Howard Terpning – the painter of the Native Americans

Self portrait by Howard Terpning
Self portrait by Howard Terpning

After four blogs featuring the French painter Balthus, which looked at some of his controversial paintings, I thought I would present you with a less contentious artist.  Today’s blog is all about an American artist whose later work is centred around what is termed on TV as the Wild West.  You will see that his forte was his paintings featuring Native American Indian and their way of life, which often led him to be known as “The storyteller of Native Americans”.  Let me introduce you to Howard Terpning.

The Family Home by Howard Terpning
The Family Home by Howard Terpning

Before us is a depiction of a Native American family outside of their  tipi, part of a Blackfoot camp.  The base or skirt of the tipi is painted with symbols which referred to the mountains around where they lived as well as symbols representing Father Sky, which along with Mother Earth, were common characters in the creation myth.  They were looked upon as kind of religious symbols which protected those who lived in the tipi and somehow guaranteed them happiness and prosperity in the future.  Designs at the tops of the painted tipi represented the upper limit of the physical world, here a blue stripe for the sky and a red strip for life. The middle band could one day contain pictographs of war exploits or symbols that the family found important or lucky.

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Terpning was born in November 1927 in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago.  His father worked on the North Western railroad and his mother was an interior decorator.  Even as a young boy he wanted to be an illustrative artist although, and as many young boys of his age, he also hankered after a career in the US Air force as a pilot, a “calling” his brother Jack actually fulfilled as a B-24 bomber pilot but who was sadly killed during World War II.  As a teenager Howard Terpning became enthralled with the Wild West and the Native Americans.  This interest was fired up after a Colorado summer camp, close to Durango, which he attended along with his cousin.

Journey to the Medicine Wheel, by Howard Terpning
Journey to the Medicine Wheel, by Howard Terpning

This painting is all about the healing power of the Medicine Wheel , sometimes referred to as the Sacred Hoop, and before us in the painting, we see a Plains Indian family offering up a sacrifice to this very sacred place.   It was the Native American belief that the Four Cardinal Directions (North, East, South and West) are linked to great Powers, or intelligent forces, whose energy (or Medicine) can be harnessed. The directions can be charted on this circular map, the Medicine Wheel, which could enable one to come into alignment with these spiritual powers and absorb something of them.  Each Native American tribe interpreted the Medicine Wheel differently.

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In 1945, when Terpning reached the age of seventeen, he enlisted in the Marine Corps and was posted to China as an infantryman where he remained for nine months.  When he left the Marines in 1947 he wanted to enrol at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts.  The cost of his art course was paid courtesy of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, more commonly known as the G.I. Bill, which was a law that provided a range of benefits, including vocational education, for returning World War II veterans.  It proved difficult for Terpning to gain access to the Academy as, like other educational establishments, they were oversubscribed due to the large number of returning veterans.   However, through the good auspices of his father’s friend and neighbour, Harold Mundstock, an illustrator, he was granted a place at the academy and it was here that he studied life drawing and painting.  He graduated from the Chicago Academy of Fine Art in 1948 and in 1949 attended the American Academy of Fine Art.

The Teachings of My Grandmother by Howard Terpning
The Teachings of My Grandmother by Howard Terpning

In the painting, The Teachings of My Grandmother, Howard Terpning depicts the Native American people buit like many of his works, it was not focused on their battle with the “white man” but concentrated on the lifestyle of the Native Americans.  In this painting he examines the way the young children were nurtured and taught and the importance of passing on such knowledge which would ensure a better future.  Young females of the tribe learnt to cook and make clothes whilst the training given to the young boys concentrated on hunting and building them into warriors who one day may be called upon to protect their village.  Before us we a six year old Blackfoot girl, who clutches her doll as she concentrates on watching what her grandmother is doing. 

