Jean-Baptiste Pillement

The Interrupted Sleep by Francois Boucher (1750)
The Interrupted Sleep by Francois Boucher (1750)

Louis XIV, known as the Sun King died in 1715, at the age of seventy-seven after reigning for seventy-two years.  He had outlived all his legitimate children and two of his eldest grandchildren so his crown passed to his youngest grandchild, Louis Duke of Anjou, who became Louis XV at the age of five (the same age his grandfather was when he became Louis XIV) and his kingdom was ruled by his maternal great-uncle, Philippe II, Duke of Orléans as Regent of France, until Louis reached maturity in 1723.  The Duke of Orléans had a passion for beauty and cheerfulness and he tried to dismantle the godliness enforced by Louis XIV at his sumptuous home in Versailles. Following numerous wars under the previous monarch, France turned away from these imperial aspirations and instead, concentrated on more personal, and enjoyable pastimes. With this more relaxed political life and the letting-up of private morals, the change was mirrored by a new style in art, one that was intimate, decorative, and often erotic.  It was the era of Rococo.

Meeting in the Open Air by Jean-Antoine Watteau (c.1719)
Meeting in the Open Air by Jean-Antoine Watteau (c.1719)

Members of the new royal court began to decorate their sophisticated homes in a lighter, more delicate manner. This new style which came into being around the start of the 18th century has been known since the last century as “rococo,” from the French word, rocaille, for rock and shell garden ornamentation. The rococo style emphasized pastel colours, sinuous curves, and patterns based on flowers, vines, and shells. Artists moved away from depictions of lofty grandiloquence and instead focused on the pleasures of both colour and light, and also moved away from depictions of momentous religious and historical subjects and concentrated more on informal, friendly and relaxed mythological scenes as well as  joyous views of daily life, and elegant sophisticated portraiture.  When we think about rococo art we think of Jean-Antoine Watteau, François Boucher and Jean-Honoré Fragonard but today I am looking at the life and works of a lesser known rococo artist, Jean-Baptiste Pillement.

The Gardens of Benfica by Jean-Baptiste Pillement (1785)
The Gardens of Benfica by Jean-Baptiste Pillement (1785)

Jean-Baptiste Pillement was born in Lyon, France on May 24th 1728.  He received his first artistic training as a teenager from the French painter, Daniel Sarrabat in Lyon.  The training he received gave him an excellent foundation in the Rococo style of genre painting which had become so popular through the works of Jean-Antoine Watteau and François Boucher.  In 1743, aged fifteen, Pillement moved from his home town to Paris where he was taken on as a design apprentice at the Manafacture des Gobelins, a tapestry factory, which is best known as a royal factory supplying the court of the French monarchs.   In 1745 he left Paris and travelled to Spain and remained there for five years. He spent those years moving from city to city earning money sometimes as a designer other times as a painter.

Landscape with Travelers and a Ruin by Jean-Baptiste Pillement
Landscape with Travelers and a Ruin
by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

One recurring theme depicted in his paintings was that of rugged landscapes, shepherds with their flocks of sheep and goats cross fast flowing streams by way of rickety bridges, on either side of the cascading water we see lush green vegetation all of which was bathed in the golden glow of sunlight.

In 1750, after five years in Spain, the twenty-two-year-old Pillement journeyed to Lisbon where he was to remain for four years.  In 1754 Pillement left the Iberian Peninsula and travelled to London.  The favoured artistic genre of the English at that time was landscape painting and this meant that Pillement’s Rococo-style of romanticised landscape art was in much demand.  One of the popular artists at that time whose work was to influence Pillement was Nicolaes Berchem, the highly regarded and prolific Dutch Golden Age painter who painted numerous works depicting pastoral landscapes in the seventeenth century.

Landscape with a waterfall and the Temple of the Sibyl at Tivoli by Nicolaes Berchem
Landscape with a waterfall and the Temple of the Sibyl at Tivoli by Nicolaes Berchem

Berchem was part of the second generation of “Dutch Italianate landscape” painters who had travelled to Italy to take in the romanticism of the country and who would later return home to the Netherlands with sketchbooks full of drawings of classical ruins and pastoral imagery. Like Pillement, a century later, Berchem’s works were based on the Arcadian landscapes of the French painter Claude Lorrain which would typically depict shepherds grazing their flocks among Classical ruins, bathed in a golden sunlit haze.

The Mouth of the River Tagus by Jean-Baptiste Pillement
The Mouth of the River Tagus by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

During his sojourn in the English capital he became friends with the English actor, playwright, theatre manager and producer David Garrick and his wife, the dancer, Eva Maria Weigel.  Garrick had become quite wealthy through his acting and this allowed he and his wife to buy a palatial estate in Richmond-on-Thames which became known as Garrick’s Villa.  Eva Marie Weigel became an art collector and furnished the house with paintings, many of which were by Jean-Baptiste Pillement.

A Mountainous River Landscape by Jean-Baptiste Pillement
A Mountainous River Landscape by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

In 1763, Pillement was once again on the move, this time leaving London and travelling to Vienna.  His reputation as a successful painter gave him the opportunity to move in royal circles and was employed at the Imperial Court of Maria Theresa and Francis I.

Chinoiserie by Jean-Baptiste Pillement
Chinoiserie by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

In the eighteenth century, prints of designs was the foremost way of spreading information. They were often published monthly and were collected into folios or volumes, and people could order them by subscription. There was a massive demand throughout Europe, for these prints.   Pillement, whilst living in England, soon realised that the fashion there was the same as that in France, and, at the time, was the love of chinoiseries.  It was around 1764 that Pillement, according to his memoirs, had discovered a new method of printing on silk with fast colours.   Pillement’s illustrations were a blend of fanciful birds, flora & fauna, incorporating large human figures and chinoiserie.  The word, chinoiserie came from the French word Chinois, meaning “Chinese” and is a European version and simulation of Chinese and East Asian artistic traditions, especially in the field of decorative arts.  It first became popular during the 17th century and this trend was further commercialised in the 18th century with the boom in trade with China and East Asia.   The chinoiserie style is associated with the Rococo style with its cheerfulness, its concentration on materials, and often depicts times of great pleasure and leisure time.

One of Jean Baptiste Pillement's Ornamental Design for the book Nouvelle suite de cahiers chinois a l'usage des Dessinateurs et des peintres.
One of Jean Baptiste Pillement’s Ornamental Design for the book Nouvelle suite de cahiers chinois a l’usage des Dessinateurs et des peintres.

These beautiful and intricate designs were used by engravers and decorators not only on porcelain and pottery, but also on textiles, wallpaper and silver. Pillement published many albums, of these illustrations, the most famous being Œùvre de fleurs, ornements, cartouches, figures et sujets chinois which was published in 1776.

After Vienna, Pillement’s next stop, in 1765, was Poland and the city of Warsaw where he once again worked for the royal court of the Polish king, Stanislaw II, who commissioned him to decorate the Royal Castle in Warsaw and the nearby Ujazdowski Castle.

Inside Le petit Trianon
Inside Le petit Trianon

Pillement was forever on the move.  He worked in Saint Petersburg, the Piedmont, Milan, Rome and Venice as well as returning to his homeland where he was employed by Marie Antoinette to furnish the Petit Trianon, a small château located on the grounds of the Palace of Versailles which was built between 1762 and 1768 during the reign of Louis XV.   Its purpose was to house Louis XV’s long-term mistress, Madame de Pompadour, who sadly died four years before its completion.  However, all was not lost, as the Petit Trianon was subsequently occupied by her successor, Madame du Barry. When Louis XV died in 1774 he was succeeded by his son Louis-Auguste who became Louis XVI and when he came to the throne he gave the Petit Trianon to his wife Marie Antoinette whom he had married in 1770 when he was just fifteen years of age, the same age as his bride. In 1778 Pillement was nominated Court Painter to Queen Marie Antoinette, in which capacity he provided paintings for the Petit Trianon at Versailles.

