Balthus. Part 3 – Antoinette de Watteville and exile

Antoinette de Watteville and Balthus (1935)

Antoinette de Watteville and Balthus (1935)

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.

The Bernese Hat by Balthus (1938)

The Bernese Hat by Balthus (1938)

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.

The White Skirt by Balthus (1937)

The White Skirt by Balthus (1937)

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.

Three Sisters by Balthus (1954)

Three Sisters by Balthus (1954)

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.

Champrovent

Champrovent

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.

Still Life with a Figure by Balthus ( 1940)

Still Life with a Figure by Balthus ( 1940)

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

Girl in Green and Red by Balthus (1944)

Girl in Green and Red by Balthus (1944)

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.

Paysage de Champrovent by Balthus (1942-1945)

Paysage de Champrovent by Balthus (1942-1945)

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.

Vernatel Landscape with Oxen by Balthus (1942)

Vernatel Landscape with Oxen by Balthus (1942)

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.

The Salon II by Balthus (1942)

The Salon II by Balthus (1942)

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 by Balthus (1937)

The Mountain by Balthus (1937)

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

The Game of Patience by Balthus (1943)

The Game of Patience by Balthus (1943)

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.

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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.

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art History, Balthus, French painters, Sofonisba Anguissola | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Balthus – Part 2 – Young girls and controversy

Self Portrait by Balthus (1940)

Self Portrait by Balthus (1940)

In my second part of my look at the life and works of Balthus I am going concentrate on his depiction of pubescent girls which were to shock both the public and critics alike when they first exhibited in 1934 at the Galerie Pierre in Paris.  I have in some earlier blogs discussed what is, to some, termed as beautiful erotic art whilst others look upon the depictions as unacceptable and pornographic.  Those paintings by the likes of Egon Schiele and Lucien Freud were depictions of adult female models but in the case of Balthus’ paintings the models he was using were pre-pubescent girls.  I leave it to each person to decide whether the depiction of these young girls was simply the work of an artist and therefore as art, was acceptable or whether there was something very offensive and disturbing about the paintings.  Everybody is entitled to their own opinion.

I need to remind you that the depiction of young girls naked or semi-naked in paintings is not just something that interested Balthus.  Many other well known artists used young girls as models and portrayed them in their works of art.

Little Girl by Otto Dix

Little Girl by Otto Dix

There was Otto Dix, the German painter, and often talked about as the most important painter of the Neue Sachlichkeit, which was an artistic style in Germany in the 1920 which set out to confront Expressionism.  It was looked on as being a return to unsentimental reality and one which concentrated on the objective world, unlike Expressionism which was more abstract, romantic, and idealistic.  His 1922 painting Little Girl in front of Curtain, which can now be seen at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, was judged to have flown in the face of morality.  This painting of a young naked girl is portrayed in a realistic style, maybe too realistic as it details the blue veins of her body.  She looks emaciated and she stares past us with a haunted expression. Her childhood is probably a thing of the past as, sadly, is her innocence.  A pink flower clings to the curtain behind her, and in her hair we see a bright red bow.   The artist himself once said:

“…I will either become notorious or famous…”

This painting probably allowed Otto Dix to achieve his first goal.

Puberty by Edvard Munch (1894)

Puberty by Edvard Munch (1894)

The great Norwegian painter, Edvard Munch, who is best known for his paintings entitled Scream, also produced a painting in 1894 featuring a pre-teen naked girl.  The painting which was entitled Puberty depicts a young pubescent girl, nude, sitting with her legs together.  There is an air of shyness about her and this could be that at her age she is starting to become aware of the changes to her body.

Standing nude young girl 2 by Egon Schiele (c.1911)

Standing nude young girl 2 by Egon Schiele (c.1911)

The celebrated Austrian Expressionist artist Egon Schiele who, at the time,  was living with his lover, Valerie Neuzil, in the small country town of Neulengbach, close to Vienna.  This was a quiet suburban setting full of retired officers and snooping neighbours.  Schiele was arrested in April 1912 on suspicion of showing erotic drawings to young children who posed for him, of touching the children while he drew them and of kidnapping one of the young girls who frequented his studio.  Some of the charges were dropped and he spent three days in jail.  A year earlier he produced the work entitled Standing Nude Young Girl 2.

The reason that I featured these three paintings was not that I considered them any sort of justification for Bathus’ portrayal of young girls but simply to point out that many artists have painted scantily-clad or naked young girls.

Balthus had been earning money with his portraiture, mainly of older society women, and he was very discontented with this.  He actually hated this type of work calling his finished portraits, “his monsters”.  In October 1935 Balthus moves to a new and larger studio at 3 cour de Rohan.  Just three blocks away was the rue de Seine and it was at No. 34 that the Blanchard family lived, mother, father who worked as a waiter in a nearby bistro, daughter Thérèse and son Hubert who was two years older than his sister.  When Balthus first caught sight of Thérèse she was just eleven years of age and having approached the family Thérèse agreed to model for him.  She was not a beautiful girl but she appealed to Balthus.

Thérèse by Balthus (1936)

Thérèse by Balthus (1936)

The first painting Balthus completed of Thérèse Blanchard was in 1936 and was simply entitled Thérèse.  Balthus would go on to use her as a model more than any other person.  In this work, Balthus has captured her moody and serious look and it was that aspect of her that attracted Balthus to his young model.  Her dark dress seems to go hand in hand with her mood and it is just the bright red piping on the collar of the dress which manages to liven up the portrait

Brother and Sister by Balthus (1936)

Brother and Sister by Balthus (1936)

In that same year Balthus completed a painting of Thérèse and Hubert entitled Brother and Sister.  Once again Balthus has portrayed Thérèse’s expression as moody and sullen in contrast to the smiling happy face of her brother.  Thérèse’s arms are wrapped round the waist of her brother, not as a sign of sibling affection, but as she was trying to make him stand still for Balthus.  Their clothes are very plain.  Hubert seems to be wearing the attire of a schoolboy whilst his sister is wearing a simple plaid skirt and a red sweater with a green collar.

The Blanchard children by Balthus (1937)

The Blanchard children by Balthus (1937)

In 1937 the two Blanchard siblings appear in a painting by Balthus entitled The Blanchard Children.  Thérèse is now twelve years old and her brother is fourteen years of age.  The setting is Balthus’ studio and one notices there are no childlike accoutrements such as toys, pens or books.  It is a very stark depiction.  This was not an oversight by Balthus but his belief that the starkness would intensify the dramatic effect of the picture.  If we look under the table, we can see a bag of coal sat in the corner. Why would Balthus add this?  The answer maybe that Balthus, whilst living in Germany, remembered what happened on the eve of the Feast of St Nicholas on December 5th when children put their shoes out in the hopes of some sweets in the morning.  The story goes that, St. Nicholas does not travel on his own but with his companion, Black Peter, who places coal in the shoes of the children who had been naughty !

Wuthering Heights illustration by Balthus

Wuthering Heights illustration by Balthus

The strange posture of the two children is probably based on an illustration Balthus produced for Emily Bronte’s 1847 novel Wuthering Heights.  The illustration relates to Heathcliffe, partly kneeling on the chair, turning towards Cathy who is on her hands and knees partly under the table, writing her diary.  The painting was given to Balthus’ friend Picasso.