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On completion of his time at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts and the American Academy of Art, Terpning decided to seek employment in New York but after several days of visiting various art studios without any success, the disappointed young man returned to Chicago.  Once again, his father’s friend Harold Munstock intervened and introduced him to the foremost illustrator of his time, Haddon (Sunny) Sundblom.  Sundlom is best remembered for his work for the Coca Cola Company which commissioned him in 1931 to create a wholesome version of Father Christmas.  Sundholm was described as arguably the most famous advertising icon in history and the American author, Roger T Reed wrote of him:

“….  ‘More than any artist including Norman Rockwell, Sundblom defined the American Dream in pictures, proved by his work for virtually the entire Fortune 500’. I think it’s important to remember that ‘Sunny’ was about a lot more than Santa…”

Sundblom saw some of Terpning’s work and recognised the talent of this young artist and in 1950; he employed him as an apprentice in his Chicago studio.  His starting wage was a princely sum of thirty-five dollars per week!  Life as an apprentice was difficult to start with as all Terpning did was to be at the beck and call of his bosses, running errands, building crates and cleaning their paint brushes.  However, he did what was asked of him and after eighteen months he was able to work on his own first commission.  He remained in the Chicago for five years, before moving to an art studio in Milwaukee in 1955.  It was during these years in the mid West that he started to paint pictures depicting farmers, their farm equipment and life on the farm.

Gone with the Wind film poster by Howard Terpning
Gone with the Wind film poster by Howard Terpning

Three years later, in 1958, he returned to New York, the first city where he first unsuccessfully tried, a decade earlier, to gain artistic work.  However this time he managed to land a job with Stephens Bionde de Chico, a leading Chicago studio.  In 1961 he painted the first of over 80 movie posters, The Guns of Navarone.  Later he would produce film posters for such films as  The Sand Pebbles, The War Wagon, Gone With The Wind (reissue), Ice Station Zebra, Doctor Zhivago, Cleopatra, Grand Prix, 55 Days at Peking and Lawrence of Arabia.  He carried on creating illustrating film poster illustrations until the mid 1970’s.

By 1962, he was working as a freelance artist and had his own studio and agent who set about finding him commissions.   As a result, Terpning was able to work from his home studio eliminating the long commute into NYC.  During this time, his output of illustrations was phenomenal.

Moving Up Marines South of Hoi An, South Vietnam, 1968, by Howard Terpning
Moving Up Marines South of Hoi An, South Vietnam, 1968, by Howard Terpning

In 1967 Terpning was approached by the Marine Corps to join the The Combat Art Program run by Colonel Raymond Henri who had gathered together a number  of Marine and civilian artists and illustrators and sent them to Southeast Asia to record on canvas the events of the war.  Terpning agreed and was sent to the battle front with the temporary rank of Major where he was given freedom to go out on patrol with the marines, be on a medivac helicopter which picked up the wounded troops and by doing this, seek out material for his paintings.  He stayed in Vietnam for six months.  In all he completed six paintings featuring the Marines at war which now can be seen at the Marine Corps Museum in Washington DC.  During his six month stay in Vietnam not only did he witness the bravery of the American troops he witnessed the suffering of the Vietnamese civilians and developed empathy for their plight.  A decade on this empathy for the downtrodden would be transferred to the lot of the Native Americans at the hands of the white settlers and prospectors who wanted their lands.

Passing into Womanhood by Howard Terpning
Passing into Womanhood by Howard Terpning

Another of Terpning’s paintings which focused on the transition of Native American children to adulthood can be seen in his work, Passing into Womanhood.  The picture looks at the rite of passage of a young Cheyenne girl, who is taking part in a ceremony which announces her coming into puberty.  The Cheyenne had the tradition that they would reveal to the rest of the people in the camp the fact that the girl had reached the age that signified the passage in her life  when she moves from being a child to life as a woman.  This initiation ceremony was normally carried out by the girl’s grandmother

There are three women in the painting.  To the left, we see the white haired grandmother and to her right is the young girl with her hair combed out of the normal braids.  She wraps her nakedness in a robe.   In the foreground is a woman  mixing up a red dye which she would later daub onto the naked body of the young girl.  On the floor of the tipi, before the young girl, there is a smouldering fire onto which has been sprinkled with  sweetgrass, juniper needles, and white sage.  The young girl leans towards the smoking fire, opening her robe so the rising smoke from the incense would pass about and over her body. Following the conclusion of the ceremony, she and her grandmother would leave their home lodge, and the young girl would then stay in a smaller one for a period of four days.

