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.

Alfred Jacob Miller and the Rendezvous

Self Portrait by Alfred Miller (c.1850)
Self Portrait by Alfred Miller (c.1850)

It is often strange that a chance meeting or a chance happening can affect one’s life but for my featured artist today his life was changed when he met a man who offered him a chance to go on a “holiday adventure”.  Intrigued?   Then come and join me as I look at the life of the nineteenth century American painter Alfred Jacob Miller and explore the world of mountain men and the famous rendezvous of trappers.

Miller was born in Baltimore, Maryland on January 2, 1810.  Like many artists I have featured, as a child, he loved to paint and sketch.  Apparently when he was at school he loved to create caricatures of his teachers which often got him into trouble.  It is said that his first art lessons were given to him by the talented American portrait painter, Thomas Sully in Philadelphia.

Portrait of Colonel Alexander Smith by Alfred Jacob Miller (1833)
Portrait of Colonel Alexander Smith by Alfred Jacob Miller (1833)

Miller worked on his portraiture and an example of this early work can be seen in his companion pieces Portrait of Colonel Alexander Smith and his wife Portrait of Lydia Lloyd Murray which he was commissioned to paint in 1833.

Portrait of Lydia Lloyd Murray by Alfred Jacob Miller (1833)
Portrait of Lydia Lloyd Murray by Alfred Jacob Miller (1833)

Colonel Alexander Smith served in the Morgan Volunteers which was a militia based in Baltimore part of the Maryland militia, a group of men which is probably the equivalent of the current National Guard.  Colonel Smith paid Miller $75 for the pair of paintings.  The two paintings are now housed in the Walters Museum in Baltimore.

Little is known about Miller’s early years except that his talent as an aspiring artist was blossoming.  In his 1832 book Six Months in America, the seasoned traveller and travel writer, Godfrey Vigne wrote:

“…At Baltimore I visited the studies of two very promising young artists: Mr Hubbard, an Englishman, is certainly the better painter; but has the advantage of four or five years of experience over Mr Miller, who is an American , quite a boy; and whom, I think, at least an equal genius.  He has had little or no instruction.  If sent to Europe as he certainly ought to be, I will venture to predict, that at some future period he will be an ornament to his native city; and which he certainly never will, or can be, if he does not leave it…”

Whether or not Vigne spoke to Miller about the advantages of travelling to Europe to study art is not known but it is quite likely.  The seeds must have been planted in Miller’s mind for in 1833, at the age of twenty-three, with the financial backing of his parents, he did leave the shores of America and head for Europe in order to enhance his knowledge of his true love, art.  Whilst in Europe, he visited Switzerland, the Italian cities of Bologna, and Rome where he studied religious art at the Gallerie Borghese.  He also made many sketching trips through the Lazio region, north of the Italian capital, Venice and spent a considerable amount of time in Paris, where he attended life classes at the École des Beaux Arts.  During his stay in the French capital, Miller like other visiting painters would spend time at the Louvre and other galleries copying the works of the Old Masters.

A Baltimore Watchman by Alfred Jacob Miller
A Baltimore Watchman by Alfred Jacob Miller

Miller loved to sketch, in fact he was a prolific sketcher and filled many sketchbooks with his sketches, most of which were accompanied by his own captions.  Above the sketch, Baltimore Watchman,  on which, he scribbled in pencil:

“…Recollections” and “One of the Dogberry’s of 1825 Balto”.

Below the figure he scrawled:

“…”after crying the hour of ten, he slept soundly in his box– until roused again…”

The Two Friends by Alfred Jacob Miller
The Two Friends by Alfred Jacob Miller

Many of his sketches depicted theatre life but also life in the home.  One poignant sketch of his was entitled The Two Friends.

Bridge of Sighs by Alfred Jacob Miller (c. 1834)
Bridge of Sighs by Alfred Jacob Miller (c. 1834)

Another moving sketch was entitled Bridge of Sighs which shows a woman committing suicide by jumping from a bridge.  Miller’s scribbled notes at the bottom of the sketch are a quote from the Thomas Hood 1844 poem Bridge of Sighs:

 “…It was pitiful, near a whole city full, Friend, had she non….”

Thomas Hood’s poem also inspired the English painter, George Frederick Watts to complete his moving 1850 painting, Found Drowned (see My Daily Art Display, July 4th 2011)

Miller returned to Baltimore in 1834 and opened his own portrait studio but his portrait business was poor and so, in December 1836, he decided to relocate to New Orleans and ply his trade in that city.  Miller set up lodgings on the second floor of L. Chittenden’s dry-goods store on Chartres Street in New Orleans.  This also acted as his studio.  However, money was still tight as his optimism that commissions would soon roll in was unfounded and his financial plight was such that he painted the landlord’s portrait in lieu of his rent.  In return his landlord also allowed Miller to place some of his works of art in the shop window.  Maybe this was fate for Miller’s artwork attracted a passer-by who came into the shop and watched Miller at work.  The man was Captain William Drummond Stewart.  He was the second son of Sir George Stewart, seventeenth Lord of Grandtully and fifth baronet of Murthly.  William Stewart was a Scottish adventurer and retired British military officer, who had travelled around the American West in the 1830’s.  He told Miller that he was about to set off to attend the annual rendezvous of fur trappers and traders in the Rocky Mountains in the summer and needed an artist to accompany him and record the trip.