Thérèse with Cat by Balthus (1937)

Thérèse with Cat by Balthus (1937)

The first controversial painting Balthus did with Thérèse as his model was completed in 1937 and entitled Thérèse with Cat.  It was a small work measuring 88 x 77cms (34 x 31 in).  Here once again we see the un-smiling Thérèse seeming to look at something behind us.  She looks slightly dishevelled with one sock down to her ankle and one sleeve pushed up her arm.  The red and the turquoise colour of her clothes stand out against the dark background.   Her left leg is raised and her foot rests on a stool and this pose means that her white underpants are visible to the viewer.  She has been asked to pose in a certain way and by the look of her expression she is well aware of how the artist looks at her.  A large cat lies on the floor next to Thérèse.  It appears to be the same cat that appeared with Balthus in the painting King of the Cats (see previous blog).  The painting is now housed in The Art Institute of Chicago.

The Victim by Balthus (1939 - 1946)

The Victim by Balthus (1939 – 1946)

One of his best known works is one he started just before the onset of World War II but was not completed until March 1946.  It was entitled The Victim. It was one of his largest paintings measuring 132 x 218 cms (52 x 86in) and it was because of that size of it that he had to leave it in his Paris studio when he and his wife, Antoinette, at the onset of war, moved to Champrovent in Savoie which had not been occupied by the Germans.  They later moved to Switzerland to live with Antoinette’s parents and did not return to his Paris studio until March 1946.  We see a life-sized ashen body of a naked woman lying on a white sheet which covers a low bedstead.  Is she merely asleep or is she dead?  Does the title answer the question?  The title comes from a novella written by Balthus’ friend, the writer Pierre Jean Jouve.  His 1935 book La Scène capitale contained two novellas, La Victime and Dans les années profondes.

Below the bedstead and in the right foreground of the painting we can just make out a knife lying on the dark floor, the blade of which points directly to her heart.  Although, through the painting’s title we gather that the girl is dead, there is no sign of a wound on her body and neither blood on her body nor on the knife.  Was she strangled?  So it is up to us to decide whether the girl is dead or simply in a trance but we must remember that Balthus started to paint this before war broke out and only concluded it a year after the end of the war and the atrocities of war would be fresh in the artist’s mind.  Another question is, who sat for this painting and the answer is in some doubt.  The shape of the girls face and the cut of her hair leads many to believe it is Thérèse Blanchard, the only doubt being that she had never before posed nude for Balthus

Thérèse Dreaming by Balthus (1938)

Thérèse Dreaming by Balthus (1938)

A year later (1938) Balthus completed Thérèse Dreaming, another but similar painting to to Thérèse and the Cat, again featuring the now thirteen year old Thérèse.  The setting is once again his studio and we see her sitting before us in a similar pose.  This is a much bigger painting, measuring 150 x 130cms (59 x 51 in).  This time he added a striped wallpaper (which did not exist in his studio) as a background and this time we can see the additional still life of a vase and a canister on a table.  The cat is once again part of the picture and we see it at the side of Thérèse lapping up some of its milk.  In the previous painting Thérèse was looking almost towards us but in this painting but in this work she has looked away, with her eyes closed, as if enjoying a daydream.  Thérèse’s clothes are unadorned and unfussy.  As Sabine Rewald wrote in her book Balthus Cats and Girls :

“…she appears the epitome of dormant sexuality.  Her white lace-trimmed slip surrounds her legs like a paper cornucopia wrapped around a bunch of flowers.  The cat lapping milk from a saucer serves as another tongue in cheek erotic metaphor…”

Since 1998 the painting has been housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as part of the Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection.

The Guitar Lesson by Balthus (1934)

The Guitar Lesson by Balthus (1934)

By far the most controversial and notorious painting by Balthus was one he completed in 1934 entitled The Guitar Lesson.  It is a merging of sex and violence which shocked those who saw it.  It is an encounter between a dominating and tyrannical women, who is the music teacher, in her early twenties, and a young girl, her student, thought to be about twelve years old. The music lesson has been halted.  A guitar lies on the floor and the woman has thrown the girl across her lap and pulled her black dress up over her waist.  The fingers of the teacher’s left hand dig into the upper part of the girl’s inner thigh.  It is as if the teacher is strumming a human guitar.  The girl lies there, naked from her navel to her knees.  The lower parts of her legs are covered by white socks.  The music teacher has grabbed a chunk of the young girl’s long hair and is yanking her head downwards.   To save herself from falling and in an attempt to alleviate the pain caused by her hair being pulled, the girl has grabbed the collar of the music teacher’s grey dress which uncovers the woman’s full right breast.  Her nipple juts out which indicates to us that the teacher is sexually aroused by what she is doing.

Pietà of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon by Enguerrand Quarton (c.1860)

Pietà of Villeneuve-lès-Avignon by Enguerrand Quarton (c.1860)

The positioning of the girl lying across the thighs of the teacher has often been likened to the 1455 painting Balthus must have seen in the Louvre, Pietà of Villeneuve-les-Avignon by  Enguerrand Quarton.

Portrait der Schwester des Künstlers (Baladine Klossowski) by Eugen Spiro (1902)

Portrait der Schwester des Künstlers (Baladine Klossowski) by Eugen Spiro (1902)

The girl who posed for The Guitar Lesson was Laurence Bataille, the daughter of a concierge.  She would come to Balthus’ studio with her mother who acted as her chaperone.  The striped wallpaper background and the grey dress of the music teacher were the same as we see in Baladine Klossowski 1902 portrait by her older brother Eugen Spiro.  It was first shown at  Balthus’ one man exhibition in April 1934 at the Galerie Pierre in Paris.   The gallery owner, Pierre Loeb, and Balthus decided that the painting should be placed in the back room of the gallery, but covered up, so that it, in fact, became a “peep show” for a select “priveleged” number of visitors.  The provenance of the painting is quite interesting. It was bought by James Thrall Soby, an American author, critic and patron of the arts, in 1938.  He had intended to exhibit along with his other paintings at the Hartford’s Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut but because of the controversial nature of the painting it remained unseen in the museum vaults.  Soby realised that there was no point in owning a painting that could never be exhibited and so, in 1945, he exchanged it with the Chilean surrealist artist, Roberto Matta Echaurren, for one of his paintings.  Roberto Matta Echaurren’ wife Patricia left him and married Pierre Matisse but one of the things she took with her was this painting.  Pierre Matisse, the youngest child of  Henri Matisse owned a gallery in New York and the painting remained hidden away in the vaults.  In 1977, it appeared for a month at Pierre Matisse’s 57th Street gallery in New York. It was a sensation and the press reviews referred to the painting and the art critics of the various newspapers and magazines wrote about it but said that they could not show the painting as it would shock the readers.   After the one month long show it was never exhibited again.

When the 1977 exhibition closed the gallery offered it to New York’s Museum of Modern Art.  It was accepted by the museum but it was not put on show instead it was kept hidden away for five years in the basement.  In 1982 the Chairman of the Board of the MOMA, Blanchette Rockefeller, the wife of John D Rockefeller III, saw it at a small presentation of the works of art given to the MOMA by Pierre Matisse.  She was horrified by Balthus’ depiction terming it sacrilegious and obscene and demanded that it was returned to the Pierre Matisse Gallery immediately.  The Pierre Matisse gallery took it back and then sold it in 1984 to the film director, Mike Nichols. In the late 1980’s he sold it to the Thomas Ammann Gallery in Zurich.  They sold it on to an unknown wealthy private collector who I saw in one newspaper report, was the late Stavros Niarchos.  On his death in 1996 the painting became the property of his heirs.