A View of Lisbon by Jean-Baptiste Pillement
A View of Lisbon by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

During the 1780’s Pillement was living once again on the Iberian Peninsula where he completed many of his most treasured works of art.  In Portugal, he became one of that country’s leading landscape and marine artists. He was also named Court Painter to Queen Maria I and King Pedro III, at last accepting the honour and pension that he had declined when he lived and worked in the country some thirty-five years earlier. It was during this second stay that he also gained a reputation as one of Portugal’s finest teachers of art.

Landscape with Washerwomen by Jean-Baptiste Pillement (1792)
Landscape with Washerwomen by Jean-Baptiste Pillement (1792)

He eventually returned to France in 1789 but instead of returning to Paris  he settled in a small town of Pézenas, in the Val d’Hérault in the Languedoc region.  In 1800, aged 72, he returned to his birthplace, Lyon, where he continued to paint.  On September 1st 1801 the First Consul, Napoleon Bonaparte signed a famous decree, Decree of 14 Fructidor, the so-called Chaptal Decree, named after the famous chemist Jean-Antoine Chaptal, who was the minister for the interior from 1800–04.  The decree offered the fifteen newly founded museums the art treasures which had been captured from “the enemies of the Republic”.  In the main, these were post-Revolution confiscations effected in France, but also included artwork which had been seized elsewhere in Europe by the Republican and, later, Napoleonic armies. In Lyon, in 1801, the founding of the Musée des Beaux-Arts Lyon. The institution also fulfilled local aspirations, such as recalling the city’s prestigious Roman past and furnishing models for the silk industry, which was in crisis at that time.  And at the beginning of 1803, the Louvre Museum began to send a total of 110 paintings to be housed in the Musée des Beaux-Arts Lyon.  Jean-Baptiste Pillement was employed at the museum to give art lessons which he continued doing for the rest of his life.

Fête Champêtre black chalk drawing by Jean-Baptiste Pillement
Fête Champêtre
black chalk drawing by Jean-Baptiste Pillement

Pillement achieved success not only as a landscape painter but was also one of the most influential decorators of the eighteenth century. His chinoiseries, arabesques and flower paintings providing elegant leitmotives for furniture makers, tapestry weavers, and particularly when he returned late in life to the south of France, he did much work for the silk industry of Lyon (Manufacture de Soie et des Indiennes), where he ended his distinguished career.

River Landscape by Jean-Baptiste Pellement
River Landscape by Jean-Baptiste Pellement

Jean-Baptiste Pillement died in Lyon in 1808, aged 80.  He will be remembered for his exquisite and delicate landscapes, but most of all for his engravings done after his drawings, and their influence in spreading the Rococo style and particularly the taste for chinoiserie throughout Europe.

In Maria Gordon-Smith’s 2006 book, Pillement, she commented:

“…the name Jean Pillement can evoke visions of Arcadian landscapes, luminous seascapes, and highly polished pastels and drawings. To the cognoscenti of decorative arts, Pillement is recalled as having been the most prolific and successful master of Rococo fantasy of his time. His designs were adopted by countless leading artistic manufactories, and their charm has never waned…”

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Louis-Léopold Boilly

Self-portrait by Léopold Boilly (1805)
Self-portrait by Léopold Boilly (1805)

My artist today is the prolific late eighteenth century French painter Louis-Léopold Boilly, who was best known for his genre scenes featuring life in the French capital during the French Revolution and the French Empire. He is also renowned for his revolutionary use of lithography.

Boilly was born on July 5th 1761 in La Bassée, a commune in the Nord department of northern France, sixty kilometres south-east of Calais.  His father was wood carver and it was he, who gave Léopold his first lessons in art, and soon during his early teens young Boilly was producing many good works of art, a fact that came to the attention of the Austin friars at the monastery in Douai, a town close to his home. By 1774, word of Boilly’s artistic talent reached the bishop of Arras, Monseigneur Louis François Marc Hilaire de Conzié, who offered him a place to live and paint in Arras.

Also around this time, living and working in Arras, was the Flemish-born artist Guillaume-Dominique-Jacques Doncre, who made a living from painting portraits of the members of the Conseil of Arras and members of the local aristocracy but who also specialised in trompe-l’oeil paintings.  It is thought that maybe Léopold Boilly studied under Doncre as the young artist developed a liking for trompe l’oeil works.

A trompe l'oeil by Dominique Doncre
A trompe l’oeil by Dominique Doncre

Trompe l’oeil, (French for “deceive the eye) is a style of painting invented by the ancient Greeks whereby the artist creates an illusion of space often showing apparently three dimensional objects and spaces in a way which the eye accepts as realism in the context of their surroundings.  It was particularly popular in the 17th and 18th centuries with the Low Countries and Northern France.  This trompe l’oeil by Dominique Doncre, above was completed in 1785.  At first sight it looks like a collection of items set out randomly on his “noticeboard”.  Two horizontal straps seem to be holding the items in place including what looks like an engraved page featuring the artist himself and we know it is Doncre as the words “ego sum pictor (I am the painter) are beneath the portrait.  On a card below the pair of spectacles, he has also signed and dated the painting.  It is a simple work with no hidden message.

A trompe-l'oeil by Léopold Boilly
A trompe-l’oeil by Léopold Boilly

Léopold Boilly completed several trompe l’oeil paintings of his own and my favourite is one with a cat gazing through a hole in the canvas caused by a log which has pierced it.  On the top bottom of which are fish hanging from the stretcher.

The Visit received by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1789)
La Visite reçue (The Visit received) by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1789)

In 1785, aged twenty-four, Boilly went to live in Paris and there, two years later, he married Marie-Madeleine Desligne, the daughter of a merchant of Arras. In 1787 Boilly received a lucrative commission. The nobleman and lawyer, Antoine Joseph François Xavier Calvet de Lapalun had decided to refurbish his family residence in Avignon and he was advised by one of his former clients to incorporate an art collection into the re-modelling of the large house and at the same time arranged for his friend a number of  introductions with some of the most influential Parisian art dealers who would be able tosell him the finest works of art.  One of the artists chosen to provide works for the residence was Léopold Boilly.  The former client, the Marquis Alexandre de Tulle de Villefranche, gave Calvet de Laupin a present of two of Boilly’s works, La Visite reçue and La Visite rendue.  Calvet de Laupin was so pleased with the works that he commissioned Boilly to complete a further nine genre paintings of the same ilk.

The Visit Returned by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1787)
La Visite rendue (The Visit Returned) by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1787)

All eleven genre works featured the many facets of love, all of which are set in an upper-middle class milieu.  The people depicted in the various scenes look as if they are actors appearing in a stage play.  These were not, unlike Hogarth’s Marriage à la Mode, an eleven-episode story.  Each were simply variations on the theme of love and left the viewer to decide what was happening in the painting.   The setting of the two works I have included had been dictated to Boilly by Tulle de Villefranche while Calvet de Lapalun himself described the settings he wanted for the final seven works.