Attack by Crow Indians by Alfred Jacob Miller (1837)
Attack by Crow Indians by Alfred Jacob Miller (1837)

Miller’s painting Attack by Crow Indians has a fascinating story to go with it.  Miller did not witness the scene himself, which happened during an earlier expedition of Captain Stewart’s who then recounted the story to Miller who converted his words into a painting..  In fact Miller made a number of versions of Stewart’s story.  The account of the story appears in the book entitled Broken Hand by LeRoy Hafen.  In it he tells of what happened a century earlier:

“…a band of young Crows invaded the camp while Fitzpatrick was away and Stewart was in charge. They carried off stock, pelts, and other property. They encountered Fitzpatrick on their return and stripped him of everything of value as well. As Stewart described the incident, the Crow medicine man had told the braves that, if they struck the first blow, they could not win. Thus, they had to provoke Stewart or someone in his party into striking the first blow. Stewart stood firm, refusing to strike. The Crows left, and the captain survived a situation in which he would have surely lost the battle. Fitzpatrick managed to talk the Crows into returning most of what they had taken…”

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These annual Rocky Mountain Rendezvous, which began in 1822 and went on for fifteen years, happened in various locations during the spring and early summer months.  The rendezvous was originally organised by a St. Louis businessman and politician William H. Ashley.  The idea was that the trappers, who lived in the wild collecting furs, would not have to leave the mountains to come to the cities to sell or exchange their wares for much needed rations but would instead exchange their produce at an annual fair in the mountain regions.  Ashley advertised for men who were willing to seek adventure as trappers and stay in the mountainous wilderness for up to two or three years.

Aricara by Alfred Jacob Miller
Aricara by Alfred Jacob Miller

These “Rendezvous” were a kind of trading fair organised by the fur trading companies at which the trappers and so-called mountain men would exchange their furs and hides, which they had collected during the year, for supplies which would allow them to survive the harsh winters.  The fur trading companies would then move the furs and hides to places in the Pacific Northwest or the ports on the northern Missouri river.   It was a time of celebration when the trappers and their wives and children as well as Native Indians would come to the Rendezvous after a long season of hunting.  The fur trading companies, as well as bringing food, weapons and ammunition, would also bring whisky which no doubt enhanced the celebrations.  The trapper and mountain man, James Pierson Beckwourth, who narrated his life story, which was then made into a book in 1856 entitled  The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth: Mountaineer, Scout and Pioneer, and Chief of the Crow Nation of Indians, told of the merriment:

“…“Mirth, songs, dancing, shouting, trading, running, jumping, singing, racing, target-shooting, yarns, frolic, with all sorts of extravagances that white men or Indians could invent…”

Where the Clouds Love to Rest by Alfred Jacob Miller (c.1850)
Where the Clouds Love to Rest by Alfred Jacob Miller (c.1850)

William Stewart had been present at four previous rendezvous but due to the failing health of his brother , the then lord of Grandtully and baronet of Murthly, he had an inclination that this 1837 one maybe his last and so believed that the event should be recorded pictorially by an artist – hence Alfred Jacob Miller.    Miller also knew he had little to lose by leaving New Orleans and so readily agreed to take part in the adventure.  The Rendezvous in the spring of 1837 was to take place on the banks of the tributary of the Green River an area which is at the centre of the Rocky Mountain region and is now part of Wyoming.  Stewart, Miller, representatives from the American Fur Company and the caravan of goods set off for St Louis in April 1837.  On arriving at St Louis, William Stewart introduced Alfred Miller to Governor William Clark, an American explorer, soldier, Superintendant of Indian Affairs and territorial governor.  His collection of artefacts and paintings by George Catlin, who was an American painter, author, and traveller who specialized in portraits of native Americans in the Old West.  They  had a great influence on Miller.  From St Louis the fur company’s caravan headed across what is now known as Kansas and finally arrived at the Platte River.  From there they headed into western Wyoming and finally arrived at their destination, the valley Horse Creek with its backdrop of the Wind River Mountains part of the Rocky Mountain range.

Antoine Clement the great Hunter by Alfred Miller
Antoine Clement the great Hunter by Alfred Miller

Throughout the journey Miller was continuously sketching the exquisite mountainous terrain, the people who were part of the caravan and of course the mountain men and Indians who had come to exchange their furs and hides.  At the rendezvous site the fur trappers and Indians were eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Fur Company’s caravan.  These people made excellent sitters for Miller’s portraits.  One such person whose portrait Miller completed was Antoine Clement who had been one of the scouts and buffalo hunters who had supplied the people on the travelling caravan with food during their journey.  Clement was a half caste, his father was French, his mother a native Indian.  All in all Miller’s stay at Horse Creek lasted three weeks and then after two weeks on a hunting trip with William Stewart they returned to New Orleans.

The Lost Greenhorn by Alfred Jacob Miller
The Lost Greenhorn by Alfred Jacob Miller

One painting Miller converted from one of his sketches was The Lost Greenhorn.  The story behind the painting was given in Miller’s 1837 book entitled The West of Alfred Jacob Miller:

“…On reaching the Buffalo District, one of our young men began to be ambitious, and although it was his first journey, boasted continually of what he would do in hunting Buffalo if permitted. This was John (our cook), he was an Englishman and did no discredit to that illustrious nation in his stupid conceit and wrong-headed obstinacy. Our Captain, when any one boasted, put them to the test, so a day was given to John and he started off early alone. The day passed over, night came, – but so did not John. Another day rolled over, the hunters returning at evening without having met him. The next morning men were dispatched in different quarters, and at about two o’clock, one of the parties brought in the wanderer – crest fallen and nearly starved;- he was met by a storm of ridicule and roasted on every side by the Trappers. Thus carrying out that ugly maxim of Rochefoucault’s ‘There is always something in the misfortune of our friends not disagreeable to us’…”‘ 

Hunting Buffalo by Alfred Jacob Miller (c.1860)
Hunting Buffalo by Alfred Jacob Miller (c.1860)

Once back in the Louisiana city Miller set to work on his large collection of sketches he had made whilst at the rendezvous and completed an album of eighty seven of the watercolour sketches.   William Thompson Walters, an American businessman and art collector, whose collection was to form the basis of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore where many of Miller’s paintings are housed, commissioned two hundred watercolours from Miller paying him twelve dollars per painting.  Each sketch was accompanied by Miller’s descriptive text.  It took Alfred Miller almost two years to complete the commission which William Walters then had bound in three leather volumes.

