Balthus. Part 4. Setsuko and the latter days

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Setsuko in 1991
Setsuko in 1991

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

Setsuko remembered her first meeting with Balthus:

“…We met we spoke, they quarrelled…”

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

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

Countess Setsuko Klossowska de Rola
Countess Setsuko Klossowska de Rola

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

Balthus' daughter Harumi
Balthus’ daughter Harumi

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

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

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

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

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

Balthus. Part 3 – Antoinette de Watteville and exile

Antoinette de Watteville and Balthus (1935)
Antoinette de Watteville and Balthus (1935)

This is the third part of my blog, looking at the life of Balthazar Klossowski (Balthus) and I want to look at his first true love, his first wife Antoinette de Watteville and his time in exile  during the Second World War.

The financial situation of the Klossowski family in the mid 1920’s was perilous, so much so, Balthus and his brother Pierre had to suspend their studies due to lack of money.  In 1924 Balthus joined his brother in Paris and a few months later their mother, Baladine, moved to the French capital where they lived in an apartment close to the Pantheon.    In 1926, aged eighteen years of age, Balthus journeyed to Italy and spent part of the summer in Florence where he set about copying some of the works of the Italian Masters.

As far as romance was concerned, Balthus’ great love was for a young girl, Rose Alice Antoinette de Watteville.  She was born in 1912 and was the sister of Robert de Watteville, who was a close friend of Balthus.  Balthus and Antoinette first met in 1924 when she was twelve years of age and he was nineteen.  Antoinette’s upbringing was one of opulence as the de Wattevilles family were descendents of one of the most established aristocratic families in Switzerland.   Balthus fell in love with this young girl but it was an unrequited love, but despite this, she and Balthus carried on exchanging many letters.  Antoinette’s family were unimpressed with Balthus, not just because he was a struggling artist but also because his family lineage was nothing compared to that of the de Watteville family.

The Bernese Hat by Balthus (1938)
The Bernese Hat by Balthus (1938)

In the 1930’s Balthus was concentrating on society portraits and in an attempt to win over Antoinette’s parents he completed a portrait of Antoinette, entitled The Bernese Hat.  The painting was devoid of any accoutrements that would imply Antoinette’s social and financial standing and the setting for the work was described as “severe”.

Much to the horror of Balthus, Antoinette married a diplomat in 1934 and so as not to upset her husband she asked Balthus to stop writing to her.  This was too much to take in for Balthus.  He was devastated and suffered what was termed an emotional breakdown, and he attempted suicide.  He was so depressed that he virtually gave up painting for a year. His mood only lightened when she started to write to him again and in Bern on April 2nd 1937 she married Balthus.  They went on to have two sons, Stanislaus, born in October 1942 and Thadée, born in February 1944 who co-authored a biography of their father which included many of the letters between Antoinette and Balthus.

The White Skirt by Balthus (1937)
The White Skirt by Balthus (1937)

One of the first painting Balthus did of his wife was The White Skirt which he painted in late 1937, some months after they were married and the story of the painting has an unusual twist to it.  What we see in this provocative painting is Antoinette lounging in a chair.  She is dressed in a full length white tennis skirt that used to belong to her mother.  The jacket has fallen open and we cannot help but notice her semi-transparent bra which allows us to see her nipples which strain against the silky material.   There is an aristocratic self-confident grace about her pose and in some way this appealed to Balthus to know that he had married into the aristocracy, although he still believed himself to be of the de Rola aristocracy.  Balthus sold the painting to his friend the Paris art dealer Pierre Colle, who had introduced him to Derrain.  It is obvious that Balthus regretted that decision for he had now lost a painting which portrayed his aristocratic trophy, Antoinette.  Pierre Colle died in 1948 and Balthus approached his widow to have back The White Skirt painting.

Three Sisters by Balthus (1954)
Three Sisters by Balthus (1954)

She agreed but on one condition – that Balthus completed a painting featuring her three daughters, Marie-Pierre, Béatrice and Sylvia and she would then exchange it for the portrait of Antoinette which Balthus desperately wanted.  Balthus agreed to the exchange and completed one of the versions of the painting, The Three Sisters in 1954.