In my next blog I will take a last look at the life of Balthus and share with you some more of his artworkwork.

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Besides information about the life of Balthus and his art gleaned from the internet I have relied heavily on two books which I can highly recommend.

Firstly,  there is an excellent book  entitled 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.

 

Posted in Art, Art Blog, Art History, Balthus, French painters, Surrealism, Thérèse by Balthus | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Balthus. Part 1. Mitsou and the King of the Cats

Balthus aged 88

Balthus aged 88

In my next few blogs, I am looking at the life and art of the French born painter Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, more simply known as Balthus.   Some of his artwork shocked the world and I have to warn you that some of his paintings you may find disturbing, and have often been termed offensive and disgusting.  These will appear in Part 2.

So what do we know about Balthus’ life?  The answer is “very little” and that is exactly how the artist wanted it to be.  As far as his life story was concerned, he wanted to preserve his anonymity, so much so, when negotiating with the Tate Modern, which was about to launch a retrospective of his work in 1968, he sent the curator of the exhibition a telegram which read:

“..NO BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS.  BEGIN:  BALTHUS IS A PAINTER OF WHOM NOTHING IS KNOWN.  NOW LET US LOOK AT THE PICTURES.  REGARDS.  B…”

Balthus was born in Paris at the end of February 1908.  His father Erich Klossowski was a noted German historian and painter, who had come from a family which belonged to Polish nobility, and whose coat of arms was known as the Rola, which was used by a number of szlachta families.  The szlachta was a legally institutional privileged noble class and Balthus added the title “de Rola” to his name.  Balthus’ mother was Elisabeth Dorothea Spiro, but as a painter, used the name Baladine Klossowska.  She gave birth to two sons, Pierre in 1905 and Balthus in 1908.  Pierre went on to become a much heralded writer and philosopher.  Balthus and his family lived in rue Boissonade in Paris’ 14th arrondissement.  He and his brother had a privileged upbringing as his parents were part of the cultural elite in Paris and would entertain many of the cultural icons of the time such as the French writer and playwright, Jean Cocteau, André Gide, the Nobel prizewinning writer, and the French painter, Pierre Bonnard.  The family, who held German citizenship, along with Balthus’ uncle, the painter, Eugen Spiro, had to move out of Paris at the onset of World War I and they travelled to Berlin where Balthus’ father worked at the Lessing theatre as a stage and costume designer.

In 1917, Balthus’ mother and father separated and she took her sons, Pierre and Balthus, away from Berlin and set up home in Berne.  Later she and her two sons move to Conches, a small town just south of Geneva, and stayed with friends before renting a two-room apartment in rue Pré-Jerôme in 1920.  Balthus, as a child loved to draw and it was in 1919, whilst living in Conches, that, at the age of eleven, he produced a book of forty graphite and ink drawings.  The drawings were based on the experiences he had, when he fell in love with a stray cat which he called Mitsou and through his drawings he tells of his happiness derived from his feline friend and the sadness of losing his new friend.  It was in 1919 when Balthus’ mother Elisabeth first met Rainer Maria Rilke in Geneva.  He was a writer and poet.  They quickly became lovers, a relationship which lasted until he died of leukaemia in December 1926.  It was an unusual relationship as Rilke said he needed his own space when he worked and so the couple did not live together on a permanent basis.

Mitsou

Mitsou

On one of Rilke’s visits to the Klossowski home to see Elizabeth he saw the Mitsou drawings  done by her son, Balthus,  and was he was so impressed by them that  he offered to write the preface for the book and arranged for it to be printed in 1921 under the title Mitsou, Quarante images (Mitsou, Forty Images).  The set of forty drawings were an animated tale of how he found a cat on a park bench.

Finding the cat

Finding the cat

In the opening drawing of the set we see the boy tentatively leaning towards the cat making sure he doesn’t scare it off.  Look how Balthus has given the boy an air of astonishment as he looks at the cat, by shaping the mouth, raising the thick eyebrows and the angling the chin.  In complete contrast, the cat looks out at us in a statuesque sphinx-like way, totally unfazed by the boy’s approach.  Although the story is about him and the cat, Balthus has added other elements to the drawing.  The setting is a courtyard which is separated from a house by a wall and a gate.  He has also included vines climbing up the wall as a backdrop.

Losing the cat

Losing the cat

From this time on, Balthus love of cats was shown by the number of times he depicted felines in his artwork.  Drawing number 40 of Mitsou, the last one of the set, depicts Balthus crying when he realises the cat has run off and his feline friend has gone forever.

 In the summer of 1919 the family spend time in the picturesque Swiss village of Beatenberg which lies between the Bernese Alps and the still blue waters of Lake Thun.  It is whilst here that Balthus works as an assistant to the painter, Margrit Bey.  For next four summers Balthus and his family would return to Beatenberg and work alongside Margrit.  Between 1919 and 1921, during their stay in Conches both Balthus and his brother study at the College Calvin in Geneva.  For Balthus, the years between 1919 and 1921 were some of the best times he ever had and he was always pleased to recall those days

Rilke and Elisabeth Klossowska at Chateau Muzot (1923)

Rilke and Elisabeth Klossowska at Chateau Muzot (1923)

His mother was in love with Rilke and he was devoted to her.   Balthus also bonded with Rilke and he received nothing but compliments for his artwork from the writer.  To Balthus, Rilke was almost a surrogate father.

In April 1921 Baladine and her two sons move back to Berlin and go to live with her brother Eugen and later stay with her sister, Gina Trebicky.  Elisabeth had some of her paintings accepted for an exhibition of female artists at Galerie Fleckhtheim in Berlin and it is at this time that she is persuaded to change her name as an artist to Baladine.

In 1934, Balthus produced his first large scale painting entitled The Street.  It measured 195 x 240cm (77 x 94 ins).  He had already painted another version of this five years earlier, just before he journeyed to Morocco but some of the characters had changed.  The setting in both works is the rue Bourbon-le Château.

The Street by Balthus (1929)

The Street by Balthus (1929)

In this earlier version, seen above in black and white, we see a grandfather figure in top hat and topcoat holding firmly onto two young children as they cross the road.  The boy, in shorts, wears a hat with a pom-pom whilst the young girl dressed in a skirt and flowered hat.  In the later version this trio has been replaced by two other characters, which caused the outrage!

The Street by Balthus (1933)

The Street by Balthus (1933)

The 1934 version was one of a number of his works of the time which shocked the audience at Balthus’ first solo exhibition which was held in the Galerie Pierre in Paris.  The people in the street seemed to have stopped and are frozen in mid-flow, almost trance-like.   For this work Balthus retained the baker, the workman crossing the road with a plank of wood on his shoulder along with the woman carrying a young child, albeit now looking like a little man.   In this version we also have a young girl, racquet in hand, chasing a ball across the street. Again although possessing the height of a child she seems to be more like a small woman.   Balthus was questioned about that but he simply refused to elaborate more than saying “she is simply a little girl”.  The same boy, as seen in the first version, is still strolling haughtily towards us but is set back slightly in comparison to the first version.  However the major change is the inclusion of the two figures in the left foreground.  These two replace the elderly gentleman and the two young children.  The man tries to grope the girl as she passes him by and she raises her arm maybe in shock or maybe to strike her assailant.

