Neil Simone. The Visual Surrealist

Neil Simone

My blog today is quite different to most of my others for two reasons.  My love of art is quite traditional, some would say boringly middle-ground. If you imagine visual art as a spectrum, at one end of which we have Abstract Expressionism and at the other end there is Hyperrealism, then my predilection would be much closer to the hyperrealism end of the spectrum.  I like to look at the beauty of a painting.  I like to be amazed by the skill of the artist and marvel at the time they must have spent in completing a work.  Mere splashes of colour do not impress me, whether it be stripes or dots.  However, as I have said before I was told that to appreciate visual art one needs to embrace all types !  So, the first reason for this blog being different is that it focuses on the art genre of Surrealism and the works of a Surrealist painter.

Surrealism is a 20th-century form of art in which an artist brings together unrelated images or events in a very strange and often dreamlike way.  It stresses the subconscious significance of imagery.  Through their works of art, the Surrealist artists wanted to revolutionise our experience.  They want us to cast-off our coherent and balanced visualisation of life and, in its place, value the power of the unconscious and dreams. The artists want us to look at their works and share their feeling of mysterious enchantment and discover the perplexing beauty in the bewildering depictions which totally disregarded convention.

Alternative Path by Neil Simone

The second difference with my blog today, and this is more of a concern to me, is that my subject today is a living artist !  Why should that matter?  I suppose the answer is that I am delving into the life of somebody who has not given me permission to do so and secondly when one looks back and writes about somebody it is extremely important to have the correct facts.  You would be surprised at the number of times when I am researching a painter that I am finding differing facts, differing dates, differing names of family members and I never want to just guess at the correct information and so these inaccuracies drive me mad !!!  However, the deceased painter cannot complain at a mistaken fact quoted about them (albeit on some occasions I do get quizzed/censured regarding the authenticity/accuracy of what I have written by knowledgeable relatives or art historians).  With a living artist, they may take umbrage with my factual accuracy.

Having said all that let me introduce you to the English Surrealist painter Neil Simone.  The reason for this entry was that last week I was in the picturesque Yorkshire town of Harrogate and I visited Suttcliffes Contemporary Gallery, in the Montpellier Quarter of Harrogate and came across his works  and actually bought one of his prints, The Retreat,  as I was so fascinated by it. The one thing I like about some works of Surrealism, and I am a great fan of René Magritte, is that they are thought-provoking and quirky and I wonder how the artist ever came up with the ideas they put on canvas.

Nightfall by Neil Simone

Neil Simone was born in London in 1947. His parents rented rooms in a property in Burrows Road close to Kensall Green Underground station.  He was an only child and lived here for the first eleven years of his life.  In 1958, his parents bought their first property in Harrow, Middlesex.  This move to their own house finally gave their son his own room which as a teenager, was a godsend.

His progress in school was limited to success in graphic art and design in which he gained his “A” level and buoyed by that success he applied to enrol at the Harrow School of Art but was turned down due to not having achieved any academic qualifications in other subjects, in particular, the lack of “O” level English.  Like many setbacks in life one often find they were for the best and Neil Simone considered it was a narrow escape for him not to have gained admission to the art school as he believed that his erstwhile colleagues and friends who did attend the school were stymied as far as to their choice of a future artistic road map as their artistic path was dictated to them by the tutors, whereas Neil made all his own artistic life choices.

The Ocean Floor by Neil Simone

With no art college to attend, Simone had to both occupy his time, as well as finding a way of earning money.  Over the next few years he became a trainee lady’s hairdresser, helped a van driver deliver laundry, a petrol pump attendant and the nearest he got to the art world was a short spell as a layout artist for Moss Enterprises and a messenger for a commercial art studio, during which time he was attacked and robbed whilst carrying staff wages.  However the job which was to change his life the most was as a display artist at Sopers department store in Harrow for his immediate boss and team leader was Linda  who would in April 1968, become his wife.  The couple moved into a flat into a house owned by Peter Hale, the head of department at the Road Transport industry Training Board which made training films and artwork for use in lectures and promotions.  Peter had seen some of Simone’s work and offered him a job as creator of an exhibition to commemorate the opening of M.O.T.E.C. (multi-occupational training centre) which was held in Shrewsbury.  M.O.T.E.C. was the training centre for apprentices in the Road Transport Industry. The training unit was designed to provide realistic working conditions in which apprentices could have experience of all aspects of the trade.  The commission Peter gave Simone was so big that he needed help and so he took on his wife on a freelance basis to help him with the task.