Indian Lodge by Alfred Jacob Miller (c.1860)
Indian Lodge by Alfred Jacob Miller (c.1860)

Miller was interested in the lifestyle of the Native Americans and his painting entitled Indian Lodge looks at the Indian lodge and its construction with its upright supports which act to hold the supporting bond timbers at differing heights and this design allows for a sloping circular roof.  There is an aperture at the centre of the roof which allows light to filter in and allows smoke from the fires to exit the space.   The painting depicts groups of Indians scattered around the large space, some standing, some seated some immersed in game playing.

William Stewart returned to the Rocky Mountains for the 1838 Rendezvous but whilst there he learnt of the death of his brother back in Scotland.  William Stewart had suddenly become the new laird of the family’s estates of Murthly, Grandtully, and Logiealmond.  Stewart, now Sir William Stewart, returned home to Scotland and commissioned Alfred Miller to paint a series of large oil paintings which would be on display at Murthly Castle.  In 1840, Miller was invited to stay at Murthly Castle by its new owner and whilst there he could continue with his paintings.  He accepted the invite and was Sir William’s guest until the autumn of 1841 at which time he returned to Baltimore where he was to live the rest of his life and where he established himself as a leading portraitist of the time.

After his 1837 Rendezvous expedition, Miller worked for many years converting many of his two hundred sketches he had made whilst out West  into oil paintings.  The public loved them and he received many commissions.  He also sold several of his works of art to Charles Wilkins Webber, the American explorer and writer who had them made into illustrations for his 1851 book The Hunter-Naturalist: Romance of Sporting; or, Wild Scenes and Wild Hunters.

In 1839 the Apollo Gallery in New York held an exhibition featuring eighteen of Miller’s large oil paintings depicting scenes from his 1837 expedition with Stewart.  The paintings were owned by Stewart who agreed to loan them to the gallery.  So popular was the exhibition that it was extended to allow more people to view Miller’s work.

Alfred Jacob Miller spent the next thirty years working hard on converting his sketches into oil paintings to satisfy all the commissions he received.  He also continued with his portraiture work.  He is now looked upon as one of the earliest and most significant painters to record pictorially the American West.  He was the only artist to go on a Rendezvous expedition and depict the fur traders, Native Indians  and mountain men.  His art played a major role in educating people back East about life in the American West.

Alfred Jacob Miller died in Baltimore in June 1874, aged sixty-four.

Artist's Studio - The Critic by Alfred Jacob Miller (1840)
Artist’s Studio – The Critic by Alfred Jacob Miller (1840)

I am going to conclude this blog with one of my favourite paintings of his.  It is not an American West landscape nor is it one of the mountain men or Native Americans.  It is a painting he completed around 1840 entitled Artist’s Studio – The Critic and in some way it is an amusing look at a cleaner who is appraising a painting which is in the studio of an artist in which she is the cleaner.  We see her pausing from sweeping the floor to look at a painting on the easel.

If you live near Baltimore and like what I have shown you it would be worth visiting the Walters Art Museum on Charles Street.  I would be interested to hear what you thought of the collection of Miller’s artwork.

Félix Vallatton. Part 2. The Nabis, woodcuts and the “dreadful nudes”

Self-portrait with the dressing gown by Félix Vallotton (1914)
Self-portrait with the dressing gown by Félix Vallotton (1914)

During the 1890’s Vallotton, besides painting and writing art criticism, spent much of his time working with woodcuts.  The woodcuts he produced were looked upon as being very innovative and established him as a leading exponent of this type of art.  Japonism was sweeping through the French art world during the last part of the nineteenth century and Vallotton’s work was influenced by the Japanese woodcut In 1890 there had been a large exhibition of ukiyo-e prints at the École des Beaux-Arts and like many people in France, Vallotton built up a collection of these prints.

La Paresse by Félix Vallotton (1896)
La Paresse by Félix Vallotton (1896)

Vallotton’s subjects ranged from domestic scenes to street crowd demonstrations in which police are depicted clashing with anarchists and from portrait heads to bathing women.  In his 1896 woodcut entitled La Paresse (Laziness) he depicts a naked women relaxing face down on a bed whilst stroking a cat.

Le Mensonge (The Lie) by Félix Vallatton (1896)
Le Mensonge (The Lie) by Félix Vallatton (1896)

The high point of his woodcuts was probably reached in 1898 when he produced a series of ten interiors entitled Intimités (Intimacies), for the La Revue blanche, the avant-garde French art and literary magazine, which was published between 1889 and 1903 and had many influential contributors such as Toulouse Lautrec.  The set of woodcuts dealt with the tensions between men and women and they proved so successful that they were circulated in magazines and books in Europe and America.

This set of woodcuts was a great success and for many critics there was a greater appreciation of them in comparison to his paintings.  The ten woodcuts were dark with some white lines cut through the black background.  Vallotton, through his woodcuts, wanted to bring out the continuing tensions between man and woman and that was further enhanced by the evocative titles he gave the individual works, such as Le Mensonge (The Lie), L’Argent (The Money) and L’ Irreparable (The Irreparable).  In a way it was his way of denigrating love between man and woman, blaming the woman for being insincere and scheming creatures who often brought an element of spitefulness and dominance into a relationship.

