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.

Self-portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel by Sofonisba Anguissola

Self-portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel by Sofonisba Anguissola (1556)
Self-portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel by Sofonisba Anguissola (1556)

Let me introduce you to a female artist, whom I am ashamed to admit, I had never heard of, but whom Giorgio Vasari, the Italian biographer of artists, made the following comment:

“…[She] has shown greater application and better grace than any other woman of our age in her endeavours at drawing; she has thus succeeded not only in drawing, colouring and painting from nature, and copying excellently from others, but by herself has created rare and very beautiful paintings…”

My featured artist today is the Italian Renaissance painter Sofonisba Anguissola. Her christian name came from a strong family connection to ancient Carthaginian history and her parents named their first daughter after the tragic Carthaginian figure who lived and committed suicide during the Second Punic War.  Sofonisba Anguissola was born in Cremona, a city in the Lombardy region of Northern Italy, around 1532.  Her father was Amilcare Anguissola and her mother was Bianca Ponzone.  Both parents came from affluent and noble families and they lived a privileged and affluent lifestyle.  Sofonisba was the oldest of seven children.  She had one brother, Asdrubale and five sisters, Elena, Lucia, Europa, Minerva and Anna Maria.   All of her sisters except Minerva became artists.

Having come from such an advantaged family background was somewhat unusual for women artists of the sixteenth century, as any of note, tended to be daughters of impoverished artists.  The family wealth coupled with the father’s belief that all females should be educated ensured that Sofonisba received an all-round and extensive education, including studying drawing and fine art.   The fact that she came from a wealthy and privileged background did not however avoid the restrictions imposed by the Italian art establishment, such as forbidding female artists from studying anatomy or attending life drawing classes as it was deemed inappropriate for a female to view a naked model, which consequently meant a female could not study the human anatomy to the same extent as a male artist could and because of this she was unable to carry out the complex multi-figure compositions which were at the heart of the popular large-scale religious and historical works.  With those obstacles in mind, Anguissola decided to concentrate on portraiture using female models, which were accessible to her, and instead of historic settings she concentrated on having her sitters shown in homely and unceremonious settings.  Self-portraits and portraits of family members were her most frequent subjects and it was not until much later in life that she turned to paintings incorporating religious themes.

Self-portrait with Bernardino Campi by Sofonisba Anguissola (1550)
Self-portrait with Bernardino Campi by Sofonisba Anguissola (1550)

At the age of fourteen Sofonisba and her sister Elena attended the studio of Bernardino Campi, the Italian Renaissance religious painter and portraitist who was based in Cremona.  She pictorially recorded the time she was with Campi in her double portrait depicting her mentor painting a portrait of her.  The work, entitled Bernardino Campi Painting Sofonisba Anguissola, was completed by her during her last year as his pupil in 1550, when she was just eighteen years old.   After Campi, Sofonisba studied under the Italian artist Bernardino Gatti, often known as il Sojaro, and continued being tutored by him for three years, eventually leaving him when she was twenty-one years of age.

In 1554, Anguissola journeyed to Rome, where she spent her time sketching various scenes and people. The highlight of her stay in the Italian capital was when she was introduced to the great Master himself, Michelangelo Buonarotti.   We know the two met as in the Buonarrotti Archives held in Florence there is a letter, dated May 1557, from Sofonisba’s father Amilcare to Michelangelo in which he writes thanking him for spending time with his daughter:

“…honourable and thoughtful affection that you have shown to Sofonisba, my daughter,

to whom you introduced to practice the most honourable art of painting…”

Asdrubale Bitten by a Crayfish by Sofonisba Anguissola (c.1554)
Asdrubale Bitten by a Crayfish by Sofonisba Anguissola (c.1554)