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Terpning worked as a very successful commercial artist for twenty-five years, seventeen of which were in New York City. His work as a commercial artist was varied.  Besides his numerous movie posters, he worked on advertisements, book illustration and illustrations for articles in prestigious magazines such as Reader’s Digest, Good Housekeeping, Newsweek, and Time.   The work as a commercial artist was financially rewarding but became less rewarding as time passed.  In the summer of 1974, Terpning then forty-seven years of age, took a three month break from his commercial work and spent the time painting.  He completed three works of art including one for his daughter Susan – a portrait of  Gall, the great Sioux chief and warrior who took part in the Battle of Little Bighorn.  Terpning revelled in this new found freedom of being his own boss and painting whatever he liked.  He sent the completed canvases to Troy’s Gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona, which sold them in January 1975.  He began to sell his artwork and soon realised he could survive financially on the sale of his paintings.  He completed all his commercial artwork commissions and finally retired from the business in 1976.  His plan was to concentrate on his own art and decided that through his paintings he would narrate the story of the nineteenth century Native Americans.  Over the next forty years he produced almost five hundred beautiful works of art including charcoal drawings which featured the free spirited tribes of the Great Plains of America who struggled to survive the hardships of nature and the avarice of mankind.  These were paintings full of emotion.  Terpning, through his paintings, weaved a story.  He himself described his work and what he wanted to achieve, saying:

“…I am trying to tell the story of the Plains people, and in my art I have always been a storyteller – I just do that naturally – so the two come together.  I respect the way they lived – the horse culture and the buffalo people.  It was an exciting period in our history.  There is an awful lot about them we could have learned from if we had the sense to do it…”

Comanche Spoilers by Howard Terpning
Comanche Spoilers by Howard Terpning

In his painting,  Comanche Spoilers, Terpning recounts the story of an uprising of  the Comanche which when adding up the number of warriors to the number of women and children  involved, came to almost a thousand people.   The incident happened in August 1840 when this large horde of people moved south off the Plains towards the Gulf of Mexico.  On their journey south they pillaged ranches and settlements.  Once they had loaded all their horses up with pilfered goods they headed back north to the Plains.

In the painting, we see the Comanche returning home with all the goods they had stolen.  Warriors are seen holding ladies umbrellas, which they had stolen,  above their heads to shade them from the sun.  Others wore stove pipe hats and ribbons which had all been stolen.   Their return journey was halted when they met resistance from a large group of Texans who overwhelmed them, killing many and scattering the rest.

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In 1977 Terpning moved to Arizona in an attempt to document Native American culture and the America West and in 1979 he was elected to the National Academy of Western Art and the Cowboy Artists of America.

The Last Buffalo by Howard Terpning
The Last Buffalo by Howard Terpning

The depletion in numbers of the Plains people was due to a number of factors but one of the most  telling factors was lack of available food on the Plains.   Buffalo and bison meat was their main source of food but there was only so many to go around and when white hunters began their slaughter of the buffalo, they were bringing an end not only to the buffalo population but also the Plains people as well.  Besides the buffalo meat, the bones of the dead animals were also used by the Plains people for tools and weapons.  In this work, entitled The Last Buffalo, we see a small hunting party which has just killed a bison.  Strangely, there is no sign of their horses.