Pierre Loeb the owner of Galerie Pierre said that having looked at the painting described it as a scene of anguished phantoms sleepwalking in a strange dreamlike state.  Balthus believed Loeb’s comments were nonsensical and although Loeb exhibited Balthus’ art in his gallery bringing him to the notice of the public, Balthus loathed him and termed him a “typical outsider who lacked true vision of what really mattered to painters”.

The painting was bought from Galerie Pierre in 1937 by James Thrall Soby, an American author, critic and patron of the arts.  However the painting was so controversial and so many of his friends disliked the sexual connotation that Soby wrote to Balthus in 1955 and asked him to retouch the gesture of the figures on the left.  Soby was surprised when Balthus agreed and wrote:

“…I used to like shocking people, but now it bores me…”

When Soby died in 1979 this painting was bequeathed to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The King of the Cats by Balthus (1935)

The King of the Cats by Balthus (1935)

I am concluding this first part of my look at the life and art of Balthazar Klossowski by showing you the painting, the title of which the artist gave himself.  This is just one of three self portraits completed by Balthus.  The title of the 1935 painting was King of the Cats. Balthus was twenty-seven years of age when he painted this work.  It was painted in his Paris studio in rue Furstenberg.  The studio, which he bought in May 1933 was a fifth floor attic room  It was also the first property he ever purchased and  he remained here until October 1935.

Balthus had always had a love of cats and in this work we see him standing in a somewhat arrogant and aloof pose, with his beloved cat lovingly rubbing itself against his leg.  Because the view of the artist is seen from below it elongates him and adds to his imperious stance.  He is dressed in saffron pants, white shirt and red tie and a black jacket.  On his feet is a pair of pointed black shoes.  On the floor, to his left, is a stone slab leaning against a high stool with the inscription:

A PORTRAIT OF

H.M.

THE KING OF THE CATS

Painted by

HIMSELF

MCMXXXV

Balthus has added a little humour to the painting by placing a lion tamer’s whip on top of the stool !

It was in that year that Balthus started to sign his letters “King of the Cats”, the first being a letter, written in January 1935, to his soon to be wife, Antoinette de Watteville.

There is an air of self confidence about the figure and this has been put down to 1935 being a good year for him after the turbulent times of 1934 when his first one-man exhibition at the Galerie Pierre, featuring many depictions of pre-teen girls in erotic poses,  scandalised the critics and public alike.  The fall out over these paintings made Balthus give up painting for almost a year.

In the second part of my look at Balthus I will focus on the paintings which caused such a furore when exhibited in Galerie Pierre in Paris.

Besides information about Balthus and his art gleaned from the internet I have relied heavily on two excellent books which I can highly recommend.

Sabine Rewald, Curator for Modern Art, Dept. Of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sabine Rewald, Curator for Modern Art, Dept. Of Modern and Contemporary Art at The Metropolitan Museum of Art standing next to Balthus painting entitled Thérèse

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.

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Arnold Böcklin. Part 3 – The latter years. Portraiture and Symbolism

Photo of Arnold Böcklin (1900) aged 73

Photo of Arnold Böcklin (1900) aged 73

In my final part of the Arnold Böcklin story I want to look at his portraiture and some of his more evocative Symbolist works.  He completed many self portraits, two of which I have shown you at the start of the last couple of blogs.  His portraits also included ones of his second wife, Angela Rosa Lorenza Pasucci and their daughter Clara.

Portrait of Angela Böcklin as muse by Arnold Böcklin (1863)

Portrait of Angela Böcklin as muse by Arnold Böcklin (1863)

In the first blog about Arnold Böcklin I mentioned his two wives.  He married Louise Schmidt in 1850 but she died a year later and then in June 1853, Böcklin married his second wife, a seventeen year old Italian girl, the daughter of a papal guard, Angela Rosa Lorenza Pasucci and she featured in a number of his works of art.  One such portrait was entitled Portrait of Angela Böcklin as a Muse which he completed in 1863.

Mrs Böcklin with Black Veil by Arnold Böcklin (1863)

Mrs Böcklin with Black Veil by Arnold Böcklin (1863)

Böcklin completed another portrait of his wife that year entitled Mrs Böcklin with Black Veil.  This was a more sombre depiction of his wife.  It was painted when she was twenty-seven years of age.  It is only a small oil on canvas work within the stretcher frame just measuring 19 x 14 cms.  This was a painting he completed for himself.  There is a certain intimacy about the work.  The artists depicts his wife with a black veil on her head and this veil serves the purpose of being a frame for his wife’s face, the colour of which is in contrast to the simple olive green background.  Angela Böcklin seems to be very thoughtful, even slightly sad.  Maybe she is in mourning for we know she and Arnold had fourteen children but only eight of them survived him.   We take it for granted that we will die before our children but in the nineteenth century that was not always the case, in fact the opposite was often true, and although it was a common occurrence for children to die young we should never underestimate its tragic consequences.

Portrait of Clara Böcklin by Arnold Böcklin (1872)

Portrait of Clara Böcklin by Arnold Böcklin (1872)

In 1872 he completed one of a number of portraits of his daughter Clara.

Portrait of Clara Böcklin by Arnold Böcklin (1876)

Portrait of Clara Böcklin by Arnold Böcklin (1876)

In 1876, when she was twenty-one years of age, Böcklin painted another portrait of her.   It was also in this year that Clara married the sculptor, Peter Bruckmann.

Böcklin became somewhat fixated by death and this is borne out with his evocative painting Die Toteninsel, which I talked about in the previous blog.  This preoccupation, which could have been because of the loss of his children, was clearly seen in yet another of his self portraits, which he completed in 1872, shortly after the death of his young daughter, and was entitled Self Portrait with Death as a Fiddler.  It was completed whilst Böcklin was in Munich having just travelled back from Italy. It was in Italy that Böcklin began to add symbols into his paintings in order to suggest ideas.  The interesting thing about Symbolism in art is that we can each come to our own conclusions about what we see in a painting and unless the artist has spoken about the painting then we have as much right to postulate about an artist’s reasoning behind their work as the next person.  So having looked at the work, what do you make of it?  Let me make a few suggestions about what I think may have been in Böcklin’s mind when he put brush to canvas.

Self portrait with Death as the Fiddler by Arnold Böcklin (1872)

Self portrait with Death as the Fiddler by Arnold Böcklin (1872)

We can see that Arnold has portrayed himself with painting brush in one hand whilst the thumb of his other hand is hooked through the hole in the palette securing a piece of cloth.  However what is more interesting is the inclusion of the skeleton playing the fiddle in the background.   The question I pose is – what was Böcklin thinking about when he decided to include the skeleton?    We know that most paintings, which include a skull or skeleton, are Vanitas paintings.  A vanitas painting contains an object or a collection of objects which symbolise the inevitability of death and the transience of life.  Such paintings urge the viewer to consider mortality and to repent !  So, Böcklin’s inclusion of a skeleton is a reminder to him that he cannot take life for granted and that there is a very fine line between life and death.