Intrigued by her artistic talent Michelangelo asked her to sketch him a picture of a weeping boy and the result was her sketch entitled Asdrubale Bitten by a Crayfish.  Sofonisba rose to the challenge and sketched her young brother, Asdrubale, being bitten and being comforted by one of his sisters.  Michelangelo was so impressed with the drawing that he gave her some sketches from his notebook and asked her to copy them in her own style.  She complied with his request and the results of her efforts again astounded the Master and because he recognised how artistically talented she was, for the next two years, he agreed to mentor her.  Again we have been made aware of the high regard in which Michelangelo held Sofonisba’s work as in a letter dated May 1558, (held in the Buonarrotti Archives) her father wrote to Michelangelo thanking him for praising his daughter’s artwork:

“…[you were] kind enough to examine, judge, and praise the paintings done by my

daughter Sofonisba…”

In 1558, aged twenty-six, Sofonisba Anguissola left Rome and went to Milan and it was here she received a commission to paint a portrait of Ferdinand Alvarez de Toledo, the Duke of Alba.  The sitter was so pleased with the resulting painting that he recommended her to Philip II, the King of Spain.  Court officials invited Sofonisba to come to Madrid and be part of the Spanish court.  This fact alone is clear evidence of Sofonisba’s artistic talent and her success, as it would have been unheard of that such a powerful leader as Philip II would countenance an insignificant artist being invited to join and live at the Spanish court and paint for his new Queen.

Late in December 1559 she arrived in the Spanish capital and took up her role at the Spanish court as a court painter as well as being one of the attendants to the Isabella Clara Eugenia, the Infanta Isabella, and later as a lady-in-waiting to her mother, Philip’s new queen, his third wife, Elisabeth of Valois (the Queen consort, Isabel of Spain) who was an accomplished amateur portrait painter.  This shared love of art between Sofonisba and Elisabeth flourished and Sofonisba would often offer artistic advice and give the queen some artistic tuition.   Sofonisba soon received many official commissions to paint portraits of the king and queen’s family and courtiers.  These were very different to her earlier portraiture work which were very informal as Philip and his wife wanted the portraits he had commissioned Sofonisba to paint to show the wealth and power of the sitters by paying attention to background and peripheral objects such as fine and sumptuous clothing, jewelled adornments and priceless furnishings.  This type of portraiture took time and skill but the finished products were always well received by the sitters.

Her artistic talents were also recognised by another powerful leader, Pope Pius IV who asked Sofonisba to paint a portrait of the Queen consort, Isabel, and have it sent to him.  Giogio Vasari in his book, Le Vite de’ più eccellenti pittori, scultori, ed architettori (Lives of the Most Eminent Painters, Sculptors and Architects) quotes a letter the pontiff sent Sofonisba thanking her for the painting and praising her work.  In the letter he wrote:

“… Pius Papa IV. Dilecto in Christo filia.

 We have received the portrait of our dear daughter, the Queen of Spain, which you have

sent… We thank you and assure you that we shall treasure it among our choicest possessions,

and commend your marvellous talent which is least among your numerous qualities

 Rome, 15 October 1561…”

In 1571 Sofonisba married Don Francisco de Moncada, who was the son of the Prince of Paterno, Viceroy of Sicily.  King Philip II facilitated the marriage, and paid her dowry of twelve thousand pounds.  She remained at the Spanish court for a further seven years after which time, and with Philip’s permission, she and her husband left Madrid and travelled to Palermo, Sicily. They arrived in Palermo in 1578 but sadly her husband died the following year.  The year following her husband’s death, Sofonisba decided to visit her family back in Cremona and embarked on a sea passage from Palermo to Genoa.   She never made it back home as she fell in love with the young captain of the ship and the couple married shortly after, in January 1580, in Pisa.  Sofonisba was forty-seven years of age and was much older than her seafaring husband.  The couple settled down at the seaport of Genoa and with her husband’s money, along with a pension from Philip of Spain, the pair had a comfortable lifestyle and Sofonisba had her own quarters including an art studio within her husband’s family’s large house.  Her reputation as an accomplished artist spread throughout Europe and she received many visits from young aspiring painters.  The couple moved to Palermo and were visited in 1624 by the Flemish painter, Anthony van Dyck, who at the time was twenty-five years old and travelling around the island of Sicily recording his travels in words and sketches in his diary.  At the time, Sofonisba was ninety-two years old and van Dyck sketched Sofonisba sitting in a chair.   All around the sketch he wrote notes in Italian, a rough translation of which is:

“…portrait of the painter Signora Sofonisba, done from life in Palermo in the year 1624, on 12 July: her age being 96 years, still with her memory and brain most quick, and most kind, and although she has lost her sight because of her old age, she enjoyed to have paintings put in front of her, and with great effort by placing her nose close to the picture, she could make out a little of it…”

It is interesting to note that according to van Dyck, Sofonisba was 96 years old in 1624 and this of course would make her birth date 1528 which is some four years earlier than the date given in a number of reference books.

Page from van Dyck's sketchbook
Page from van Dyck’s sketchbook

Van Dyck recorded in his diaries that her eyesight was weakened (it is thought she suffered from cataracts) but for a lady of 92 (or 96!) she was still mentally alert.  She had completed her last work in 1620 and had become a patron of the arts.  On November 16th 1625, Sofonisba died in Palermo aged 93.

On her birth centenary seven years later, her husband had a plaque placed on her tomb which read:
“…To Sofonisba, my wife…who is recorded among the illustrious women of the world, outstanding in portraying the images of man…

Orazio Lomellino, in sorrow for the loss of his great love, in 1632, dedicated this little tribute to such a great woman…”

Sofonisba was not only appreciated in her own lifetime but continues to be appreciated in modern society albeit I had to admit her name was new to me, which gives you some idea as to my artistic knowledge!

My Daily Art Display’s featured painting today is an early self portrait by Sofonisba Anguissola which she completed in 1556 and is entitled Self-portrait at the Easel Painting a Devotional Panel.  It is housed at the Museum-Zamek in the town of Lancut in south-east Poland.

This is one of many self portraits by the artist, which she sent as gifts to prospective patrons as she could not respectably enter into competition with male artists for paid commissions.   Around this time, there was a highly respected author, Baldassare Castiglione, the count of Casatico, an Italian courtier and diplomat, who held great sway with the public with regards manners at the court and how one should behave if of noble birth.  The book, which had a widely circulated publication in 1528, was entitled The Courtier.  In a way it was also a torch-bearer for women’s equality as it advocated the same education for aristocratic women as that offered to aristocratic men and one can only presume that Sofonisba’s father had read the book and agreed with its conclusions as he made sure that his daughters were not only educated in Latin, classical literature, history, philosophy, math, and sciences, but also that they were schooled in the courtly arts, such as music, writing, drawing, and painting.  Castiglione had written in his book about how aristocratic women of the court should dress.  He wrote:

“…she should always dress herself correctly and wear clothes that do not seem vain and frivolous…”

We can see by the way Sofonisba has depicted herself in this self portrait, wearing a modest black gown, lace collar and cuffs, the absence of jewellery and a simple hairstyle, which precluded any hint of easy virtue, that she had taken on board the advice given by Castiglione in his book.

Sofonisba looks out at us, brush in hand.  She is in the act of painting and is simultaneously the subject and object, the painter and the model of the painting.  Her painting is a re-working of the legend of St Luke the Evangelist, who it was believed, was the first to have painted a portrait of the Virgin but in this painting she has taken on the role of St Luke  and we see her painting of the Virgin and Child resting on the easel.

I love this self portrait.  There is nothing fancy about Sofonisba’s portrayal of herself.  It is an understated depiction.  It is a somewhat discreet portrait of a virtuous noblewoman and its beauty and exquisite artwork challenged the belief in those days that women artists lacked artistic skills.