The Suitor's Gift by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1790)
The Suitor’s Gift by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1790)

In 1790 Boilly completed a work entitled The Suitor’s Gift.  In it we see a beautiful, elegantly dressed young woman looking out at us knowingly as she receives the attentions of a suitor. He is obviously a very generous suitor for on the table in front of the young woman we see a luxurious gift box which lies open. It had been lovingly wrapped, as we see several strands of pink ribbon lying over the side which had once secured the gift.  In the box and resting on the front edge of it are two white roses and this presumably symbolises the young lady’s innocence and adolescence. The young woman’s face is flushed and it is this and her full and rounded cheeks that suggests she is very young, certainly in comparison to her much older suitor.

The knowing look
The knowing look

Her hair is worn loosely and is softly curled with a pink ribbon tied around the crown of her head. Her clothes are elegant and lady-like.  She is attired in a graceful pink corseted gown over which is a thin gauze overskirt, which still allows us to see the colour of the gown.  She stares out at us and by doing so turns away from her suitor.  Is it coyness we are witnessing or is she taking in what she has just been given.  Maybe she is deciding whether the gift meets with her expectations.

Her prospective beau, whom we can just make out in the background shadows, crouches down at the side of the table.  Is he kneeling in a kind of devout reverence?  Look at his expression.  It is one of a man who is keenly awaiting to find out whether his gift had been well received by the young woman.  It would appear by the way his left hand is grasping a crucifix which he wears around his neck that he is looking for divine help in his quest to please the lady. From the demeanour of the pair we get a feel for the relationship.  Look how the woman smiles.  It is a knowing smile.  She knows she has the upper hand in this partnership.  Maybe it is this thought that makes us revise our opinion of her.  Maybe she is not as innocent and vulnerable as we first thought.  At first sight we felt a little pity for her being pestered by an elderly man but maybe it is he whom we should be pitying for it seems she may well play him for a fool!

Boilly’s reputation as an artist who artistically recorded contemporary life in the French capital steadily grew and by often having his paintings on display at various exhibitions he ensured the public would not forget him.  Boilly began exhibiting his work at the Salon in 1791, which was the first year it was open to all artists, previously the exhibition was only open to the work of recent graduates of the École des Beaux-Arts but control of the Salon was taken away from the Academy by the National Assembly, which ordered the exhibition opened to all artists.

Gathering of Artists in the Studio of Isabey by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1798)
Gathering of Artists in the Studio of Isabey by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1798)

In 1798 Boilly put forward his painting Gathering of Artists in the Studio of Isabey for exhibition at that year’s Salon.  This genre of multi-figure or group portraits was popular with many Dutch and British artists and in this work of fiction, Boilly has imagined what it would have been like if all the young aspiring artists of the time had met up at the studio of his contemporary the French artist Jean-Baptiste Isabey, who we see dressed in red standing behind the man sitting at the easel.  The studio’s classical decoration is the work of architects Percier and Fontaine whom we see depicted standing on the left.

Arrival of the Stagecoach by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1803)
Arrival of the Stagecoach by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1803)

Boilly regularly exhibited at the Salon until 1824 and he received a gold medal at the Salon of 1804 for his painting Arrival of the Stagecoach.  The work depicts a major event in Parisian life – the daily arrival of a stagecoach in the crowded courtyard of the Messageries in rue Montmartre (which is now Rue Notre-Dame-des-Victoires).  This was a place where stagecoaches converged from all over France and Europe in the early 19th century. In the painting, we see the stagecoach is in the parking space reserved for coaches coming from northern France and Belgium, indicated by the inscription on the wall.

This is an interesting study of Parisian life.  Boilly has depicted a throng of people some of whom are waiting to board the stagecoach.  By their attire, we can see the various social classes.  At the centre of the painting we see a bourgeois being welcomed by his wife; on the left-hand side, we see a soldier with his arm around a flower seller or maybe she is a maid from the local hostelry, who by the way she is ignoring him, has only eyes for the well-dressed military officer with the plumed hat to her left.  Unfortunately for her, he is totally disinterested in her. There is still one passenger, an elderly lady, sitting in the coach.  Maybe she is awaiting assistance to help her debark, maybe someone was supposed to be there to meet her but has not arrived.

The young delivery men can be seen on top of and at the side of the coach helping to unload packages which have been brought in by the coach.  We see another by the side of the military officer almost brought to his knees by the weight of the case he is carrying on his shoulder.  He was a portefaix, an old term for a porter.   These workers were known as gagne-deniers, unskilled workers, often peasants from the countryside who have come to the city to earn a living and often were paid a mere pittance.   Now look at the characters on the far right of the painting. The man is the epitome of elegance albeit bordering on being a dandy. The lady with him has a pug on a leash, which was at the time the height of fashion. The little girl standing with them has turned her back on them and seems totally disinterested in the adult conversation.

Boilly continually showed an interest in the bustling life of Paris and in this work and others he highlighted the developing role of transport in the early 19th century with the Napoleonic wars and the development of capitalism. This painting which describes an everyday urban event, a scene which falls within the domain of genre painting which, at the time and in view of the Paris Salon academicians was considered inferior to history painting.  Despite that, the work won the gold medal at the Salon in 1804 and was ultimately acquired by the Louvre in 1845.

The Triumph of Marat by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1794)
The Triumph of Marat by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1794)

Boilly was thirty-three at the height of the Reign of Terror period during the French Revolution in 1794.  He was a half-hearted supporter of the Revolution, and that year he was denounced to the Société Républicaine des Arts by a fellow artist, the Jacobin fanatic Jean-Baptiste Wicar, for having painted “obscene works revolting to republican morality.”  He was condemned by the Committee of Public Safety for these erotic undertones and for the frivolity of his work as well as his penchant for depicting the bourgeois in his early paintings. He was saved from literally a “fate worse than death” when his accusers searched his home and found his overtly flattering painting of Jean-Paul Marat, Triumph of Marat, the rabble-rousing radical journalist and politician and hero of the Revolution.  Although Boilly survived the incident, his wife died during these anxious times.  Boilly remarried in 1795.

The Movings by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1822)
The Movings by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1822)

In 1822 Boilly completed a painting entitled The Movings which highlighted the plight of the poor.  In the painting, we see several families, who were unable to pay rent, and so were forced to move out of their homes with their belongings and travel the streets of Paris in search of new shelter. The painting depicts a palpable tension of a social drama and Boilly has created this by adding the opposing constituents in the setting.  In the left background, we see the mirage-like image of the church of Santa Maria dei Miracoli in Rome. Most of the figures in the work appear to be moving away from the Roman church. However, the owners of the front wagon, possibly a lowly and poor family that appears to have come from outside the city in search of work, move towards the distant mirage of the church and it is this connection that suggests that the arriving family’s search for a better financial future will prove futile, as well-paid job opportunities, like the church, are just an illusion.  This was how Boilly saw life at that juncture of time.

Recueil de Grimacers (Collection of Grimacers) by Louis-Léopold Boilly
Recueil de Grimacers (Collection of Grimacers) by Louis-Léopold Boilly

Boilly was not only a fine artist but he was also a fine businessman and all through his career, he could change his artistic style to coincide with what was popular at the time with the public and made money by selling engraved reproductions of his genre paintings.  One of the strangest form of his art was his depiction of grimacers.  Grimacer is the French word meaning “to pull a face” and it fascinated Boilly, who produced many amusing works focused on the grimacers.   The lithograph above,  Les Amateurs de Tableaux (Lovers of Paintings) is part of his collection Recueil de Grimacers (Collection of Grimacers).  In the painting, we see several grotesque looking characters, open-mouthed, brows furrowed as they concentrate on a small painting, some peering through monocles and spectacles.  It was thought that Boilly was poking fun at the so-called “amateur art connoisseurs”.