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In Tulsa, Oklahoma there is the The Thomas Gilcrease Institute of American History and Art, which is commonly referred to as the Gilcrease Museum.  It houses the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of art and artifacts of the American West, including an unparalleled collection of Native American art and material.  Its former director, Fred Myers said of Terpning and his art featuring the Native Americans:

“…Terpning is simply the best and best-known artist doing Western subjects at this point… He is among a very small group of painters of the West in the late 20th century whose art will still be hanging in museums and appreciated a hundred years from now…”

Proud Men by Howard Terpning
Proud Men by Howard Terpning

My final painting I am showcasing is one entitled Proud Men and in his book Plains People: The Art of Howard Terpning, the author Howard Hedgpeth hailed the Plains people, writing:

“…They followed the warrior’s way.  They were proud prairie horsemen with an appetite for honour and the visceral thrill of danger. They looked death in the face and fought on, emboldened by bravery and the armour of their medicine. They rode for revenge but would fight too for no other reason than to plumb the depth of their courage. There was blood on the prairie where they passed by, and women wailed in the lodges of their enemies…”

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Balthus. Part 4. Setsuko and the latter days

The two sons of Balthus, Stanislaus and Thadée, edited a book in which they put together letters that their father had written.  The book was entitled Correspondance amoureuse avec Antoinette de Watteville 1928-1937 which was published in 2001.  One of the letters, dated August 31st 1933 was a letter from Balthus to his father in which he told of his worries about people analysing his work too much and how he tried to ensure that his depictions did not open up the possibility of various interpretations.  He wrote:

 “…The horrible danger for me, though, is to fall into the trap of becoming anecdotal, but it won’t happen…”

The Golden Days by Balthus (1944-46)
The Golden Days by Balthus (1944-46)

However, a painting he completed in 1946, entitled The Golden Days, received many interpretations which probably annoyed the artist.  The work of art can be seen in the Hirshhorn Museum, part of the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC.    So, should one just look at the painting and not try to guess what was in the mind of Balthus when he painted this picture?  Before us is a good looking teenage girl slumped contentedly on a small chaise longue. In her left hand she holds a white hand mirror.  The mirror is bathed in light from the window behind her.  She studies her own reflection.  As we have seen in many of Balthus’ paintings her legs are spread wide apart and her short skirt has ridden up exposing her thighs.  Her bodice lies open and has slipped off her right shoulder.  Around her neck we see a pearl necklace.  On her feet is a pair of white slippers.  Behind her there is a wooden table upon which is a white bowl.  In the background there is a roaring fire being tended to by a man who is stripped to the waist.  So, do we take the painting at face value as Balthus says we should do, or do we start to interpret what we see before us?  That’s your choice but I would like to quote a passage in an art essay written by Andre Pijet about the works of Balthus and, in particular, his interpretation of The Golden Days.  He was adamant that Balthus’ paintings need to be decoded and by doing so it would reveal the meaning of each element.   Pijet wrote:

“…The artwork shows a young girl stretched comfortably on a small sofa and she is preoccupied by looking at the reflection of herself in the white mirror, which she keeps in her left hand. The mirror symbolizes the world, life, femininity, love, and vanity. The pearl necklace on her neck refers to the virginity, health, perfection, and preciousness. The right hand hung down looks as it is suspended in the air. Her torso is partly uncovered suggesting a delicate touch of feminine coquetry. The girl’s legs are spread in provocative invitation of sexual curiosity. Together, the white slippers on her feet, the white mirror and the white pillow behind her head as well as the white bowl on the table completed with the white light projected from the window situated in the back symbolize the innocent purity of the young female beauty. The entire room is divided by the two sources of light. The white light coming from the window on the left is mixed with the red reflections projected by the chimney. Both these lights blend together exactly in the area of the girl’s spread legs suggesting the boundaries between the innocence and the sexual initiation. The sofa itself has a shape of the hiking shoe suggesting that the young beauty is on her way approaching the sexual fire of her first erotic experience. The man on the right is preparing the ground for her erotic enlightenment by warming up the room. On the left side of the chimney, a small statue with phallic forms is standing. Just beside the sculpture the log tongs are leaning against the chimney surface. The log tongs have the shape of female crotch as well as the form of infant what symbolize the process of future maternity. The chimney itself suggests the female sexual organs and the small in posture man working hard to keep the fire on representing symbolically the process of sexual intercourse. The man with his right hand covered with the white glow is touching the chimney that suggests clearly the act of defloration. The massive quantities of symbolic information, which is easily readable after close examination of all elements of the painting, refer to the passage of time from the childhood to the adolescence and the first encounter with sexuality…”

It is interesting to note that Sabine Rewald, the foremost exponent on Balthus and his art, in her book Balthus: Cats and Girls, which was published in conjunction with the 2013 Balthus exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, never tried to interpret this work of art.