Bathers on a Summer Evening by Félix Vallotton (1892)
Bathers on a Summer Evening by Félix Vallotton (1892)

Around 1892 Vallotton became associated with the Nabis art movement.   The group came about around 1888 and was composed of disaffected artists who had passed through the Académie Julian and been subjected to the rigid representational methods being taught at that establishment.  Founder members of the Nabis, which was a Hebrew word meaning prophet, were Pierre Bonnard, Édouard Vuillard and Maurice Denis.  The Nabis were inspired by the broad planes of unmediated colour, using thick and bold outlines that were seen in Japanese prints.

Clair de lune (Moonlight) by Félix Vallotton (1895)
Clair de lune (Moonlight) by Félix Vallotton (1895)

Two examples of Vallotton’s take on the Nabi style art were his 1893 work entitled Das Bad. Sommerabend (Bathers on a Summer Evening), and his 1895 symbolist work Moonlight which can be found at the Musée d’Orsay

Bathers on a Summer Evening depicts women bathing in an open-air brick pool.  The painting was exhibited at the 1893 Salon des Indépendents exhibition and its subject caused a furore but at the same time it successfully enhanced Vallotton’s reputation as an artist.  In some way this painting is looked upon as a caricature of the traditional paintings of Salon artists such as Seurat and Renoir .  The painting is housed in the Kunsthaus, Zurich.

Mme. Felix Vallotton by Félix Vallatton (1899)
Mme. Felix Vallotton by Félix Vallatton (1899)

In 1899 Félix Vallotton married Gabrielle Rodrigues-Henriques née Bernheim.  Gabrielle was the daughter of Alexandre and Henriette Bernheim and was one of six children.   Alexandre Bernheim came from Besancon and was an art dealer and friend of a fellow countryman of Besancon, Gustave Courbet.   Gabrielle was eighteen months older than Félix Vallatton and had married Gustave Rodrigues Henriques in February 1883 and the couple had three children, Max, Joseph and Madeleine.  Gustave died in 1894 at the young age of 34 leaving his widow financially comfortable.  Gabrielle and Félix married five years later in 1899.  Félix wrote to his brother Paul and told of his relationship with Gabrielle.  He wrote:

“…I love her very much which is the main reason for this marriage, and she loves me also, we know each other very profoundly, and we trust each other.  In short, I regret nothing and I nourish the highest hopes…”

In 1899, the year of his marriage to Gabrielle he painted a picture of her sitting at a table.

As I mentioned in my last blog about Vallatton, what drew me to him was the headline of a 2007 essay in The Guardian newspaper by the writer Julian Barnes:

The neglected, enigmatic Swiss artist Félix Vallotton was a fine painter of still lifes, landscapes and portraits. Shame about his dreadful nudes, writes Julian Barnes

I was intrigued to find out what was “dreadful” about Vallatton’s portrayal of nudes.

Models Relaxing by Félix Vallatton (1905)
Models Relaxing by Félix Vallatton (1905)

In 1905 Vallatton’s neo-classical style painting Models Relaxing was exhibited at the Ingres retrospective at the Salon d’Automne in Paris.

Le bain turc by Ingres (1863)
Le bain turc by Ingres (1863)

One of Ingres’ works Turkish Bath was also on view at the exhibition.  It is said that Vallatton was moved to tears by this Ingres’ work and maybe that was the reason that two years later, in 1907, Vallatton completed his own painting entitled Turkish Bath.

The Turkish Bath by Félix Vallatton (1907)
The Turkish Bath by Félix Vallatton (1907)

The women in his painting were not hand maidens of a harem but were women of the 1900’s with their fashionable hairstyles.

The Rape of Europa by Félix Vallatton (1908)
The Rape of Europa by Félix Vallatton (1908)

Controversy was not far away when his nude paintings were exhibited,  At the beginning of the twentieth century  one exhibition of his work only allowed over 18 years of age visitors to enter and witness the naked women !  Depicting his nudes as part of mythology did not decrease the censure of the critics.  An example of this is his 1908 painting entitled The Taking of Europe which is housed in the Kunstmuseum Bern.

Perseus Slaying the Dragon by Félix Vallatton (1910)
Perseus Slaying the Dragon by Félix Vallatton (1910)

Another of Vallatton’s paintings featuring a nude but with mythological connotations was his version of the story of Perseus slaying the dragon, a story which had featured in many pasintings before.  Vallatton completed his up-to-date version of Perseus Slaying the Dragon in 1910 and it is now owned by the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire de Genève .

Woman with a Black Hat by Félix Vallatton (1908)
Woman with a Black Hat by Félix Vallatton (1908)

Vallatton painted hundreds of pictures featuring nude or semi-nude females and the one I like the most is his 1908 work entitled Woman with a Black Hat.  The woman’s face is flushed as if she is embarrassed to appear semi naked before the artist.  It adds to he vulnerability and in a way enhances her beauty.

Landscape Semur by Felix Vallotton (1923)
Landscape Semur by Felix Vallotton (1923)

Vallatton kept a register of all the works he completed and by the time of his death the list catalogued almost 1600 works.  I have looked at his portraits and his penchant for painting nude females but of all his works, for me, his landscapes stand out.  It was in his latter years that Vallatton produced most of his landscape works, such as Landscape Semur which he completed in 1923.

Square in Les Andelys with the Chateau Gaillard by Félix Vallatton (1924)
Square in Les Andelys with the Chateau Gaillard by Félix Vallatton (1924)

Another interesting painting was completed a year later in 1924 and entitled The Chateau-Gaillard in Andelys.  Since 1909, Vallatton had a summer home in Honfleur and in 1924 whilst en route to his summer residence he passed through the small village of Andelys which lay on the banks of the Seine.  He had first visited the village eight years earlier.  The village is dominated by the ruins of Chateau Gauillard, a fortress built by Richard the Lionheart in 1196.  It is situated on a hill overlooking Andelys.  The ruins fascinated Vallatton who produced a number of paintings and sketches featuring the once mighty fortress.  The painting is housed in the Musée A.G. Poulain de Vernon in Vernon, a town about 30 kilometres south of Andelys.