Les Grimaces by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1823)
Les Grimaces by Louis-Léopold Boilly (1823)

In other similar works, the artist made many studies of facial expressions and the result was humorous but often cruel caricatures of contemporary society.  In his lithograph, Les Grimacers, he even included himself (top left)

The Artist's Wife by Louis-Léopold Boilly (c.1799)
The Artist’s Wife by Louis-Léopold Boilly (c.1799)

Boilly was a talented portrait artist and received many lucrative commissions for his portraits.  It is said that he completed more than five thousand portraits during his lifetime.  One of my favourites is one he completed around 1799 entitled The Artist’s Wife in His Studio, which featured his wife.

In the 1820’s Boilly was one of the first French artists to experiment with lithography to reproduce his paintings.  He last exhibited at the Salon in 1824 and in the spring of 1828 he sold his collection of Dutch, Flemish, and French paintings and decorative objects, as well as thirty-seven of his own paintings. The monarchy of Louis-Philippe awarded him the cross of the Légion d’honneur in 1833. He died in Paris on January 4th 1845 aged eighty-four.  His youngest son, Alphonse Boilly was a professional engraver who apprenticed in New York.

Eugène Galien-Lalou – the painter of Paris

Eugene Galien-Lalou (1920)
Eugène Galien-Laloue (1920)

La Belle Époque, which literally means “Beautiful Age” is a name given in France to the period from the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 and the start of World War I in 1914. So why was this termed a beautiful age?   Probably the reason for naming this period thus was because, for the middle and upper classes in France, the standards of living and security increased in comparison with the dark days that went before.  The devastation and death toll of the Franco-Prussian War and the short-lived but bloody battles of the Paris Commune were over.  Napoleon III’s period of power had ended and a Third Republic was declared.  It was a period free of wars affecting France.  It was a period of economic affluence and an era of many new innovations both cultural and technological.  For many it was a good time which needed to be savoured.  My artist today is one who lived and painted during this time and his Parisian street scenes of the time depicted an opulence which many, but the poorer classes, could enjoy. Let me introduce you to the French painter Eugène Galien-Laloue.  He was a consummate draughtsman.  His depictions of fin-de-siècle Paris architecture was of an amazing standard and yet he was not just a cityscape painter as he was equally adept with his landscape work in which he brought to life the rural French countryside.

Paris Street in Autumn by Eugene Galien-Lalou
Paris Street in Autumn by Eugène Galien-Lalou

In his tiny gouaches Galien-Laloue rendered every detail of fin-de-siècle Parisian architecture with absolute precision, but in his landscape works he was more attuned to the painterly tradition of the Barbizon School and the Impressionists, recording life in the rural French countryside in light-filled canvasses.  Galien-Laloue painted with great delicacy a wide variety of subjects.    Eugene

Un 14 Juillet, Place de la Republique by Eugène Galien-Lalou
Un 14 Juillet, Place de la Republique by Eugène Galien-Lalou

Eugène Galien-Laloue was born in Montmartre, Paris, on December 11th 1854, almost a year after his father, Charles Laloue, an artist and set designer, married Eugène’s mother, Endoxi Lambert in December 1853.  Eugène was the eldest of nine children and the large family lived on Rue Leonie in the Montmartre, which at the time was an artistic community where many of the Parisian artists and freethinkers lived.  Eugène, even as a child, demonstrated his artistic ability and almost certainly his early training from his father, who liked to paint, and being a set designer was a talented draftsman.  Charles Laloue died suddenly in 1869 when Eugène was fifteen years old and the family, which only just made ends meet when he was alive, struggled to survive financially.  Eugène, was forced to leave school so that he could find work and help his family and his mother secured him a job as an assistant to a notary.

Place de Bastille by Eugène Galien-Laloue
Place de Bastille by Eugène Galien-Laloue

In 1871, aged seventeen, filled with a sense of patriotism and nationalism, Eugène joined the army but to do so he had to lie about his age.  The war with Prussia was a short but deadly affair which France lost.  Fortunately, Eugène came through the bloody war unscathed and once the war ended he left the army and returned to civilian life.  His one aim in life was now to become a professional artist.  For an aspiring artist in Paris there was just one course one had to take to reach that ultimate goal.  One had to become a member of the prestigious L’Académie des Beaux-Arts, which was looked upon as the hub of the Parisian art world.  Some of the artists of this French Academy also served on the jury that selected paintings for the well-respected Salon de Peinture et de Sculpture, held at the Palais de l’Industrie on the Champs-Élysées, at which more than a thousand artists and sculptors had their works of art and sculptures displayed.  Unlike today there were only a small limited number of galleries where artists could show their work and so gaining access to the Salon was crucial for their success as painters and getting approval from the Salon hanging jurists was critical.

Flower Marketby by Eugène Galien-Laloue
Flower Market by by Eugène Galien-Laloue

In order to be nominated to the French Academy, an artist followed a well-tread course of instruction.  Students attended either the official school, the École des Beaux-Arts de Paris, or if they or their parents were affluent, received instruction in the private atelier of an established artist, often one who had connections with luminaries of the Salon.  Academic learning in the nineteenth century to become an artist was not an easy process.  The tuition was laborious albeit meticulous and it started off with the students learning draughtsmanship by copying engravings and sketching Roman and Greek sculpture, which was known as “working from the antique,” which translated, meant sketching black and white tonal studies from classical marble statuary or casts.  If the student had mastered that task, then the tutor would allow them to progress to the next phase of learning.  Advancement from one phase of instruction to another was based on the aspiring young artist mastering what they had been taught.  Progression was not based on an indiscriminate period of instruction.   They would then move on to drawing nude models using just graphite or charcoal.

Théatre de la Ville byby Eugène Galien-Laloue
Théâtre de la Ville by Eugène Galien-Laloue

Following several years of drawing the young artists would begin to paint.  This would be carried out under the direction of a time-honoured master and, when he believed his scholars to be ready, they would be allowed to submit their work to the Salon.  Having been trained by an established and well-respected painter would count for a great deal with the Salon’s jurists.  Not only did the jurists control which paintings would be exhibited they also decided on the placement of the paintings on the monumental and crowded wall of works.  A good placing of an artist’s painting (at eye level) ensured that they would be noticed by the buying public.  In the days of Eugène Galien-Laloue the Academy favoured large figurative works and looked on painting landscapes as a mere hobby one did when holidaying in the many artist colonies!

Illustrated railway poster of the time
Illustrated railway poster of the time

Records do not show whether Eugène attended the Academie des Beaux-Arts or any other academy, such as L’Academie Julian but when one of his works appeared at the Salon it was noted in the catalogue that he was artistically trained by his uncle, Charles Laloue, but of course this was also the name of his father, so maybe there was some confusion as to who did train Eugène.  In life, everybody needs a good break, a stroke of luck, and for Eugène it was the seemingly unbounded industrial enlargement of La Belle Epoque and one aspect of this was rapidly developing rail network which was growing westward from Paris. Eugène was hired as an illustrator for the French railways, the Chemins de Fer de l’Ouest.  The Compaigne de l’Ouest was formed in 1855 through the merger of several smaller railways operating in the western suburbs of Paris, largely serving Normandy and Brittany. Destinations served included London and Jersey (through ports in Normandy and Brittany), as well as Rouen, Dieppe, Saint-Germain, Mont St. Michel, Mers-les-Bains, Treport, and other outlying places.   Illustrators, like Eugene, were employed to illustrate the sights that awaited passengers on their rail journeys and these were used to seduce potential passengers to find out more about what lay at the end of the line.  To carry out his job as a railway company illustrator Eugène had to travel to all these “exotic” places out West and sketch the rural landscape along the way.