Island in the Sky by Neil Simone

The August Bank Holiday of 1969 proved a turning point in Neil and Linda Simone’s lives.  Their landlord and Neil’s employer invited the couple to visit his other home, The Priory, in the picturesque town of Harrogate in the heart of the Yorkshire countryside.  For Neil this was the first time out of London but he was immediately taken by the beauty of the area.  Peter and his wife Elizabeth persuaded Neil that Harrogate and the surrounding countryside would be a perfect base for him to carry on with his painting and they offered to rent Neil and Linda the basement of their house.  It must have been a big decision for Neil and Linda to have to make, whether they should give up their jobs and move two hundred miles away from their home and families in London and for Neil to take up painting professionally.  It was probably Linda’s belief in her husband that he could succeed and the fact that it was just the two of them that Neil decided to take the plunge and start a new life in Yorkshire with his wife.

As Autumn Leaves by Neil Simone

Once the decision was made and the couple had moved to Harrogate Neil reckoned that to survive financially he needed to sell a minimum of two paintings per week.  He started to build up a collection of his work so that he could show his work at the 1970 Valley Gardens exhibition in Harrogate.  The exhibition went well and he sold twenty of his paintings.  However with every success comes failure and after the exhibition the sale of his paintings dried up and during the winter months of 1970 he was forced to go door to door with them to try to get a sale.

In the Spring of 1971 he exhibited at the Lounge Hall, Royal Baths, Harrogate and it was during this show that he met a fellow artist Judy Pyrah.  The two of them talked about the dream she had of opening her own gallery and suggested a joint venture when they had sufficient money.  Neil’s financial situation was improved by another person, Mr Rivlin, whom he also met at the exhibition.  Mr Rivlin liked Simone’s artwork and offered him employment at his company as the resident artist in charge of packaging designs and corporate identity material for his company, Endura Lamps of Horsforth.  In October 1971 Neil Simone started working for Mr Rivlin and in November Neil and Judy Pyrah opened their gallery, the Eye-Glass Gallery, in John Street, Harrogate.  The gallery remained open for just twelve months and this coincided with his work for Mr Rivlin being terminating in January 1973.

Exploring the Alternatives by Neil Simone

Neil and Linda’s stay in the basement of The Priory came to a sudden end in the autumn of 1974 when Harrogate was subjected to a series of storms and their basement flat was flooded and so the couple moved to another flat in Harrogate which also had room for a studio and a workshop for framing and was both light and airy.  During the next two years the sale of Simone’s paintings did well and he exhibited at galleries as far north as Edinburgh.  When Neil and Linda had taken the decision to permanently leave London and take a chance with life in Harrogate there was just the two of them and so if the venture failed then it would just hurt them as they had no children to support.  However seven years on, with their finances at a reasonable position, they believed they should start a family and in July 1976 their son, Lee, was born.

Within six months things turned for the worse for the family with galleries not wanting his paintings and with sales tumbling, they were in trouble. For Neil, it was a time of introspection, a time to figure out why things had gone wrong and more importantly work out what people wanted from art.  He needed time to reassess his art and, to give himself a chance to do this, Linda took their son and went back to live with her mother.  He realised the most important question he had to answer was what did he want from his art for he realised his mistake of suffocating his own imagination which once set ablaze his passion for art.  Neil thought long and hard and eventually hit on the idea that people may like to view works which would transport them into an alternative vision of reality.  He wanted observers of his work to question what were they actually looking at.  This was of course a form of surrealism, which he had dabbled with eight years earlier but had abandoned believing that he must paint what the public wanted and not what he wanted.

The Dropleaf Table by Neil Simone (2006)

His new style of artwork soon became an art with a sense of humour, as Neil put it “they would be paintings with an element of realism that invite conjecture”  It was quirky but would it sell?  He decided that he had nothing to lose and so in 1977, Neil Simone’s art became different.  It was a new direction.  In August 1979, the Harrogate Advertiser described it as

“…a fusion of fact and fantasy…”

It was the start of an exciting journey.  With the mental turmoil dissipated on having finally decided on the future of his art, he asked Linda to return to Harrogate.

The public and art critics both liked and were excited by this new style and his works of art were in great demand at exhibitions and sales rocketed.  His gamble on changing his artistic style had paid off and his paintings were in great demand.  Neil struggled to keep up a collection of his work due to all the sales.  His brain was awash with new ideas and his artwork was in great demand.  With all this came a healthy bank balance and in July 1978 Neil bought and moved into a house with Linda and two-year-old Lee in Grasmere Crescent, Harrogate.  This was the first home they had purchased and was an ideal place for an artist with a bright studio in the loft conversion.

