fortune teller about to read the tarot cards. Balthus completed this work when he was living at 164 Place Notre Dame in the Swiss town of Fribourg where he and Antoinette had taken up residence from May 1942 and remained there until October 1945. This painting was hailed by the Surrealists. The picture marked one of Balthus’ closest approaches to Surrealism, a movement whose leaders admired and courted him. He rebuffed them,
To avoid the harsh Savoie winter conditions and the oncoming German armies Balthus and Antoinette left Vernatel in late 1941 and moved to Switzerland to be with her parents who were living in Bern.
During Balthus’ eighteen month stay in Champrovent he set to work on two large landscape paintings which were companion pieces and which actually formed a continuous panorama of the countryside which Balthus would have looked out upon when he stepped out of his farmhouse residence. Paysage de Champrovent (Landscape of Champrovent) is a topographically correct view of the scene. If we look carefully at the centre mid-ground we can make out the Chateau de la Petite Forêt and the Bois de Leyière. Further back over the crest of the hill, but out of sight, is the Rhone valley. In the distant background are the blue grey of the Colombier mountain range. The setting is a late sunny summer afternoon and a girl lies in the field taking in the last of the sun. The model for this painting was Georgette Coslin, the farmer’s daughter.
The companion piece is entitled Vernatel, Paysage aux Boeufs (Vernatel Landscape with Oxen). The mountain range on the right is the Vacherie de la Balme and it overshadows the village of Vernatel in the valley. The girl, now a grandmother, Geogette Varnaz (née Coslin) who was the model for the previous painting lives with her husband in this village. This landscape is not topographically correct as the space behind Balthus’ large tree at the left of the painting there would have been another village, Monthoux. This time, the setting is not a summer’s day but a November day and winter is fast approaching and the farmer needs to gather up his wood for the winter fires. In the field in the foreground we see the farmer with his pair of oxen struggling to drag a tree trunk across the field.
Also whilst living at Champrovent he completed two paintings Salon I and Salon II both of which harked back to his 1937 work The Blanchard Children. However instead of the plain, dull background setting of his Paris studio in that work, these two paintings have a more colourful backdrop of one of the rooms at Champrovent. He started painting Salon I in 1941 but before its completion he worked on the second version which he completed in 1942. The first version, Salon I, was not completed until 1943 when he and Antoinette were residing in Fribourg.
The Mountain is one of Balthus’s most important early works. It was completed by him in 1937, when he was twenty eight years of age and three years after his first one-man exhibition. The finished work was not exhibited until 1939 under the title Summer. This had meant to have been one in a set of four which featured the seasons of the year but Balthus never completed the other three paintings. This work once again had Balthus labelled as a Surrealist painter. There are seven figures in the painting all of whom are located on an imaginary plateau near the top of the Niederhorn, a peak of the Emmental Alps in the Bernese Oberland near Beatenberg, where Balthus lived in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s. Look at the seven figures. There is something very strange about them. There appears to be no connection between them and yet they are supposed to be a hiking party. Look at the different poses of the figures, some are walking, some are kneeling whilst the woman in the foreground looks as if she is lying on the ground asleep. This portrayal of mixed activities makes them even more disconnected. If anything this painting is a form of escapism for Balthus who hankered to be back in Beatenberg where he had many happy memories
In 1943, Balthus was living in Switzerland avoiding the horrors of war and it was in that year that he completed his painting entitled The Game of Patience. Balthus had discovered a new model for his work. She was Janette Aldry and was a little older than the models Balthus had once used whilst living in Paris. However Balthus liked using her as he reckoned she had the same melancholy demeanour of Thérèse Blanchard, his favoured model in the 1930’s. In the painting we see the girl, with her right knee resting on a stool, bent over the elegant highly polished Louis Quinze table carefully studying the playing cards which are spread on it. Her back is straight and she seems somewhat tense. The girl is dressed in an red vest and dark green skirt similar to one which Thérèse wore in his 1938 portrait of her. Behind the table on the left of the picture is a high backed Louis Quinze chair on which is an open box. Under the table is a stool on top of which are some books, The haphazard way the box lies on the chair and the pile of books which lie askew on the stool as well as the candlestick holder and cup which have been pushed to the extremities of the table are a sign of disarray caused by the young girl brought on by a sudden desire to play cards. I read somewhere that some art historians have interpreted the painting and the tense and restlessness of the girl a s a metaphor for the restless people that were forced to leave places like France to the safe haven of Switzerland but just want to get back home.
In the final part of my look at the life and artwork of Balthus I will look at some of the paintings he completed in his latter years.
Besides information about Balthus and his art gleaned from the internet I have relied heavily on two excellent books which I can highly recommend.
First there is the book Balthus Cats and Girls by the foremost expert on Balthus, Sabine Rewald.
Secondly, a very thick tome by Nicholas Fox Weber entitled Balthus, A Biography.