En Normandie by Eugène Galien-Laloue
En Normandie by Eugène Galien-Laloue

Eugene exhibited his work for the first time in 1876 at the Museum of Reims, where his work Le quai aux fleurs par la neige (Flower Market Along the Seine Under the Snow) was shown. The following year he exhibited for the first time at the annual Parisian Salon, showing En Normandie (In Normandy) as well as two other gouaches. He preferred executing gouaches since they were less time consuming as his oils and, in fact,  brought comparable prices.

Harbour Scene by Eugène Galien-Lalou
Harbour Scene by Eugène Galien-Lalou

After some time, Eugène Galien-Laloue decided to become self-employed and set himself up in his own Paris studio in rue de Clignancourt.  He spent a lot of his time alone which did not seem to bother him.  Acquaintances described him as a loner, an introvert, who was never happier than when he was working alone in his studio or sitting quietly managing his business.  Modern city life with all its gaiety did not appeal to him.  Maybe he became somewhat crotchety as it was said of him that he was a loner and someone who did not suffer fools gladly, and because of this characteristic people found it very difficult to befriend him.

The French Art Expert, Noe Willer, who was author of Galien-Laloue’s catalogue raisonné wrote of this aspect of Galien-Laloue’s character:

“…He was not eccentric but always conservative, practically a royalist.  He was obsessed with his painting.  In his private life he found simplicity alluring: he married three sisters, one after the other (beginning with the youngest and ending with the oldest).  They had all lived next door to him.  He lived a monastic life.  All worldly pursuits, games, alcohol, the pleasure of the flesh were not for him. Riding his bicycle to places in Paris to paint was his only physical exercise…”

View of the Grands Boulevards by Eugène Galien-Lalou
View of the Grands Boulevards by Eugène Galien-Lalou

The cityscape of Paris was changing rapidly during Eugène Galien-Laloue lifetime.  It all began around the 1830’s when Parisians were complaining about the condition of their city.  The city was overcrowded.   The streets with their open sewers were narrow and dark.  Paris had become a very dangerous and unhealthy environment to live in and the people were not happy with the government.  A whiff of revolution was once again in the air.  Tampering with the problem was not helping and so Napoleon III, in 1854, and his interior minister brought in Georges Eugène Haussmann, known as Baron Haussmann, to oversee the “rebuilding” of the city.  He had the slums torn down and the narrow streets were turned into wide avenues.  Large parks were created as were small villages on the periphery of the city.  A new theatre was built and the Paris Garnier opera house was completed in 1875.  The cit,y after many years of change, became a desirable place to live and it was this revitalisation of Paris which became the subject of the many Belle Epoque artists such as Eugène Galien-Laloue.

Summer Landscape with River by Eugène Galien-Laloue
Summer Landscape with River by Eugène Galien-Laloue

These Belle Epoque artists were pleased to depict the reality of the newly refurbished French capital with its cafés, parks and buildings.   More importantly this now beautiful city was a magnet to tourists, visitors from Great Britain and the United States came to Paris while they were partaking of the “Grand Tour” and  Galien-Laloue had a ready market for his work which concentrated on depictions of the city.  These depictions were just the treasured mementos the American tourists wanted to take home with them for it is known that many of Galien-Lalou’s cityscapes made their way across the Atlantic and into the collections of wealthy Americans from New York, Boston and Chicago.

La Madeleine sous la neige by Eugene Galien-Laloue
La Madeleine sous la neige by Eugène Galien-Laloue

One of Galien-Laloue’s favourite subjects was, L’église Sainte-Marie-Madeleine; less formally known as La Madeleine.  This Roman Catholic church, looking more like a Roman temple, occupies a commanding position in the 8th arrondissement of Paris and was originally designed as a temple to the glory of Napoleon’s army.  Galien-Lalou depicted the building and the area surrounding it in both summer with the flower markets brightening up the grey buildings and in winter with snow on the ground and people rushing to get to the warmth of their destinations.

River in Normandy by Eugène Galien-Laloue
River in Normandy by Eugène Galien-Laloue

In complete contrast, many people, who moved from the countryside in search of work and went to live in the bustling and noisy city, hankered after a more tranquil life in the countryside they had left behind and wished to be reminded of their rural idyll of the past.  Paintings depicting rural landscapes became popular and Galien-Laloue and the Barbizon painters of the time filled the void in the market for those people who wanted a landscape painting to remind them of the peaceful serenity of nature they had left behind.  Galien-Laloue had cornered both markets – Parisian street scenes and his rural landscape works which he made when he journeyed around the roads and villages of the Ile-de-France Region and the riverside views along the tree-lined banks of the rivers Seine and Marne.

In the early 1900’s Eugène and his family left the city of Paris and went to live at Fontainebleau, a town fifty kilometres south east of Paris which is surrounded by a large and scenic forest.  Eugène now fifty years of age was probably drawn to this area because of its beautiful and quiet environ and the slower pace of life such an idyll afforded.

Snow Scene in Paris by Eugène Galien-Lalou
Snow Scene in Paris by Eugène Galien-Lalou

In 1904 he once again put forward a painting which was exhibited at that year’s Salon.  It had been fifteen years since Galien-Laloue had exhibited at the annual Salon due partly to the politics of the Salon and maybe because his sales were so good that he no longer needed the Salon to be a sales vehicle. World War I broke out in August 1914 and the ever-patriotic Galien-Laloue put himself forward to fight for his country but, at that time, he was sixty years of age and he was considered too old for military duty.

Eugène Galien-Laloue married three times which in itself is not unusual but the extraordinary thing was that his three wives were sisters.  He married Flore Bardin in the 1880’s and they had one child, a son, Fernand.  She died in 1887 and five years later he married her elder sister Ernestine.  This second marriage lasted thirty-three years until she died in 1925.  They had a daughter Flore.  A short time after the death of his second wife he married for a third time this time to another of the Bardin sisters, Claire.  Claire died in 1933 and Eugène, now almost eighty years of age, moved back to Paris to live with his daughter Flore, her husband and his grandchildren.

Sortie La Théatre by Eugene Galien-Laloue
Sortie La Théâtre by Eugène Galien-Laloue

Galien-Laloue never stopped painting but his output of pictures decreased.  Despite living with his family, he became even more introverted and lived a rather solitude lifestyle.  When the German army moved towards Paris in 1940, the family left their city home and went to their summer residence in their country at Chérence in Val d’Oise.  During this flight from the French capital Eugène broke his arm which curtailed his ability to paint.

Eugène Galien-Laloue died at Chérence on April 18th 1941, aged 86.

Many of his paintings also bore other names such as “L.Dupuy”, “Juliany”, “E.Galiany”, “Lievin” and “Dumoutier”.  The reason for this is thought to be that he had a sales exclusivity contract with certain galleries that gave them the exclusive right to sell all his works and so to get around this he may have decided to sell some of his works under a different name !   So why those pseudonyms?   J. Lievin’ was the name of a soldier he met during the Franco-Prussian war, ‘E. Galiany’ is an Italianized version of his own names, and ‘L. Dupuy’ was the name of a neighbour, Dupuy Léon.  Although he signed the paintings, very few of them showed a date and art historians have found it difficult to actually date them.