Nature morte a la peinture chinoise by Félix Vallatton (1925)
Nature morte a la peinture chinoise by Félix Vallatton (1925)

Another art genre that interested Vallatton in the early twentieth century was Still Life painting.  In 1925 he completed a work entitled Nature morte a la peinture chinoise (Still Life with Chinese painting).  Like many still life paintings the artist has challenged himself by having to paint a white napkin, with all its creases and folds, looking as if it is laying over the edge of the table.  The Chinese painting mentioned in the title can be seen in the background.

Parrot Tulips by Felix Vallotton
Parrot Tulips by Felix Vallotton

One of my favourite still life paintings by Vallotton was a work entitled Parrot Tulips.  I love the richness of the colours used and love to study the way Vallotton has depicted the individual items which crowd the scene.

Vallotton’s life came to a close at the end of 1925.  His brother Paul’s daughter Marianne recalled the time:

“...It was the end of of the year 1925 and the weather was grey and gloomy, but in accordance with our old custom, we were getting ready to celebrate Christmas, when on 21 December my father received a letter , whose opening lines I quote:

‘ …My dear Paul, after examining me twice, they have decided to operate.  It has been arranged for next Saturday morning the 26th.  It would be nice if you could be here, for various reasons…’ “

Félix Vallotton died three days after his operation on December 29th, three days before his sixtieth birthday.  According to Marianne Vallotton his last words to her father, his brother Paul were:

“…Don’t you think this is an amusing way to celebrate the centenary of the death of Jacques-Louis David?…”

The French painter died on December 29th 1825.

There were just so many apintings to include but so little time or space to accommodate them.  To see more I can recommend the excellent book on the life of Félix Vallotton by Nathalia Brodskaïa entitled Félix Valloton, The Nabi from Switzerland.  It was from this biography that I have been able to put together these two blogs on this talented Swiss painter.

Earlier I had mentioned the headline of an essay in The Guardian newspaper written by Julian Barnes.  It is said that in a few years time he will be curating an exhibition of Félix Vallotton’s work at the Royal Academy in London and it will certainly be an exhibition not to be missed.

Félix Vallotton. Part 1- The early years and portraiture

Self portrait by Félix Vallotton (1897)
Self portrait by Félix Vallotton (1897)

The artist whose paintings I am looking at in this blog is the Swiss-born artist and printmaker Félix Edouard Vallotton.

Vallatton was born in Lausanne, on the shores of Lake Geneva, in December 1865, three days before the New Year. His parents  and grandparents hailed from the little town of Vallorbe in the Swiss canton of Vaud.   His family’s social status was given as conservative middle class.  Félix’s father, Adrien owned a chandlery and grocery shop and would later branch out as a chocolatier and own and run a chocolate factory.   Félix and his older brother Paul lived at the family’s home in Lausanne, situated in the centre of town in the small town hall square, the Place de la Pelouse.  Family memories of the young Félix Vallatton told of him being a very delicate and sensitive child and because of this and the presence of the smallpox epidemics, which had ravaged Europe, he was probably cosseted by his family.  Félix, as a young boy enjoyed to draw and paint and besides his normal scholastic subjects, he attended evening classes for drawing.

Self portrait by Félix Vallotton (1885)
Self portrait by Félix Vallotton (1885)

In 1882, at the age of sixteen, having completed his school education, he persuaded his father to take him to Paris so that he could learn more about painting and drawing.  He had passed the entrance exam to the École des Beaux Arts but decided that he would prefer to attend the Académie Julian because of its teaching of real art and naturalism.  His father managed to have his son enrol at the prestigious academy, which at the time had the most respected art tutors.  Félix was to study under three great French figure painters, Jules Joseph Lefebvre, Guillaume Bougereau and Gustave Boulanger.  As a student he was known to be hard working but very reclusive.  His tutors looked upon him as a model student and had great hopes that he would win the Prix de Rome prize as the outstanding student of the year.  For young Vallotton life was not all fun and games and monotony had begun to set in, even at this early stage.  He wrote to his brother Paul;

“…So far I have not seen much apart from some museums.  The botanical gardens, which did not make much impression on me, one or two theatres, which I visited with father, the Pantheon, which is magnificent and which affords a marvellous view on a fine day.  Every day I follow the very same route and see the very same things…”

In an early letter to his brother there is a hint of lack of self-confidence when he tells his brother how things are developing academically.  He wrote:

“…The professor is pleased with me, but I am not pleased with myself and sometimes feel sad……My heart sinks when I think of what I am about to study and realise that I am nothing compared with the great artists who startled the world at the age of fifteen…”

Vallotton may not be confident in his own ability but one of his tutor’s assessment of him was quite different.  Lefebvre told Vallotton’s father that:

‘…Monsieur, I hold your son in high esteem, and have only had occasion to compliment him up to now.  I think that, if I had such a son, I would not be worried about his future at all and would unhesitatingly be prepared, with the bounds of possibility, To make sacrifices over and over again, in order to help him…”

Lefebvre ended the conversation with a prediction:

“…I am so interested now in those who are prepared to work – your son is one of those and I repeat he will bring you fame…”

People who suffer from lack of self confidence, often need somebody to be there to boost their morale and Vallotton had that in the person of Charles Maurin, a fellow student at the Académie Julian, albeit eight years his senior.  Vallotton and Maurin became friends and part of a letter from Maurin to the younger Vallotton highlights the elder artist’s moral support.  He wrote to Vallotton:

“…Whatever you lack it is certainly not artistic flair.  It is rather some quality of character (please allow me to mention this to you).  (I would like you to be as open with me).  From your last letter it emerges that you lack strong will and you are creating difficulties for yourself.   But that is not the case.  You do have willpower but it does not manifest itself…”

Life as an art student in the big city was a struggle for Vallotton.  He had constantly to turn to his father for money to pay for lodgings, to buy food and pay for models.  He tried to find some work to help his financial situation but it was never enough.  In 1888 Felix wrote to his parents bemoaning his lot in life and one can sense an air of depression

“…I practically never go out.  I work from seven in the morning until five in the afternoon.  This has not produced any great results so far, everything must work out soon…”

Portrait of Monsieur Ursenbach by Félix Vallotton (1885)
Portrait of Monsieur Ursenbach by Félix Vallotton (1885)

In 1885, at the age of nineteen, Vallotton’s luck changed.  It was due to his portrait of one of his neighbours, Monsieur Ursenbach, a mathematician and Mormon.  That year, he submitted the Portrait of Mr Ursenbach to the Salon jury and with his former tutor, Jules Lefebvre, one of the jurists, the work was accepted and subsequently displayed.   It is an interesting work.  The setting for the portrait is the sitter’s colourless and featureless room.  Ursenbach can be seen sitting in his armchair in a stiffly upright pose, looking uncomfortable with a stern expression on his face.  His hands rest steadily upon his knees as he stares off to the left of the painting.  It is this unusual demeanour of Ursenbach which probably caught the eye of visitors to the Salon exhibition.  Critics were divided on its merits but for Vallatton himself when he later listed all his paintings in chronological order, this was the first on the list.

The Artist`s Parents by Félix Vallotton (1886)
The Artist`s Parents by Félix Vallotton (1886)

Like many portrait artists before him, the young artist completed many portraits of his own family members.  His family portraits, such as the 1886 one of his parents, The Artist`s Parents,  featuring Alexis and Mathilde, were tender and showed the closeness he was to his parents.

Paul Vallotton by Félix Vallotton (1886)
Paul Vallotton by Félix Vallotton (1886)

In the same year that he completed the portrait of his parents he completed a portrait of his brother Paul.

Self portrait by Félix Vallotton (1891)
Self portrait by Félix Vallotton (1891)

Over the years, he also painted many self portraits and one of my favourites is his 1891 painting, Mon portrait.  Portraiture was a way Vallotton began to earn money and he completed many commissions in Paris and back in his home town of Lausanne.  Many of his Paris commissions were attained through his Swiss ex-patriot friends who were living in the French capital.  One such friend and fellow student was the Swiss artist, Ernest Bieler and it was he who persuaded the artist and close acquaintance, Auguste de Molins, to write a letter of introduction on behalf of Vallotton to Renoir and Degas.  De Molins had known the Impressionists as he had exhibited works at the First Impressionist Exhibition.  In his letter to Degas, de Molins wrote:

“…My protégé is absolutely alone in Paris without any connections at all apart from his contacts at the studio, which is far from enough to satisfy his intellectual needs.  The studio is all very well, but there comes a time when close relations with a master are somewhat more important even far more important…”

Vallotton never used the letters of introduction.

Felix Jasinski in His Printmaking Studio - Felix Vallotton (1887)
Felix Jasinski in His Printmaking Studio – Felix Vallotton (1887)

In 1886 Vallotton met Felix Jasinski, an engraver and painted his portrait, entitled Felix Jasinski in His Printmaking Studio.  Jasinski went on to teach Vallotton all about the art of engraving and the two would work together on many projects.   Vallotton’s own catalogue of works began to list his engravings from 1887 and according to a letter to his parents in late 1889 he told them that he had begun to work on commissions for a publisher.  Money was to be made through his engraving work and by 1891 the amount of wood engravings completed by Vallatton was almost more that the number of paintings he had completed.

The Port of Pully by Félix Vallotton (1891)
The Port of Pully by Félix Vallotton (1891)

His early works were not restricted to portraiture. Vallotton, being Swiss-born, loved to paint landscapes featuring the mountains and views of his homeland, especially around Lausanne and Lake Geneva.  Often they were for commissions given to him by Swiss people but often he would keep them for himself.  In 1891 he completed a painting, Port of Pully, one of the eastern suburbs of the city of Lausanne.  The painting depicts the lake front  located on the shores of Lake Geneva.

Outskirts of Lausanne by Félix Vallotton (1893)
Outskirts of Lausanne by Félix Vallotton (1893)

Another beautiful landscape work by Vallotton was completed in 1893 and was entitled Outskirts of Lausanne.  In the painting we view Lake Geneva from a meadow.  The yellow and greens of the foreground are in contrast to the still blue water of the lake in the background.  There is an air of tranquillity about this depiction.  One can imagine sitting in the meadow, which is bathed in sunlight, and just relaxing and leaving the cares of the world behind.

The reason for me writing a couple of blogs about Félix Vallotton was that I was fascinated by the heading of a 2007 article in The Guardian newspaper by Julian Barnes which shouted out:

Better with their clothes on

The neglected, enigmatic Swiss artist Félix Vallotton was a fine painter of still lifes, landscapes and portraits. Shame about his dreadful nudes, writes Julian Barnes.

and so in my next blog I will continue with Vallotton’s life story and look at more of his paintings including some of his “dreadful nudes” !!!

Much of the material I have used for this blog came from an excellent book entitled Félix Vallotton by Nathalia Brodskia, an art historian attached to the hermitage Museum, St Petersburg.