The sitter for this painting was fourteen year old Odile Bugnon and in an interview with Sabine Rewald in 1986, the now married Odile Emery, said that her family of farmers leased the farmstead, part of the Le Guinzet estate outside of Fribourg, from the baron de Cholet and Balthus had been commissioned to paint a portrait of the baron and his two daughters.  On one of his last visits Balthus saw Odile playing with some of the baron’s children.  He asked if she would like to pose for him.  She agreed and Balthus then attained permission from her mother.  When she arrived for her sitting Balthus was horrified to see that her mother had taken her to the hairdressers and dressed her up in a pretty dress and black slippers and stockings.   Balthus was appalled by the transformation and got Odile to change into the clothes we now see in and carefully posed her in the depiction we now see before us.

Although we see Odile’s right hand flopped downwards and her fingers pointing towards the floor, in his original version, those fingers were stroking a cat, which was later over-painted shown above.  Odile remembers the setting and the pose she was told to take by Balthus.  She remembered the roaring fire but said there was no man tending it.   As Balthus never completed the work until after he had moved to Villa Diodati in Coligny a small town outside of Geneva in October 1945, Odile never saw the finished work.

Whilst living in Fribourg, Antoinette gave birth to their first son, Stanislas, in October 1942 and in February 1944 their second son Thadée was born.  In March 1946 having spent the previous six months in Coligny Balthus and his family ended their Swiss exile and returned to Paris.

The Room by Balthus (1948)
The Room by Balthus (1948)

On returning to his Paris studio at 3 cours de Rohan,  he worked on his large painting 190 x 160cms (75 x 63in.), which was entitled The Room.  He started the work in 1947 and completed it a year later.  It is a painting of contrasts.  What is the setting?  If we look to the left, we see a fire and an ornate mirror, so maybe it is the salon but if we look to the right we see a cooking stove, a towel rack and a speckled water pitcher, so is it the kitchen?  Maybe it is a forerunner of a “kitchen diner” !  The two characters depicted in the work are completely dissimilar. Kneeling on the floor and resting her elbow on a chair is a plainly dressed girl who had been reading a book, which lies open on the floor.  She is looking up at the other woman, a colossal nude.  This woman has long reddish blonde hair and a very thickset body.   She has a white towel draped over left shoulder and arm like a cape.  The open palm of her right hand points towards her kneeling companion in a gesture of an introduction.  What is the relationship between the two figures?  Are they mistress and servant?

Madonna della Misericordia by Piero della Francesca (1462)
Madonna della Misericordia by Piero della Francesca (1462)

Some art historians have said that the stance and size of the nude woman reminds them of the 1462 religious work by Piero della Misericordia, entitled Polyptych of the Misericordia.  The centre panel of this polyptych showed a very large depiction of the Madonna surrounded by a number of much smaller, in size, followers.  Balthus who spent time in Italy in 1926 copying paintings may have come across this religious work, which is housed in the Pinacoteca Communale in Sansepolcro, a town some 70 kilometres east of Siena.

In 1947 Antoinette left Paris with her two sons who were aged three and five.  Balthus had decided that his marriage to Antoinette was at an end and their best course of action was to amicably separate.  However, it was almost twenty years later before the couple divorced.

The Card Players by Balthus (1950)
The Card Players by Balthus (1950)

In 1950 Balthus completed another painting depicting the game of cards.  This time he has shown two players, a girl and a young man.  The painting is simply entitled The Card Players and is housed in the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza in Madrid.  The setting is an unadorned dark room.  The painting depicts two youngsters, a boy and a girl, playing cards at a table on which a candlestick stands. The room is lit up by light which emanates from the right-hand side of the room and which illuminates various objects and, in some way, seems to add to the mystery of the picture.  We get the impression from the smile on the girl’s face that she is winning and the boy is losing despite his attempt to cheat, as seen by the card hidden behind his back.  The depiction of the boy by Balthus is unusual as we see him both in a frontal and profile view.