Maurice Denis. Part 2 – Religion and his wife, Marthe

Portrait of the Artist Aged Eighteen by Maurice Denis
Portrait of the Artist Aged Eighteen by Maurice Denis

The year 1890 was the year Maurice Denis began to fall in love.  It was in this year that he met Marthe Meurier, a musician.  He had started to write a journal diary in 1884 and kept adding daily passages throughout his life.  In his diary entry for September 3rd 1891 he declared his happiness at being in love.  He wrote:

“…One feels more beautiful when one is in love.  The attitudes are easy and chaste.  Life becomes precious, discreet…”

And later the diary entry for November 8th 1891 shows his joy with being with Marthe and his love for her:

“…She is more beautiful than any picture, any representation, any subjective effect!  She exists outside of me, I am not the one who creates her…….Faith, love is an act of faith.  I believe in you Marthe…”

Le menuet de la Princesse Maleine ou Marthe au piano (Princess Maleine's Minuet or Marthe Playing the Piano). by Maurice Denis (1891)
Le menuet de la Princesse Maleine ou Marthe au piano (Princess Maleine’s Minuet or Marthe Playing the Piano).
by Maurice Denis (1891)

Denis would complete many portraits of his fiancé.  One of the first, completed in 1891, was entitled Le menuet de la Princesse Maleine ou Marthe au piano (Princess Maleine’s Minuet or Marthe Playing the Piano).  It is an interesting depiction of his fiancé.  She is in three quarter profile with her hands resting on the keys of the piano.  On the piano stand we see the frontispiece of some sheet music, the cover of which was designed by Maurice.  The Princess Maleine mentioned in the title of the painting was a character in a tragic and violent play written by Maurice Maeterlinck that year.  The book had obviously captured the imagination of Maurice’s fiancé as Denis wrote an entry in his diary that October:

“…She is reading again the Princess Maleine until two in the morning. She is pale, nervous, affectionate. Pains for me, and again doubts. Always doubts. Never mind, it’s life…”

The background wall is coloured using the technique known as pointillism, in which small, distinct dots of colour are applied in patterns to form an image.  This technique was developed by Georges Seurat and Paul Signac in 1886 (see My Daily Art Display Oct 21st 2011).  This painting is housed in the Musée d’Orsay.

Triple portrait of Martha by Maurice Dennis (1892)
Triple portrait of Martha by Maurice Dennis (1892)

Another interesting portrait of his fiancé was completed a year later in 1892.  It was entitled Triple Portrait de Marthe, fiancée.  In the painting we see three portraits of Marthe and by depicting Marthe’s images three times in the work Maurice had hoped to symbolise the different aspects of his fiancé’s personality.  He believed that a single portrait would only depict one characteristic whereas a multiple portrait gave him the chance to load the painting with many of her traits and, by doing so, depicting the uniqueness of his fiancé.

Triple Portrait of Yvonne Lerolle by Maurice Denis (1897)
Triple Portrait of Yvonne Lerolle by Maurice Denis (1897)

Maurice Denis used the same technique later in 1897 when he completed Portrait d’Yvonne Lerolle en trois aspects (Triple Portrait of Yvonne Lerolle).  Yvonne was a friend of Denis and the daughter of Henri Lerolle and art patron and music publisher.  The artist recorded in his journal how he structured the painting, writing:

 “…Do the portrait of Y, making the foliage prominent and set the small tree further back so that it becomes more prominent and, at the same time, makes room for the smaller figures. 1. decide on a composition; 2. draw each part or essential element;  3. put the composition on to canvas with the modifications and patches of colour;  4. draw in chalk, charcoal, then in de-oiled paint, and in local colour;  5. rub down and then touch up. Give equal care to each operation. The advantage of this formula is that you only have to paint once and you can do each section individually…”

The description that accompanies the painting which is housed in the Musée d’Orsay states:

 “…Maurice Denis seems particularly fond of using “mise en abyme” as the image reduces: the paving stones in the foreground provide a reference point, as if everything beyond this becomes a variation on the image of the young woman. By portraying several phases in the life of Yvonne, Denis remains faithful to his love of allegorical representations of moments of existence, like those he had already done in the four paintings of his Seasons cycle (1891-1892, various locations). And, by reminding us, along with Mallarmé, Maeterlinck and Proust, that the true essence of a human being is the sum of his or her successive appearances, Denis reaches a pinnacle of Symbolist art…”

Mise en abyme is a formal technique in which an image contains a smaller copy of itself, in a sequence appearing to recur infinitely; “recursive” is another term for this.

La Cuisinière by Maurice Denis (1893)
La Cuisinière by Maurice Denis (1893)

My next picture which I am showing you is La Cuisinière (The cook).  This also features Marthe Meurier, now his wife Marthe Denis,.  It was completed in 1893, the year the two were married.  Maurice Denis was brought up as a Catholic and one of the things that he must have found attractive about his future wife was her strong Christian beliefs.  Both were familiar with the Bible and although it may not be apparent at first sight, this picture has religious connotations.  It is typical of Denis’ early works being simply, as the Christie’s New York catalogue described it:

“…a plane surface covered with colors, a compositional tour-de-force in Denis’ oeuvre….. It also possesses a powerful narrative, one that carries several layers of meaning in the symbolist manner, pertaining to the artist, the cook, Brittany, the New Testament and the history of European painting…”

 After Maurice and Marthe married in June 1893 they honeymooned in a small rented house in the small Breton town of Perros-Guirec and the interior of the building features in this painting. Maurice decided to feature his wife working in the kitchen as he looked on her domestic expertise as a wonderful attribute.  He wrote in his journal the following year:

“…she carries out the essential household tasks with total dedication” while displaying her shy love and her taste for what is beautiful among humble domestic tasks…”

It is no coincidence that Maurice’s wife was named Marthe by her very religious parents.  It was the name of the woman in the New Testament who was known for her dedication at home.  We see Denis’ wife Marthe in the foreground working in the kitchen but look carefully at the background of the work and the silhouette against the window.  It is that of Jesus and Mary. Accoring to the bible, Jesus had come to visit the two sisters, Martha and Mary of Bethany.  In this painiting, Marthe Denis is portraying the character of Martha, who is hard at work in the kitchen.  The story according to the Gospel of Luke (10:38-42) sets the scene:

“… As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him.  She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her…”

However in this work, Denis has focused on the character of Martha rather than Mary.  The biblical tale focuses on Jesus’ support for Mary who was, rather than helping Martha with her kitchen chores, had chosen to just sit and listen to the words of Jesus.  As in most paintings depicting the threesome, Martha was cast as the bit player and although Jesus did not reproach her for complaining about her sister he said he could see no wrong in Mary’s choice not to help her sister.  Maurice Denis’ painting takes an opposing stand, casting Martha as the tireless worker who was looking after the needs of their respected visitor.  Having said all this, let us remember that this is first and foremost another portrait of Denis’ wife.

The Muses by Maurice Denis (1893)
The Muses by Maurice Denis (1893)

On 12 June 1893 Denis married his great love, Marthe Meurier. The wedding reception was held on the terrace in front of the Pavilion of Henri IV in the forest of St-Germain-en-Laye, Paris, which had also been the setting for Denis’ major painting The Muses, completed earlier that year. This large decorative composition, measuring 171 x 138 cms, was both a significant representation of the artist’s style at the time, as well as a remarkable prefiguring of Art Nouveau, which emerged in the mid 1890s.  It is very noticeable in this painting that Denis had expanded his palette with much richer colours such as reds, greens and golds.  The Art Nouveau style can be seen in the way the artist has incorporated sinuous lines and decorative patterning of the trees, their trunks, and their leaves, which lie scattered on the ground like a carpet.  Maurice Denis had been commissioned to paint this work by Arthur Fontaine, a French government official.  The title of this painting, The Muses, derives from Greek mythology and refers to the nine goddesses of literature, science and the arts.  Each of the Muses had their own domain, one would be “in charge of” dance, one for comedy, one for literature and so on.  The Muses were considered the fund of knowledge which was embodied in the poetry, song-lyrics, and myths.  Denis used his wife, Marthe as a model for each of his three Muses in the foreground of this painting.  On the left of the trio we see Marthe with a sketchbook on her lap.  She is the Muse who is associated with art.  The depiction of Marthe with her bare back and shoulders on view to us, dressed in what looks like a ball gown, is the Muse of love.  The third Muse which Marthe portrays is dressed in black, her hair is covered with a veil and on her lap is an open religious book, maybe the bible or a book of prayers.  She is the Muse associated with religion.  In the background, amongst the trees, we see many more females walking about dressed in full length gowns and it is this which adds to the “otherworldly” character of the painting.