Champrovent
Champrovent

When the Second World War broke out in 1939 Balthus was called up to the French army and was sent into battle near the town of Saarbrucken in the Alsace region.  His time in the army lasted only a few months as he was invalided out with a leg injury and had also suffered a nervous breakdown.  He went to the Savoie region of France and Switzerland to recuperate and in March 1940 he returns to Paris and is demobilised.  In June 1940, the Germans occupied Paris and so Balthus and his wife Antoinette left the French capital and relocated in a seventeenth century manor house Champrovent  in the village of Vernatel close to the town of Chambery in the Savoie.  Here they shared a farmhouse manor with another family, the Coslins.

Still Life with a Figure by Balthus ( 1940)
Still Life with a Figure by Balthus ( 1940)

The Coslin’s twelve year old daughter, Gertrude, appeared in the first painting completed by Balthus whilst they were in exile.  The painting, which was entitled Still Life with a Figure, is essentially a still life on a table composition.  We see the young girl in profile whose figure is cut off at the right hand side border and all we see of her is her head, her wavy reddish- blonde hair, and the yellow-green sleeve of her blouse.  She leans forward to look at the table.  Her left hand rests on the table whilst her right hand seems to draw back the red and gold brocade curtain.  She has a glowering facial expression as she stares at the meagre food that has been set aside for lunch.  At the far end of the table from her is an ornate stemmed Victorian silver fruit bowl which holds several green and red apples all of which still retain their stalks. A wine glass can be seen which may be half-filled with cider.  On the table, close to the girl, we see a chunk of home-baked bread, through which a black-handled knife has been thrust.   The setting for this painting was one of the rooms of the farmhouse, in which Balthus and Antoinette were staying, but not the parlour, which appeared in later paintings by Balthus (Salon I and Salon II).  The colourful wall and brocade curtain along with the deep claret of the tablecloth are in stark contrast to the plain dull walls of his Paris studio which was the background for many of Balthus’ paintings.  The painting can be seen in the Tate Gallery in London

Girl in Green and Red by Balthus (1944)
Girl in Green and Red by Balthus (1944)

Balthus completed many paintings featuring Antoinette.  One unusual one, which he completed in 1944 was entitled Girl in Green and Red.   At the time of this painting Antoinette was thirty-two years of age but Balthus’ depiction of her makes her look as if she is a teenager.  We see Antoinette wearing a green and red tricot with a brown cape over her right shoulder.  She said in a later interview that she had specially bought the tricot for the sitting.  Antoinette had blonde hair but in the painting Balthus had changed it to brown so it could match the colour of the cape.  As well as the two colours of the tricot, of which the red is highlighted, her face is made to look two toned by the same light source which emanates from the left of the painting.  Antoinette sits at a table.  On the table, which is covered by a white tablecloth, are a silver cup, half a loaf of bread, which has a black handled knife pushed into it, and a candlestick which she is grasping.   The bread and the protruding knife also appeared in his Still Life with a Figure painting of the same year.    The way Antoinette is portrayed in this painting has often been likened to that of a fortune teller about to read the tarot cards.  Balthus completed this work when he was living at 164 Place Notre Dame in the Swiss town of Fribourg where he and Antoinette had taken up residence from May 1942 and remained there until October 1945.  This painting was hailed by the Surrealists.  The picture marked one of Balthus’ closest approaches to Surrealism, a movement whose leaders admired and courted him. He rebuffed them,

To avoid the harsh Savoie winter conditions and the oncoming German armies Balthus and Antoinette left Vernatel in late 1941 and moved to Switzerland to be with her parents who were living in Bern.

Paysage de Champrovent by Balthus (1942-1945)
Paysage de Champrovent by Balthus (1942-1945)

During Balthus’ eighteen month stay in Champrovent he set to work on two large landscape paintings which were companion pieces and which actually formed a continuous panorama of the countryside which Balthus would have looked out upon when he stepped out of his farmhouse residence.   Paysage de Champrovent  (Landscape of Champrovent) is a topographically correct view of the scene.  If we look carefully at the centre mid-ground we can make out the Chateau de la Petite Forêt and the Bois de Leyière.  Further back over the crest of the hill, but out of sight, is the Rhone valley.  In the distant background are the blue grey of the Colombier mountain range.  The setting is a late sunny summer afternoon and a girl lies in the field taking in the last of the sun.  The model for this painting was Georgette Coslin, the farmer’s daughter.