Federico Zandomeneghi – the Italian Impressionist

Lesendes Mädchen (Girl reading) by Federico Zandomeneghi (c.1900)
Lesendes Mädchen (Girl reading) by Federico Zandomeneghi (c.1900)

When I was in Germany, just before Christmas, I bought myself a desk calendar which gave you a new painting every day.  I was fascinated by today’s picture of a young girl reading entitled Lesendes Mädchen (Girl Reading) by Federico Zandomeneghi.  I had never heard of the artist and thought it would be interesting to look at his life and his some of his beautiful works of art. He would become known for his many pastel portraits of ladies and children.

Federico Zandomeneghi
Federico Zandomeneghi

Federico Zandomeneghi was born in Venice in June 1841. He came from a family line of sculptors.  Pietro, his father, was a neoclassical sculptor as was his grandfather Luigi but unlike his father and grandfather Federico, and much to their annoyance, he favoured painting to sculpture.  In 1856, at the age of fifteen, he enrolled on a painting course at the Academia di Belle Arti in Venice and then later studied at the Accademia di Belle Arti di Brera in Milan, where he studied under the neoclassical-style painter Giralamo Michelangelo Grigoletti and Pompeo Marino Molmenti.  Venice was under Austrian rule when Napoleon was defeated in 1814 and it became part of the Austrian held Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia.   Venice was firmly under the control of Austria and as such the Venetian citizens were conscripted into the army.  To escape conscription, Federico fled his city in 1859 and went to Pavia, where he enrolled at the university.  In 1860, when he was nineteen years of age, he joined the military forces of Guiseppe Garibaldi as one of the volunteers in The Expedition of the Thousand, part of the Risorgimento, the push for Italian unification.  As a Venetian this was looked upon as a kind of treachery. His flight from Venice in 162 to Florence to avoid conscription resulted him being charged, in absentia, with desertion.

Femme qui reve by Federico Zandomeneghi,
Femme qui reve by Federico Zandomeneghi,

As a young aspiring artist Federico wanted to mix with other artists in the Tuscan city and by doing so assimilate their views of art.  One of the favoured meeting places for the artists was the Caffè Michelangelo .  It was here that the Macchiaioli met.  The Macchiaioli, which literally means patch-  or spot-makers, was a  group of rebellious Italian artists based in Tuscany during the second half of the 19th century and was formed more than ten years before the French Impressionists came onto the scene.  They rebelled against academic artistic training and many art historians believe they brought about a breath of fresh air into Italian painting.  They ignored the type of painting which was popular at the time such as Neoclassicism and Romanticism.  They were looked upon as the founders of modern Italian painting.  The Macchiaioli believed that areas of light and shadow, or macchie were the most important parts of a painting and when Italian artists spoke of macchia they were talking about the sparkling quality of a drawing or painting.

The Poor on the Steps of Ara Coeli in Rome by Federico Zandomeneghi (1872)
The Poor on the Steps of Ara Coeli in Rome by Federico Zandomeneghi (1872)

The Poor on the Steps of Ara Coeli in Rome by Zandomeneghi is now housed at the Pinaconteca Brera in Milan.  It is a fine example of verismo the nineteenth century Italian painting style and was a style frequently used by the Macchiaioli.  It is a style of painting we would term as realism.  It features a group of poor people, men, women and children sitting on the steps of Santa Maria in Aracoeli (St. Mary of the Altar of Heaven), one the oldest basilicas in Rome.   

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There was a strong connection with French art as many of the Macchiaioli were influenced by the French artists such as Courbet and Corot who belonged to the Barbizon School as well as other nineteenth century plein air painters whose works the Macchiaioli artists were able to see when they visited the French capital.  En plein air painting was at that time a ground breaking method of painting but its proponents believed that it allowed for a new vibrancy and naturalness in the reproduction of light which would have been lost if the painting had been carried out in a studio.   Some of the members of the Macchiaioli, like Federico, had fought alongside Garibaldi in his effort to attain Italian unification.  Many of the works of the Macchiaioli featured grand battles scenes of the Risorgimento as well as landscapes and genre paintings featuring both the bourgeoisie and peasants.

Palazzo Pretorio in Florence by Federico Zandomeneghi (1865)
Palazzo Pretorio in Florence by Federico Zandomeneghi (1865)

Another painting completed by Zandomeneghi whilst he was living in Florence is one of my favourites.  It is entitled Palazzo Pretorio and was completed in 1865.  It can now be found in the Museo d’Arte Moderna, Ca’ Pesaro, Venice.   The work of art was exhibited that year in the rooms of the Società Veneta Promotrice (Venetian Promoter of Fine Arts) which was based in Palazzo Mocenigo at San Benedetto.   The depiction of light and shade we see in the painting was strongly influenced by the Macchiaioli artists of Florence.

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Diego Martelli by Federico Zandomeneghi (1879)
Diego Martelli by Federico Zandomeneghi (1879)

Whilst in Florence and through his association with the Macchiaioli artists, Federico Zandomeneghi met the Italian art critic Diego Martelli.  Martelli was a great supporter of the painters of the Macchiaioli and would often invite them up to his large Tuscan estate in Castiglioncello which was an ideal setting for their en plein air painting sessions.  Martelli wrote fervently about realism in art and favoured the works of Gustave Courbet as well as the plein air artists of the Barbizon School.    He made a number of trips to Paris and its thought that he persuaded Zandomeneghi to leave Florence and go to live in the French capital.  Through their correspondence Zandomeneghi introduced Martelli to the works of the Impressionists so much so that it is said that Martelli was one of the first and leading supporters of Impressionism in Italy.

Portrait of Diego Martelli by Edgar Degas (1879)
Portrait of Diego Martelli by Edgar Degas (1879)

Like Zandomeneghi, Martelli became good friends with Degas who painted his portrait in 1879.  The Degas portrait is unusual in as much as the sitter is viewed from above which is somewhat unflattering as it accentuates the corpulence of Martelli.  We see Martelli sitting unsteadily on a small stool.  To his left is a table, scattered on which are numerous objects belonging to the sitter.  The addition of these items was a trademark of Degas’ portraits as he felt it told viewers more about the subject of the portrait.  The painting is now housed in the Scottish National Gallery.