Decoration of the chapel of the College of the Holy Cross Vésinet by Maurice Denis (1899)
Decoration of the chapel of the College of the Holy Cross Vésinet by Maurice Denis (1899)

As I mentioned earlier both Maurice and Marthe Denis were devout Roman Catholics and much of his later art focused on religion.  He was determined to renew French church art.  French religious art had lost its popularity and was often cynically termed as the Saint-Sulpice style of art, named after the area in Paris surrounding the famous church which flooded the market with plastic religious relics.   After visiting Italy in 1910, Denis became greatly influenced by the works of the great Italian fresco painters of the 14th and 15th centuries and began to place emphasis on subject matter, traditional perspective, and modelling, which was contrary to the ideas of Les Nabis.  In November 1919 Maurice Denis and a contemporary of his, fellow artist George Desvallières, founded an artistic movement known as the Ateliers d’Art Sacré (Studios of Sacred Art).  The aim of this movement was to create church art once again and teach aspiring young artists to create paintings that would serve God and would decorate places of worship with tasteful religious works.   Maurice himself went on to complete works on canvas as well as murals for more than fifteen churches throughout France.  His artistic work was one of the chief forces in the resurgence of religious art in France.

Le Calvaire (La montée au Calvaire) by Maurice Denis (1889 )
Le Calvaire (La montée au Calvaire) by Maurice Denis (1889 )

One of his early religious works, which he completed in November 1889, is entitled Le Calvaire, or La Montée au calvaire (Calvary, also called Road to Calvary).  It is a painting of great simplicity.  The structure of the composition is a rising diagonal which runs from the bottom right of the painting with the group of women, black clad nuns, and moves diagonally up to the top left of the work to the top of the upright of the cross.  One is not given any pictorial detail of the women who slowly follow the procession.  They just merge together to form a black mass of people as is the gathering of the lance bearing Roman soldiers we see in the right background.  This anonymity of the women makes for a more haunting image.  In the mid-ground we see Jesus forced to his knees by the weight of the cross.  Mary his mother has moved to him, embraced him and offered her support.

The dome of the Theatre Champs-Élysées
The dome of the Theatre Champs-Élysées

In 1911 Maurice Denis was commissioned to carry out paintings and murals for the soon to be built Theatre des Champs-Elysées which opened in 1913.  The theatre is made up of three separate theatres.  The largest theatre was for symphony concerts and operas whilst the two smaller theatres stage repertory theatre.  The Art Deco building was designed by a talented group of artists.  The architect was initially Henry van der Velde but later taken over by August Perret and his brother.  Antoine Bourdelle looked after the bas relief sculpture work on the outside, Maurice Denis designed the massive cupola dome with its immense mural decorations whilst Édouard Vuillard was tasked with the paintings.

Maurice Denis' murals in L'Église du Saint-Espirit, Paris.
Maurice Denis’ murals in L’Église du Saint-Espirit, Paris.

One of the churches which Maurice Denis and some of the artists from the Ateliers d’Art Sacré, decorated, was the Église du Saint-Espirit which can be found in the 12th arrondissement of Paris.  The building was designed by Paul Tournon.  The construction began in 1928 and was completed seven years later.

The chapel at Le Prieuré
The chapel at Le Prieuré

In 1918 Maurice Denis purchased the old General Hospital of Saint-Germain-en-Laye, which had been built by Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan.  Denis named it the Le Prieure (the Priory). Maurice’s wife Marthe died on August 22nd 1919 after being ill for several years.  Maurice Denis later painted murals on the walls of the chapel, which was part of the Le Prieuré, which he dedicated to her memory.

On February 2nd 1922, Denis married again.  His second wife was Elisabeth Graterolle, and she gave her husband two more children.   Maurice Denis died in L’hôpital Cochin in Paris after being taken there with injuries he sustained resulting from being hit by a truck on the Boulevard St Michel on November 13th 1943, just twelve days before what would have been his seventy third birthday.

There was so much more to write about this great French artists and so many more paintings I could have added but time and space dictate that I leave it there.  If you like what you have seen in my last two blogs, I hope you will take the opportunity to research further into the life and works of Maurice Denis.

Maurice Denis. Part 1 – Les Nabis

Self-Portrait with his Family in Front of Their House by Maurice Denis (1916)
Self-Portrait with his Family in Front of Their House by Maurice Denis (1916)

Remember that a painting – before it is a battle horse, a nude model, or some anecdote – is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order.

Maurice Denis

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Today I am looking at the life and some works by the great French painter, designer, printmaker and writer, Maurice Denis whose Christian upbringing had an influence on many of his works.  His writings on art theory and his paintings were to influence future painters and in some ways heralded the arrival of cubism, fauvism and abstract art.

Portrait of the Artist Aged Eighteen by Maurice Denis
Portrait of the Artist Aged Eighteen by Maurice Denis

Maurice Denis was born in November 1870 in the fishing port of Granville in the Manche department of north-west France.  This Normandy coastal town with its scenic coastline and its countryside hinterland were very picturesque and would feature in many of Denis works.  He was the only son of Constant Eugène Denis and Hortense Denis (née Hadde).  Maurice was born into a wealthy family and benefited from this by attending the best school and academies.

The Denis family, who had been living in Paris, had moved out of the French capital to avoid the Franco-Prussian war which culminated in the capital being besieged by the Prussian army in September 1870.  After the war the family returned to Paris and went to live in the western suburb of Saint Germain-en-Laye which was to be Maurice’s home town for the rest of his life.  In 1882, aged eleven, Maurice enrolled at the Lycée Condorcet, which was founded in 1803 and  was one of the four oldest and most esteemed high schools in Paris   Fellow students at the school were his future contemporary artists, Édouard Vuillard and Ker-Xavier Roussel and the future theatre director and set designer, Aurélien Lugné-Poe.  Maurice completed his secondary schooling in 1888 and due to his family’s financial status was able to enrol simultaneously in the École des Beaux Arts and the Académie Julian where one of his tutors was Jules Lefebvre.