Vernatel Landscape with Oxen by Balthus (1942)
Vernatel Landscape with Oxen by Balthus (1942)

The companion piece is entitled Vernatel, Paysage aux Boeufs (Vernatel Landscape with Oxen).  The mountain range on the right is the Vacherie de la Balme and it overshadows the village of Vernatel in the valley.  The girl, now a grandmother, Geogette Varnaz (née Coslin) who was the model for the previous painting lives with her husband in this village.  This landscape is not topographically correct as the space behind Balthus’ large tree at the left of the painting there would have been another village, Monthoux.  This time, the setting is not a summer’s day but a November day and winter is fast approaching and the farmer needs to gather up his wood for the winter fires.  In the field in the foreground we see the farmer with his pair of oxen struggling to drag a tree trunk across the field.

The Salon II by Balthus (1942)
The Salon II by Balthus (1942)

Also whilst living at Champrovent he completed two paintings Salon I and Salon II both of which harked back to his 1937 work The Blanchard Children.  However instead of the plain, dull background setting of his Paris studio in that work, these two paintings have a more colourful backdrop of one of the rooms at Champrovent.  He started painting Salon I in 1941 but before its completion he worked on the second version which he completed in 1942.  The first version, Salon I, was not completed until 1943 when he and Antoinette were residing in Fribourg.

The Mountain by Balthus (1937)
The Mountain by Balthus (1937)

The Mountain is one of Balthus’s most important early works. It was completed by him in 1937, when he was twenty eight years of age and three years after his first one-man exhibition.    The finished work was not exhibited until 1939 under the title Summer.  This had meant to have been one in a set of four which featured the seasons of the year but Balthus never completed the other three paintings.  This work once again had Balthus labelled as a Surrealist painter.  There are seven figures in the painting all of whom are located on an imaginary plateau near the top of the Niederhorn, a peak of the Emmental Alps in the Bernese Oberland near Beatenberg, where Balthus lived in the late 1920’s and early 1930’s.  Look at the seven figures.  There is something very strange about them.  There appears to be no connection between them and yet they are supposed to be a hiking party.  Look at the different poses of the figures, some are walking, some are kneeling whilst the woman in the foreground looks as if she is lying on the ground asleep.  This portrayal of mixed activities makes them even more disconnected.   If anything this painting is a form of escapism for Balthus who hankered to be back in Beatenberg where he had many happy memories

The Game of Patience by Balthus (1943)
The Game of Patience by Balthus (1943)

In 1943, Balthus was living in Switzerland avoiding the horrors of war and it was in that year that he completed his painting entitled The Game of Patience.  Balthus had discovered a new model for his work.  She was Janette Aldry and was a little older than the models Balthus had once used whilst living in Paris.  However Balthus liked using her as he reckoned she had the same melancholy demeanour of Thérèse Blanchard, his favoured model in the 1930’s.  In the painting we see the girl, with her right knee resting on a stool, bent over the elegant highly polished Louis Quinze table carefully studying the playing cards which are spread on it.   Her back is straight and she seems somewhat tense.  The girl is dressed in an red vest and dark green skirt similar to one which Thérèse wore in his 1938 portrait of her.  Behind the table on the left of the picture is a high backed Louis Quinze chair on which is an open box.  Under the table is a stool on top of which are some books,  The haphazard way the box lies on the chair and the pile of books which lie askew on the stool as well as the candlestick holder and cup which have been pushed to the extremities of the table are a sign of disarray caused by the young girl brought on by a sudden desire to play cards.  I read somewhere that some art historians have interpreted the painting and the tense and restlessness of the girl a s a metaphor for the restless people that were forced to leave places like France to the safe haven of Switzerland but just want to get back home.

In the final part of my look at the life and artwork of Balthus I will look at some of the paintings he completed in his latter years.

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

First there is the book Balthus Cats and Girls by the foremost expert on Balthus, Sabine Rewald.

Secondly, a very thick tome by Nicholas Fox Weber entitled Balthus, A Biography.

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.