The Good Book by Federico Zandomeneghi (1897)
The Good Book by Federico Zandomeneghi (1897)

In 1874, Federico, now thirty-three years of age, moved to the art capital of Europe, Paris, and little did he know then, he would never return to his Italian homeland.  On his arrival in Paris, as was the case when he arrived in Florence, he wanted to immerse himself into the life of an artist and mix with the artists of Montmartre.   To be an artist in the French capital at this time was a chance to witness the birth of what would later be termed by the art critic, Louis Leroy, as Impressionism.

Café de la Nouvelle-Athènes on Place Pigalle
Café de la Nouvelle-Athènes on Place Pigalle

The year 1874 was the year of the Impressionist’s first annual exhibition in Paris.  Federico would often frequent the Café de la Nouvelle-Athènes on Place Pigalle.  It was here that he first met and befriended Edgar Degas, who was seven years his senior.    It is said that we are often drawn to people who have the same characteristics and the same looks upon life and as such Degas and Federico Zandomeneghi were well matched.  Both were recalcitrant and often boorish and this similarity of behaviour ensured they would remain life-long friends!  Although great friends with Degas, Federico was more influenced by the works of Renoir and Mary Cassatt and the way they portrayed women in their art work.  This was to lead to many of his works featuring females going about with their daily chores or being immersed in reading.  Zandomeneghi liked to portray through his artwork, and like that of the Impressionists, the elegant high society of the French capital but his paintings were not imitations of the Impressionists’ works.  He had his own inimitable style.

Place d'Anvers, Paris by Federico Zandomeneghi (1880)
Place d’Anvers, Paris by Federico Zandomeneghi (1880)

The Impressionists had by 1879 held three annual exhibitions and Degas persuaded Federico to exhibit some of his work at the fourth annual exhibition at the Avenue de l’Opéra, during the months of April and May in 1879.  Besides Federico there were three other “first appearances” exhibiting at the Fourth Impressionist Exhibition, the husband and wife Impressionists Félix and Marie Braquemond  and Paul Gaugin.  Federico went on to exhibit at the fifth (1880), sixth (1881) and the eighth and final exhibition in 1886.  To sell one’s work one has to have a good dealer and through the good auspices of his Impressionist friends Federico was taken on by the gallery owner and art dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel who acted as his sole agent.   It was this Parisian art dealer who changed the fortunes of Federico when he exhibited the Italian artist’s work in America.   In the 1890’s, having had to supplement his income from the sale of his paintings by providing illustrations for Paris fashion magazine, once his work was seen in America he was inundated with commissions.  It was around this time that Federico changed the medium in which he worked, now favouring in pastels.

Conversazione interessante by Federioco Zandomeneghi (1895)
Conversazione interessante by Federioco Zandomeneghi (1895)

Zandomeneghi will always be remembered for his female portraiture.  He seemed to concentrate his depictions of women who were mothers going about their everyday life.  He often liked to show in his paintings the ease in which women interacted with each other.  There was a warmth about his pictorial depiction of females and this may be because of the way he was influenced by the works of Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt.  Enrico Piceni,  the Italian writer and art critic who wrote a biography about Zandomeneghi and who, in 1984, wrote a book entitled Three Italian friends of the impressionists : Boldini, De Nittis, Zandomeneghi, wrote of Zandomeneghi’s work:

“…Zandomeneghi knows how to differentiate himself from his closest colleagues, Degas and Renoir, by surpassing the glossy and even fierce chronicle style of the first thanks to adding a warm and affectionate emotional involvement in the subject, and by transferring the deification of the ideal woman typical of the second in a more bourgeois reality interwoven with truth but able to transform a simple story in a tremor of poetry…”

A good example of the way Zandomeneghi depicted a close relationship between two women is in his 1895 work entitled Conversazione interessante (Interesting Conversation).  Before us, we see two women locked in conversation.  There is a gentleness about the scene.  There is no wild animation.  We feel drawn into the scene as a friend who is being admitted into their private world.  Both women are wearing light fashionable wide-sleeved shirts which were all the fashion in the 1890’s.    This painting highlights the beautiful technique Federico was to often use.  There is a lightness of touch and the artist demonstrates an amazing insight in the way he portrays the mood of the sitters.  The two women in the painting are totally absorbed in their conversation.  Their hands touch. They only have eyes for each other in this intimate and yet non-sexual depiction.   The art critic and writer Francesca Dini in her 1989 book,   Zandomeneghi, la vita e le opera, wrote of this work:

“…Conversazione interessante (Interesting Conversation), is among the most famous works produced by the Venetian painter at the beginning of his relationship with Durand-Ruel. The brilliance and chromatic refinement of the composition are emphasized by the balance of the scene and the richness of the materials chosen for the dresses of two young women, who are wearing light shirts with wide sleeves ‘double sboffo’, very fashionable in the last decade of the century. The provenance of the painting is notable as it belonged, among others, to the greatest admirers and collectors of paintings by the artist…”

Federico Zandomeneghi died in Paris on the last day of 1917, aged seventy-six.  It was not until 1914, three years before his death, that he was given his first one-man show which was at the Venice Biennale of that year in his native country.

There were so many paintings by Zandometeghi I could have showcased but I have just chosen some of my favourites but I hope you will search out more of his works.

Howard Terpning – the painter of the Native Americans

Self portrait by Howard Terpning
Self portrait by Howard Terpning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Comanche Spoilers by Howard Terpning
Comanche Spoilers by Howard Terpning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Proud Men by Howard Terpning
Proud Men by Howard Terpning

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

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

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.