Pluie en Bretagne by Maurice Denis (1889)
Pluie en Bretagne by Maurice Denis (1889)

Also studying at the Académie Julian at that time was another aspiring artist, Paul Sérusier.  Sérusier, who was six years older than Denis, had also studied at the Lycée Condorcet high school.  During the summer of 1888 Sérusier had spent his time at Pont-Aven in Brittany, which was a popular meeting place for artists. It was during that summer stay that Sérusier met the French painters, Émile Bernard and Paul Gaugin.  Sérusier sat in on many conversations between Paul Gaugin, Louis Anquetin and Émile Bernard, the latter postulating many artistic theories which intrigued his listeners.  For Bernard, simplicity should be the key to paintings and both he and Gaugin would talk about what art genre should follow and differ from Impressionism which had been so popular during the late nineteenth century but it was around the late 1880’s that the Impressionist artists were starting to look at other styles of painting. Sérusier learnt about painting techniques whilst he was at Pont-Aven and one of the last paintings he did that summer was a small landscape work which he called The Aven River at the Bois d’Amour.  When he returned to Paris he explained to Maurice Denis and some of the other students that Gaugin had coached him during this painting and Sérusier quoted Gaugin’s words:

“…How do you see these trees? They are yellow. So, put in yellow; this shadow, rather blue, paint it with pure ultramarine; these red leaves? Put in vermilion…”

The Talisman, The Aven River at the Bois d'Amour by Paul Sérusier (1888)
The Talisman, The Aven River at the Bois d’Amour by Paul Sérusier (1888)

Gaugin’s advice to Sérusier was to strengthen the colour but at the same time make the form simpler.  Whereas Impressionists would want to paint what they saw and how natural light affected the scene, this was replaced by the artist searching for coloured equivalents.  Maurice Denis and some of his fellow students, Vuillard, Bonnard and Paul Ranson were fascinated by the work and the change of emphasis in the painting technique.  This to them was a new beginning.  They nicknamed Sérusier’s work “The Talisman”, as for them it was looked upon as a secret and magical object that would change their ideas on artistic technique.  This was an early example of Synthetism in art, a term used by Gaugin, often termed Cloisonnism , a term given to it by Édouard Dujardin, a writer and art critic, of the style developed by Bernard and Anquetin, inspired by both stained glass  and Japanese ukiyo-e prints.  It emphasized two-dimensional flat patterns which was totally different to the techniques used by the Impressionists.

Beauty in the Autumn Wood by Maurice Denis (1892)
Beauty in the Autumn Wood by Maurice Denis (1892)

Maurice Denis, Édouard Vuillard, Pierre Bonnard and Paul Ranson, the four students who had been amazed by the painting which Sérusier had brought back from Pont-Aven soon after formed themselves into art group and called themselves Les Nabis, which is a Hebrew word for “prophets”.  It was a kind of secret brotherhood committed to a type of pictorial Symbolism.  The term Les Nabis was thought up by the poet and physician, Henri Cazalis, who drew a parallel between the ways of the group of painters, as prophets of modern art, aspired to invigorate painting in the same way the ancient prophets had rejuvenated Israel. Other artists studying with Denis at Académie Julian, such as Odilon Redon, Félix Vallotton and Ker-Xavier Roussel also became part of Les Nabis.  This group of young artists were fundamentally opposed to the naturalism technique, the true-to-life style which involved the representation or depiction of nature and people with the least possible distortion or interpretation, which was taught by their Academy teachers.

Maurice Denis was a lover of art theory and at the time published an article, Définition du néo-tranditionnisme in August 1890 in the periodical, Art et Critique, in which he defended their new ideas on art and this became Les Nabi’s manifesto.  It was a definitive declaration which signified the founding philosophies of cubism and fauvism and set up the foundation for the theories of abstraction that would carry on expanding throughout the 20th century.  The article opened with the famous lines:

“…It is well to remember that a picture, before being a battle horse, a nude woman or some anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order…”

Nouvelles théories sur l'art moderne [et] sur l'art sacré, 1914-1921 by Maurice Denis
Nouvelles théories sur l’art moderne [et] sur l’art sacré, 1914-1921 by Maurice Denis

Denis would later, in 1922, publish a collection of  his historical and theoretical work in one book entitled Nouvelles théories sur l’art moderne, sur l’art sacré (New Theories of Modern and Sacred Art), often simply referred to as “Theories by Maurice Denis.”

Sunlight on the Terrace by Maurice Denis (1890)
Sunlight on the Terrace by Maurice Denis (1890)

Maurice Denis produced a small painting in 1889 entitled Sunlight on the Terrace which illustrated the style used by the Sérusier/Gaugin Talisman painting and the works on show at the 1889 Volpini Exhibition.    The story behind this exhibition and how it came into being is, to say the least, unusual.  The Académie des Beaux Arts was holding an official art exhibition as part of the Exposition Universelle, the world’s fair designed to flaunt French cultural and industrial might, and its signature attraction was the 300-meter tower of Gustave Eiffel.  Artists were invited to submit paintings for this exhibition which then had to be sanctioned by the selection jurists.  Gaugin and Les Nabis painters realised they would not be invited to submit their works for public viewing and decided to hold a “counter exhibition”.

Volpini Exhibition poster
Volpini Exhibition poster

This was made possible when the painter, Emile Schuffenecker, a friend of Gaugin, discovered that across from the main exhibition on the Champ de Mars was the Grand Café des Arts.  The owner of the café was Monsieur Volpini who was, at the time, arranging the inside furnishings for the café but was distraught to be informed that the large decorative mirrors he had ordered for the walls, and which were coming from Italy, had been delayed and so was delighted to be approached by Schuffenecker who offered to decorate the walls of the café with their paintings.  The exhibition was the initial showing of paintings which reflected the progressive ideas of Gauguin and other artists of the Pont-Aven School. The exhibition became known as the Volpini Exhibition.

A Studio at Les Batignolles, Un atelier aux Batignolles by Henri Fantin-Letour (1870)
A Studio at Les Batignolles, Un atelier aux Batignolles by Henri Fantin-Letour (1870)

In My Daily Art Display (February 3rd 2012) I looked at a painting completed in 1870 by Henri Fantin-Letour entitled A Studio at Les Batignolles.  It was a depiction of a group of artists at the atelier of Édouard Manet whom we see surrounded by his artist friends.  It was a painting which pictorially documented the group of popular artists of the time.

The next painting I am showing you was one done in a similar vein by Denis.  Although Les Nabis as a group had started to go their own ways around 1899 this painting by Maurice Denis entitled Homage to Cézanne was not completed until 1901.  It is a large work of art measuring 180 x 240cms which makes the figures almost life-sized. The setting for the work is the shop belonging to the art dealer Ambroise Vollard, which was in the Rue Laffitte, a street in the 9th arrondissement of Paris.  Les Nabis artists used to meet regularly at the home of one of their group, Paul Ranson and talk about their art and this painting was a reminder of those get-togethers.  In the background, hanging on the rear wall we can just make out works by Renoir and Gaugin.  This pictorial recorded meeting was to celebrate Paul Cézanne and on the easel in the centre of the painting is his 1880 still-life work Fruit Bowl, Glass and Apples.  The presence of this painting was another reminder of Paul Gaugin who owned the work but was not present as he had six years earlier set off for a new life in Martinique and Tahiti.  Gaugin had been a great fan of Cézanne describing him as:

“… an exceptional pearl, the apple of my eye…”

Homage to Cézanne by Maurice Denis (1900)
Homage to Cézanne by Maurice Denis (1900)

The gathered artists along with some art critics and art dealers are all dressed in black suits, which is strange attire for such a gathering of the avant-garde Nabis.  On the far left is Paul Sérusier, the leader of Les Nabis who is in conversation with the bearded painter Odilon Redon.  At the back on the left we have the painter Jean-Édouard Vuillard.  Behind him wearing a top hat is André Mellerio, a French art critic who endorsed the cause of Symbolism and was the biographer, and great friend of Odilon Redon.    Behind the easel to the right of Mellerio, and seen holding the easel’s upright, is the art dealer and host, Ambroise Vollard.  Further to the right is Maurice Denis, Paul Ranson, Ker-Xavier Roussel and on the far right with pipe in hand, Pierre Bonnard.  It is also interesting to note that Maurice Denis included his wife, Marthe in the painting, whom we see in the right background.

In my final look at the life and works of Maurice Denis I will be looking at his later works which would centre around his devout religious beliefs.

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 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.