Look at the juxtaposition of the artist and the skeleton.   Look how the skeleton appears to be whispering something in Böcklin’s ear and the artist in the painting turns his head slightly and leans back to listen.   He is staring out of the painting, but not at us.  He is staring out but his full attention is on what the skeleton is saying.   Maybe the skeleton is telling the artist something about his future?  Look also at the fiddle that the skeleton is playing.  It has only one string left.  Why paint the fiddle with just one string?   Is this something to do with the length of time Böcklin has on this earth?  Is it that at birth the violin had all four strings but, as time progressed, string after string broke and so, at the time of death, there are no strings?

The painting can now be seen at the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin.

Naiads at Play by Arnold Böcklin (c.1862)

Naiads at Play by Arnold Böcklin (c.1862)

Other subjects that appeared in Böcklin’s paintings during his last period of creativity were the Naiads and Nereids or sea and water nymphs often referred to as female spirits of sea waters.  The next painting I am showcasing is entitled Naiads at Play which Böcklin completed around 1862 and now hangs in the Kunstmuseum Basel.  Böcklin’s biographer, Henri Mendelssohn described the painting, writing:

“…It fairly bubbles over with fun and merriment.  The scene represents a rock in the ocean, over which the waves dash in foam, tossing white spray high into the air.  Clinging fast to the wet rock face are the gleaming forms of naiads, their tails shining like jewels in the seething waters, as the waves dash, one on top of another, so do the creatures of the sea chase each other in their frolic, darting here and diving there, and tumbling heels over head from the rock into the ocean beneath, whose roar almost drowns their shrill laughter.  All is life and movement.  The sputtering triton and the luckless baby, holding in his convulsive clasp the prize he has captured, a little fish, rank among the inimitable creations of Böcklin’s art…”

Marie Joseph Robert Anatole, Comte de Montesquiou-Fézensac, a French Symbolist poet and art collector of the time, described Böcklin’s work, writing:

“…”This is the most astonishing of all Böcklin’s representations of the sea. The water gleams with hues as violent as those reflected by the Faraglioni, the red rocks which, seen from Capri, mirror their purple shadows in the blue waves. One of the naiads, with her back turned to us, seems to set the water on fire with the brilliancy of her orange-coloured hair, while all the naiads’ tails, wet and glistening, glow with the gorgeous hues of butterflies’ wings or the petals of brilliant flowers…”

Looking at the work one can understand the comments.  It is as if you were there, feeling the energy and almost feeling the spray on your face.  From this mythical subject, Böcklin has almost turned it into reality, such was his skill.

Plague by Arnold Böcklin (1898)

Plague by Arnold Böcklin (1898)

Another painting by the Swiss symbolist Böcklin which illustrates his fascination with nightmares, the plague and death was one he completed in 1898 entitled Plague.  It is a tempera on wood painting, which is now hanging in the Kunstmuseum Basel.   In the painting the setting is the street of a medieval town and we see the grim-faced Death, scythe in hand, riding a winged creature, which spews out miasma.  The colours Böcklin used in this painting are black and dull browns for the clothes of many of the inhabitants who desperately throw themselves out of the path of Death and shades of pale green which is often associated with death and putrefaction.  The one detail which is devoid of drab colours is that of the clothes worn by the woman in the foreground who lies across the body of the woman who has suffered at the hands of Death.  Her gold-embroidered red cloak signifies that she comes from a wealthy household and the painting reinforces the fact that Death takes both rich and poor.  The plague had ravished Europe throughout the 14th to 17th centuries.  It knew no boundaries of class or wealth.

Ruggiero and Angelica by Arnold Böcklin (c.1874)

Ruggiero and Angelica by Arnold Böcklin (c.1874)

Around 1874 Böcklin completed a painting entitled Roger and Angelica.  It can now be seen in the Nationalgalerie in Berlin. The scene, Roger rescuing of Angelica, is based on the 1532 epic romantic poem, Orlando Furioso by Ludivico Ariosto, which is all about the conflict between the Christians and the Saracens.  The painting depicts the main character, Ruggerio (Roger), a Saracen warrior, coming to the rescue of Angelica, the daughter of a king of Cathay.  She is chained to a rock on the shoreline and is about to be killed by the sea monster, the giant turquoise orc, which has wrapped itself around the helpless Angelica.  In the background we see Roger arriving astride his horse.  The battle with the orc is ended when Roger dazzles the sea monster with his shield allowing him the chance to place a magic ring on the finger of Angelica which protects her whilst he undoes the bonds which were tying her to the tree.

Grave of Arnold BöcklinArnold Böcklin moved around Europe, living in Munich, Florence and the small Swiss town of Hottingen which was close to Zurich but from 1892 onwards he settled down near Florence in the town of  San Domenico.  To mark his seventieth birthday a retrospective of his work was held in Basel, Berlin and Hamburg.  Böcklin died of tuberculosis, aged 73, in Fiesole, a small town northeast of Florence, in January 1902 and is buried in the Cimitero Evangelico degli Allori in southern Florence.

In my next blog I will be looking at the work of an artist who was known as the king of the cats as many of his paintings had an obligatory cat in the depiction.  However he was probably more remembered by his erotic paintings which featured pre pubescent girls in all manner of provocative poses.  In this day and age many of his works would struggle to be exhibited because of the age of his models.

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Arnold Böcklin. Part 2 – Die Toteninsel

Self Portrait by Arnold Böcklin (1885)

Self Portrait by Arnold Böcklin (1885)

As I said in my previous blog there was a distinct change in the subject and style of Böcklin’s art in the middle of the nineteenth century.   Gone were the realist and naturalist landscape works which concentrated on the beauty of nature; depictions which included very few things, such as people or animals, which he believed would detract from nature’s magnificence.  Around 1854 Böcklin’s paintings began to become idealised with mythological connotations.  My original intention had been to look at the life and works of Böcklin in two parts.  Firstly, his early landscape paintings and secondly, his later symbolist paintings.  However I decided that his most famous painting, Die Toteninsel, should have a blog of its own.

Arnold Böcklin left Italy in 1857 and returned to Basel and the following year he accepted a commission to paint the dining hall of the merchant and Royal Hanoverian Consul, Karl  Wedekind in Hannover.  Wedekind also went on to purchase some of Böcklin’s paintings.  Financial and health issues began to blight Böcklin’s life around this time.  However his financial problems were to change when he and his family moved to Munich where he exhibited a number of his paintings at the Munich Kusnstverein.   It proved to be a tremendous success.  Fourteen of his paintings were purchased by Friedrich Graf von Schack, the Munich art collector, who also offered him the position of Professor of Landscape Painting at the newly founded Kunstschule in Weimar.  After completing four years of teaching art, Böcklin had managed to save some money, enough to return to his beloved Italy in 1862.

Isle of the Dead (Basel version) by Arnold Brocklin (1880)

Isle of the Dead (Kunstmuseum Basel, First version) by Arnold Brocklin (1880)

I now come to the painting by Böcklin which is his most famous and most talked about work of art, Die Toteninsel (Isle of the Dead).   According to Franz Zelger in his 1991 book, Arnold Böcklin: Die Toteninsel, Selbstheroisierung und Abgesang der abendländischen Kultur, the subject for this haunting composition came about in 1880 when  Böcklin received a commission to paint a “picture for dreaming”.