In January 1949 Balthus’ father Erich died.   Balthus spent a lot of time in the early 1950’s designing theatrical sets and costumes for plays, operas and ballets.  In 1961 having achieved so much in theatre work he was appointed director of the Académie de France in Rome by his close friend André Malraux, the French Minister of Cultural Affairs.  Balthus was to remain in that post and live in Rome until 1977.

Setsuko in 1991
Setsuko in 1991

In 1962 Malraux asked Balthus to go to Japan as France’s official “ambassador of art” in order to organize a major exhibition of Japanese art to be held in Paris.  During that visit he met Setsuko Ideta, a nineteen year old, first-year student at the Tokyo Sophia Jesuit research University.  She was the same age as his first son Stanislaus!  Setsuko served as the English translator to the Balthus’ group who were touring the temples in Kyoto.

Setsuko remembered her first meeting with Balthus:

“…We met we spoke, they quarrelled…”

Balthus told her he was 50.  But as Setsaku said, it was not true, he was 54.   It has to be remembered Balthus was a Leap Year child, born on February 29th.  The German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who had an affair with Balthus’ mother, told Balthus that having a leap-year birthday meant he’d slipped through a crack in time, into a “kingdom independent of all the changes we undergo”, and so Balthus liked to divide his real age by four, so allowing himself to admit to being 50 was somewhat of a compromise!  In his book Balthus: A Biography, the author, Nicholas Fox Weber described Setsuko:

“…Setsuko was the embodiment of much that he cherished: female beauty, youthful vitality,piercing intelligence and the charms and diffidence of the Orient…”

Countess Setsuko Klossowska de Rola
Countess Setsuko Klossowska de Rola

Setsuko was steeped in her Japanese heritage and came from the Samurai family of Kyushu.  She was poised and confident.  Balthus and Setsuko were married on October 3rd 1967.  Balthus and his first wife, Antoinette, were divorced in 1966 after twenty years of separation.

Balthus' daughter Harumi
Balthus’ daughter Harumi

In September 1969, Balthus’ mother Baldine died in Paris, aged 83.  In April 1973 Setsuko gave birth to a daughter, Harumi.  In 1977, Balthus  leaves the position of director of the Académie de France and after living sixteen years at the Villa Medici in Rome, he moves back to Switzerland.  Balthus had served two terms as director and was reluctant to leave the Italian capital but at that time there were many high profile kidnappings and he and his wife believed they may one day become targets and so it was the time to leave Balthus’ beloved Rome.

Balthus with his wife, Setsuko, their daughter, Harumi, and granddaughters at the Grand Chalet in Rossinière
Balthus with his wife, Setsuko, their daughter, Harumi, and granddaughters at the Grand Chalet in Rossinière

Balthus, Setsuko and their four year old daughter Harumi went to live in Le Grand Chalet at Rossinière.  It was a magnificent building.  It was the largest known all-wooden structure of its kind in Europe, it was built between 1752 and 1756 by Jean-David Henchoz.

It was to remain Balthus’ home until he died there in August 2001, aged 93.  Balthus had been taken ill but left the hospital the night before he died to see once more his large chalet at Rossinière.  The funeral was held in the Swiss village of Rossinière, and was attended by a number of high-profile guests, including Prince Sadruddin Aga Khan, the supermodel Elle McPherson and Bono. The French and Italian governments also sent representatives.  After the ceremony in the village church, two horses pulled a carriage with the coffin draped in black. The artist was buried at the foot of a hill on a plot owned by the Balthus Foundation, some 300 metres from the chalet.      The Irish singer Bono, who was Harumi’s godfather sang at Balthus’ funeral.

Love him and his artwork or hate him for his use of young girls as models, I have found his life story fascinating and can understand why he was one of France’s most famous twentieth century artists.

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.