The commission came from Marie Berna, an American-born widow of a German diplomat, Georg von Berna, who had died of diphtheria in 1865. She was to later marry Count Waldermar von Oriola in 1880 and became Countess of Oriola.

 It all came about when she visited Böcklin’s studio in Florence.  Whilst at his studio she saw an unfinished first version of this evocative painting which is now housed in the Kunstmuseum Basel. This first version is an oil on canvas painting measuring 110 x 156cms, which was commissioned by Alexander Günther.  The title of the painting seems to have changed over time but Böcklin, on completion of the first version sent a letter to Gunther and wrote:

“…Endlich ist die Toteninsel soweit fertig, dass ich glaube, sie werde einigermaßen den Eindruck machen…”

(finally with the Toteninsel finished I think it will make quite the impression).

Isle of the Dead (Metropolitan Musum New York, Second version) by Arnold Böcklin (1880)

Isle of the Dead (Metropolitan Museum New York. Second version) by Arnold Böcklin (1880)

Marie Berna was fascinated by what she termed a dream image and immediately commissioned Böcklin to paint a version of this work.   Marie told Böcklin that it would be a painting in memory of her late husband and also be a “a picture for dreaming”.  She even made a special request that Böcklin should include in the work, besides the solitary figure who is rowing the boat, a draped coffin and a shrouded female figure standing up in the boat. Böcklin must have been persuaded that the additions Marie Berna had asked for would enhance the painting because he also added the shrouded female and draped coffin to the first version.  Although, to receive a commission was good news, Böcklin’s health, both physical and mental, was deteriorating.  His inability to have full use of his painting arm had lessened and that in itself caused him to have bouts of deep depression.

So what caused Böcklin to paint such a sombre picture, such as the Isle of the Dead?  Maybe the answer lies in a 1909 book his son, Carlo, co-wrote with Ferdinand Runkel, entitled Neben meiner Kunst. Flugstudien, Briefe und Persönliches von und über Arnold Böcklin.  His son wrote about his father’s physical and mental health at the time and the effort needed for him to carry on painting:

“…In the summer of 1880, the master’s painful afflictions precipitated a serious nervous depression. His lack of interest in working had been joined by fatigue and such a deep melancholy that those around him were seriously concerned about him. All manner of means were vainly sought to alleviate his bodily torments. …….. His heart and nerves had been adversely affected by an ample dose of salicylic acid that had become necessary. …..… As the last resort, his worried spouse hit upon the idea of a change of air, and Böcklin, who had always been a wanderer and derived his best artistic inspiration from the countryside, took up this idea with rapidly reviving spirits. In the company of (his pupil) Friedrich Albert Schmidt, he travelled to Ischia, the delightful island off the coast of Naples, in July, and sought the assuagement of his pains under the gleaming sun of the most beautiful summer sky and in the blue waves of the gulf. However, he was still with little hope on his departure, a downtrodden victim of his sufferings, and his final gloomy words to his wife were: “You will see me again in Florence either healthy or not at all.” …… Böcklin’s depressive mood at the time (was) so strong that, in his endless hours of agony, he seems often to have toyed with and considered the idea of taking his own life. The pain alone would not have disheartened this powerful man, but the rheumatic inflammation of his joints had also stricken his right shoulder, and, with his creative hand, with whose dexterity a new world had been created, Böcklin was only able to guide the brush in great pain and with great effort…”

Böcklin sent a letter to Marie Berna on June 29th 1880, in which he wrote:

“…The picture Die Gräberinsel (The Isle of Tombs) was dispatched to you last Wednesday. You will be able to dream yourself into the realm of the Shades until you believe you feel the soft, warm breeze that wrinkles the sea. Until you will shy from breaking the solemn silence with a spoken word….”

In this second version of the painting, which was given to Marie Berna, we see the figure of the widow dressed in white accompanying her husband’s draped coffin.  The boat heads towards a rocky isle with its high cliffs, into which are carved tomb chambers.  This second version, given to Marie Berna, was an oil on wood painting and slightly smaller than the first version, measuring 29 x 48in (74 x 122cms).  It was bought by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1926

Isle of the Dead (Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Third version) by Arnold Böcklin (1883)

Isle of the Dead (Alte Nationalgalerie, Berlin. Third version) by Arnold Böcklin (1883)

Because of the success of the first two versions, Böcklin’s art dealer Fritz Gurlitt managed to persuade him to paint three more versions of Die Toteninsel but this time the suggestion was made that the sky should be much lighter.

Initials A B on the Isle of the Dead (Third version) by Arnold Böcklin (1883)

Initials A B on the Isle of the Dead (Third version) by Arnold Böcklin (1883)

If you look closely at the outer edge of the high rock on the right of the third version of the painting, you will see Böcklin’s initials, “A B”, over the lintel of the burial chamber. It is interesting to note that the provenance of this painting shows Gurlitt sold the painting in 1933 to one of Böcklin’s admirers – Adolph Hitler.  He had the painting hung at the Berghof in Obersalzburg and later moved it to the Reich Chancellery in Berlin.  This version is now housed at the Alte Nationalgalerie in Berlin.

Black and white photograph of the fourth version of Die Toteninsel (1844)

Black and white photograph of the fourth version of Die Toteninsel (1844)

Böcklin painted the fourth version in 1884.  This work of art was bought by the entrepreneur and avid art collector Baron Heinrich Thyssen, the second son of the German industrialist August Thyssen, and it was kept in one of his banks.  Unfortunately it was destroyed during a World War II bombing raid and all that can be seen of this fourth version is a black-and-white photograph.

Die Toteninsel (Fifth version, Leipzig) by Arnold Bôcklin (1886)

Die Toteninsel (Museum der Bildenden Künste Leipzig. Fifth version) by Arnold Bôcklin (1886)

The fifth version of Böcklin’s painting, completed in 1886 resides at the Museum der Bildenden Künste in Leipzig.

In my third and final blog about Arnold Böcklin I will look at some of his portraiture as well as his Symbollst paintings.  Symbolism was a late 19th-century movement and thrived throughout Europe between 1886 and 1900 in almost every area of the arts. It began with literature, poetry and the theatre and later flourished in music and visual art.  There was a definite connection between Symbolism in art and Pre-Raphaelite and Romanticism and in some ways it was viewed as an antidote to realism and naturalism in which the artist sought to capture exactly what was before them, warts and all.  Symbolists, on the other hand try to find a profound reality from within their imagination, their dreams, and even their unconscious.  From being compartmentalised as being a realist landscape painter, Böcklin, because of his later works of art, was looked upon as a Symbolist.  In my final blog about Arnold Böcklin I will look at some of these works.

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Arnold Böcklin. Part 1 – early years and landscape painting

Self Portrait by Arnold Bocklin (1862)

Self Portrait by Arnold Bocklin (1862)

Paintings can elicit all kinds of feelings from the observer.  Some of the realist and critical realist paintings elicit a feeling of sadness and guilt.  Some paintings extract from us a sense of fear, whilst others bring forth a feeling of wonderment when we look upon a beautiful landscape or the portrait of a beautiful woman.  The artist I am featuring in my next two blogs produced a painting, which, to me, was one of the most haunting and evocative paintings I had ever seen.  The artist is the Swiss-born painter, Arnold Böcklin and the painting was entitled Die Toteninsel (Isle of the Dead).  He completed five versions of the work between 1880 and 1886.  I will look at this work in the second part of this blog.

Another reason for looking at some of the works by Böcklin is because I just returned from a three-day trip to Munich and instead of visiting the city’s major galleries such as the Pinakothek der Moderne and the  Alte Pinakothek, I headed for the Schack Gallery which houses a notable collection illustrating the development of German painting in the 19th century. The history of the gallery is that its founder, Count Adolf Friedrich von Schack, was a generous patron of the arts, purchasing and commissioning numerous works by many leading 19th-century German painters including Moritz von Schwind, Carl Spitzweg, Franz von Lenbach, and the Swiss born artist, Arnold Böcklin. Von Schack’s collection now forms part of the Bavarian State Collection.  This small gallery is a little gem and has an amazing collection of copies of works by the likes of Titian by German painters.

Ruined Castle by Arnold Böcklin (1847)

Ruined Castle by Arnold Böcklin (1847)

Arnold Böcklin was born in October 1827 in Basel.  In 1841, aged 14, Böcklin went to art school at the Zeichenschule Basel, which was run by the painter, Ludwig Adam Kelterborn.   A Zeichenschule was a drawing school where pupils were given the technical and artistic training of Craft Trade Association  His father was Christian Frederick Böcklin, who worked in the silk trade and his mother was Ursula Lippe.  In 1845, Böcklin, aged 18, studied art for two years at the Düsseldorf Academy under Johann Wilhelm Schirmer, the German historical landscape painter.  Böcklin initially painted landscapes and one of his early works was entitled Ruined Castle which he painted in 1847 and which is now housed in the Nationalgalerie, Berlin.

Das Hünengrab by Arnold Böcklin (1847)

Das Hünengrab by Arnold Böcklin (1847)

Another atmospheric landscape work Böcklin completed in 1846 was one entitled Das Hünengrab (Megalithic Grave).

Böcklin excelled in his studies during his time at the Düsseldorf Academy and he was sent off on painting trips to Belgium with his friend and fellow student Rudolph Koller, where he was tasked with copying paintings by the Flemish and Dutch masters which were housed in museums in Antwerp and Brussels.  One of his favourite painters was said to be Peter Paul Rubens.  He returned home to Basel and then went to Geneva where he worked alongside the Swiss painter Alexandre Calame, a landscape artist, who specialised in Alpine scenes.

From Basel he set off on another painting trip, this time to Paris, where he remained for several months, sharing an apartment with his friend and fellow artist, Rudolf Koller.  Whilst here, he busied himself copying works of the Old Masters and some of his contemporaries, which were held in the Louvre.   He was influenced by the works of Thomas Couture and the landscapes of Jean-Baptiste-Camille-Corot.   However the year was 1848 and Paris was not the safest place to be because of the February and June revolutions and so Böcklin left the French capital.

After a short spell of military service Böcklin got married.  His bride was Luise Schmidt but sadly she died before their first wedding anniversary.  In February 1850, heartbroken following the death of his wife, Böcklin travelled to Rome.  It was here that he was befriended by the Dresden-born artist Heinrich Franz-Dreber who introduced him to a group of German artists living in Rome, who called themselves the Tugenbund   (the League of Virtue).  He also became friends with Oswald Achenbach, who at the time was looked upon as one of the leading European landscape painters and Anselm Feuerbach, the German Neoclassical painter.

Landscape from the Alban Hills by Arnold Böcklin (1851)

Landscape from the Alban Hills by Arnold Böcklin (1851)

During his stay in Italy, Böcklin would spend the summers with some of his fellow artists in the Alban Hills, some forty-five kilometres east of the Italian capital, and it was there that they set up home in the village of Olevano.  One of Böcklin’s first painting he completed in Italy was Landscape from the Allban Hills which he completed in 1851.  This work of art is now housed in the Staatliche Kunsthalle in Karlsruhe.

Roman Landscape (Römische Landschaft) by Arnold Böcklin (1852)

Roman Landscape (Römische Landschaft) by Arnold Böcklin (1852)

The following year, 1852, Böcklin produced another landscape painting featuring the Roman Campagna.  It was entitled Römische Landschaft (Roman Landscape), which can now be seen at the Brooklyn Museum.   Unlike some of his contemporary landscape artists, who had sketched and painted views of the Roman countryside, Böcklin overcame the urge to add famous landmarks.  He believed that such an addition detracted from flora and fauna and it was his intention to enhance the view of nature.  This painting was a simple landscape work with a small figure of a woman, seen in the middle ground, undressing prior to going for a swim in the pool.  She is just a mere white dot in the painting which gives viewers an idea of the enormity of nature with its huge old trees and cloud-filled sky.  He wanted his painting to be all about details of the foliage and rock formations.  It is believed that earlier studies for this painting included more than one bather and a satyr but Böcklin decided that these extra figures detracted from the “message” and so he painted over them.  Böcklin wanted viewers to understand the immenseness of nature and how light and shade can alter tonal qualities .

In 1853, three years after arriving in Rome, Böcklin married for the second time.  His second wife was a young Italian woman, Angela Rosa Lorenza Pasucci, the daughter of a papal guard.  The couple went on to have fourteen children.

Böcklin changed his style of painting in the mid 1850’s when he began to include themes from Classical mythology and whereas his painting before concentrated on what he had seen they began to be about what he imagined.  Some believe that there was another reason for this change of style – money, or lack of money.  Böcklin needed to sell more of his paintings to survive and so he had to focus on what travellers passing through Rome wanted to see in his works.  These travellers wanted to buy paintings featuring Classical Roman sites.

Pan in the Reeds by Arnold Böcklin (1858)

Pan in the Reeds by Arnold Böcklin (1858)

In 1859 Böcklin was in Munich and exhibiting some of his works at the Munich Kunstverein.   It proved to be a great success for Böcklin as one of the works which he had completed the previous year, his second version of Pan im Schilf  (Pan in the Reeds), was bought by King Maximillian II, the ruler of Bavaria.  Fourteen of his other paintings were purchased by Friedrich Graf von Schack, the Munich art collector.   Furthermore, in 1860, through the auspices of von Schack,  Böcklin was offered the post of Professor of Landscape Painting at the newly founded Kunstschule in Weimar

In my next blog about Arnold Böcklin I will look at the paintings he completed later in his life which designated him as a Symbolist painter.  Symbolism is defined as an art genre characterised by a rejection of direct, literal representation in favour of evocation and suggestion.  Symbolism produced imaginary dream worlds populated with mystifying figures from biblical stories and Greek mythology as well as unbelievable, often monstrous, creatures.

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Vasily Perov. Part 2 – portraiture and humour

Self-Portrait (1851)

Self-Portrait (1851)

In my last blog I looked at Perov’s early life and his artwork which is often categorised as critical realism because of the way his paintings  focused on the peasants and how they had been let down by the Church, its clergy and the State.  For one of these works he was awarded the Gold Medal by the St Petersburg Imperial Academy of Arts and also a scholarship for him to travel to Europe and study European art.  He went to Paris where he spent a considerable amount of time but once again his art focused on poverty, this time, poverty in France.  Perov was now moving away from his anti-clerical depictions, and his barbed narrative works which poured scorn on the Church.  He now wanted to concentrate on the poor themselves and left the observer to decide on the reason for the poverty.

Savoyard by Vasily Perov (1863)

Savoyard by Vasily Perov (1863)

One of his most famous paintings, which he completed whilst in France, was one entitled Savoyard which he finished in 1863.  In Perov’s painting we see a young boy sat slumped on some stone steps.  The absence of any movement allows us to focus on the child without any distractions.  The child is asleep.  His feet stick out in front of him and this allows us to see the tattered hems of his trousers and because of the way is feet rest on the pavement we are given a view of the soles of his shoes, which are holed.  The painting itself is made up of dark sombre tones of smoky blue, green and grey.

Street Beggar by Gavarni

Street Beggar by Gavarni

It is thought that Perov’s painting was influenced by the work of Paul Gavarni, a French engraver, who had his illustrations published in a collection of London sketches, featuring life in London at the time.  The sketches and accompanying illustrations were first published as a magazine series in 1848 and later they were collected in one volume, edited by essayist and journalist Albert Smith, which was first published in Paris, in 1862, a year before Perov’s arrival in the French capital.  It was entitled Londres et les Anglais.  One of the sketches was the Street Beggar and its thought that Perov had this in mind when he worked on the Savoyard.

Perov’s arrival in Paris in 1863 coincided with a great upheaval in French art.  The Hanging jury at that year’s Salon had been ruthless in their choice of paintings which could be admitted.  Those which were cast aside were ones deemed to have not been of the quality or type they wanted.  That year, the jury had been more ruthless than they had been in the past, rejecting two-thirds of paintings.  This resulted in vociferous protests from the artists who had had their works rejected.  It was so bad that Napoleon III stepped into the argument and placated the disgruntled artists by offering them a separate exhibition for their rejected works.  It became known as the Salon de Refusés (Exhibition of rejects) and that year this exhibition exhibited works by Pissarro, Fantin-Latour, Cezanne and included Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe and Whistler’s Symphony in White,no. 1. 

The Arrival of the Governess at a Merchant's House by Vasily Perov (1866)

The Arrival of the Governess at a Merchant’s House by Vasily Perov (1866)

Perov returned home early from his European tour in 1865 and in 1866 produced a wonderful painting entitled The Arrival of the Governess at a Merchant’s House.  This was a move away from his focus on poverty and more to do with the fate of women.  In the painting we see a governess standing before the master of the house, a merchant who is to be her new employer.  This painting depicts the awkward encounter between the governess, who has probably graduated from a school for governesses, where they are taught to act like nobility, and the merchant who has no noble blood and is the face of the nouveau riche.   She presents herself well. She clutches a letter of introduction in her hands. She oozes an air of timidity and subservience, which is a trait that would be required if she was to become a member of the household.  However her demure stance with head bent down is befitting that of a lady.  She stands before, not only the master of the house, a bloated man, but behind him stands his family.  The children of the family are to be her pupils and by the looks of them she was going to be in for a difficult time.  The master of the house and his three children are dressed elegantly and the furnishings we see are fine and elegant and are part of merchant’s plan that they be elevated in status from mere merchants to something approaching nobility. Perov has changed the subject of his biting satire from the clergy of the Church to the oppressive merchant classes and the poor treatment they bestow on their employees.

Troika by Vasily Perov (1866)

Troika by Vasily Perov (1866)

The painting was purchased by thirty-four year old Pavel Tretyakov, a Russian businessman, patron of art, avid art collector, and philanthropist who gave his name to the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.   This work along with his Troika painting earned Perov the title of Academician.

Wanderer by Vasily Perov (1870)

Wanderer by Vasily Perov (1870)

In the late 1860’s Perov began to concentrate on portraiture, initially of peasants and the title Wanderer was given to three of his works which featured peasants, all different and yet all emotive in their own way, one of which is shown above.  As Perov travelled around he came across a variety of fascinating characters and he was able present them on canvas and highlight their individualism and their way of life.

Portrait of the Author Feodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov (1872)

Portrait of the Author Feodor Dostoyevsky by Vasily Perov (1872)

In the early 1870’s Perov’s portraiture focused on cultural greats of Russia but it is interesting to note in these next two paintings they were totally devoid of any background accoutrements which would have added a sense of vanity in the sitter.  In 1872 he completed the Portrait of Dostoyevsky, a the Russian novelist, short story writer, essayist, journalist and philosopher. It was Dostoyevsky’s literary works which influenced Perov in the way they explored human psychology in the troubled political, social, and spiritual atmosphere in Russia during the 19th-century.

Portrait of the Playwright Alexander Ostrovsky by Vasily Perov (1871)

Portrait of the Playwright Alexander Ostrovsky by Vasily Perov (1871)

And in 1871 he finished his Portrait of Alexander Ostrovsky, a Russian playwright who was generally thought to have been the greatest writer of the Russian realistic period, which existed against the background social and political problems.  It started in the 1840’s under the rule of Nicholas I and lasted through to the end of the nineteenth century.   The painting is now housed in the Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow.

Old Parents Visiting the Grave of Their Son by Vasily Perov (1874)

Old Parents Visiting the Grave of Their Son by Vasily Perov (1874)

In all his genre works he always managed to tug at your heart strings with his moving depictions.  Another of his heart-rending scenes was completed in 1874 and was entitled Old Parents Visiting the Grave of their Son.  It is said that nobody should suffer the agony of burying their children and in this work we feel the loss of the mother and father as they stand, heads bowed, at the side of the son’s grave.  This painting, like many of his other works, are to be found at the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

Having received his academician’s degree in 1867, Perov went on in 1871 to gain the position of professor at Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture.   It was through Perov’s teaching at Moscow School of Painting, Sculpture and Architecture that he managed to influence and nurture the young aspiring artists in his charge.  Many of the great Russian artists had been taught by him or were influenced by his style of painting

Amateur by Vasily Perov (1862)

Amateur by Vasily Perov (1862)

As always I have the dilemma of which paintings to show you and which ones to leave out.  I just hope the blog will get you to search the internet for more of his works.   My final offering is one that features Perov’s sense of humour.  It is in complete contrast to his works which looked at poverty and the impoverished existence of the peasant classes.   It is a painting entitled Amateur which he completed in 1862.  It is both humorous and fascinating.   Before us we see a man slouched in a chair, chewing on the end of his maulstick, eyes narrowed as he looks at his work.  His wife stands beside him holding a baby.  She too is closely examining the canvas.    From the way the man is dressed along with the background details of the room we gather that this is an upper-middle class couple.  Another give away to the man’s social status is the way Perov has depicted him.  Well dressed, highly polished shoes and overweight.  Perov’s depiction of this man is similar to the master of the household, the merchant, whom he depicted in The Arrival of the Governess at a Merchant’s House- overweight, through all the food he had been able to buy and eat, whereas in most cases Perov portrayed the poor peasants as thin undernourished people.

Vasily Grigorevich Perov died of tuberculosis  in Kuzminki Village which is now part of Moscow and was laid to rest at Donskoe Cemetery.  He was fifty-eight years old.

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