Realms of the Imagination by Neil Simone (1992)

Neil decided to launch his first set of limited editions prints but to do this he needed some financial backing which he got from family and friends and this proved a financial success and soon he could pay back his friends and from then on, he was able to fund any subsequent print editions, the second of which was launched in February 1980.  With all these print runs space at home became critical and it was soon obvious to Neil that the family needed a larger house.  In June 1980, they moved into a large house on Harlow Hill, one of the highest points around Harrogate, which he had bought when it was only partially constructed which allowed him to agree to some design alterations with the builder.

Another break came in March 1981 when a Dutch art dealer called at Simone’s studio. The dealer, Kees De Jong, had been told about the success Simone was having with his new style work and came to offer him a chance to exhibit some of it at the prestigious London Department store, Harrods.  Simone accepted the invite and in May his works were being showed in the windows of the prestigious department store.  More invites rolled in for Simone to exhibit works at various exhibitions and he now had to continually produce works.  Although this was time consuming and tiring Simone was very aware that the popularity of one’s artwork is ephemeral and that he had to make the most of his popularity.  The downside to this success was Neil had less time to spend with his wife and son.

The Sea Bed by Neil Simone (2000)

In 1983 Neil Simone met Barbara Dutton who had come to look at his paintings.  She was just about to open her own gallery at Pately Bridge, a village some four miles from Harrogate, and wanted some of Neil’s prints and originals but had a limited budget.  Neil and Barbara came to an agreement that she could take all his works on a sale or return basis.  The gallery opened in May and later that year there was an exhibition of Neil’s latest works.

In June 1984, Neil and Linda had an addition to the family with the birth of a daughter, Gemma.  Over the next ten years Neil was inundated with work to satisfy exhibitions he had committed to.  Life was hectic but profitable.  He had taken his son to Paris for his eighteenth birthday in 1994 and in 1996 his son had gone to university and his daughter was about to start secondary school.  Everything was going so well and yet around this time, Neil sensed all was not well.  He had a foreboding that things were going to change.  This sense he had of imminent change in his life was converted into two paintings he completed entitled The Ephemeral Nature of Beauty and the Persistence of Art and Our Thoughts Stray Constantly Without Boundary, both hinted at Neil’s concern that things in his life and marriage were about to change and not necessarily for the better.

The House of Glass by Neil Simone (1991)

In 1997 Neil struggled with the effort to have to paint more pictures and became physically and mentally run down. He had to continually paint to satisfy clients and fulfil exhibition commitments but found it difficult to achieve sufficient work during a day at the studio so would leave home in the evening, returning to the studio to continue working through part of the night.  He began to worry about all the pressure to keep people happy but would not talk about it to his wife. He admitted that he became morose and withdrawn but he just hoped the problem would be short term. The strain on his marriage got so bad that in January 1998, in a hope that things may improve, he and Linda decided to separate and he left the family home and went to live in his rented studio.

The Retreat by Neil Simone (1999)

Some years earlier, Neil became very friendly with a lady called Heather who worked at an art materials shop where he bought most of his supplies.  Although she worked in Centagraph, an art supply shop, she had never painted and she was pleased to accept Neil’s offer of artistic tuition.  They became great friends and Heather proved to be the support Neil Simone needed to get him through life.  Living in his studio where he stored his artwork was proving to be untenable and so he decided he needed to buy somewhere larger.  The time also coincided with Heather and her young son Ben wanting to move out of rented premises and contemplate owning somewhere and so Neil and Heather, for financial reasons, decided to jointly buy somewhere and to fund his part of the purchase, Neil reluctantly sold some of his original paintings he had been keeping for himself.  In May 1999, the couple moved into a first-floor apartment in Langcliffe Avenue, Harrogate.  It was ideal for these two artists as it had a hexagonal sun room and a private roof terrace.

Rock Formation by Neil Simone (1999)

In late 2000, fifty-three-year-old, Neil Simone suffered a heart attack and was forced to rest and in January 2001 he underwent a triple bypass operation.  After a long period of rehabilitation under the watchful eye of Heather, Neil resumed painting.  Although they loved their apartment there was just not enough wall space to hang their work and so decided to search the property market for something larger and room for a gallery and workshop. Their search proved fruitful in September 2003 when they found the ideal home in the village of Whixley.  A month later Neil and Heather moved in to their new home and were able to hold exhibitions in their own gallery.  Heather and Neil are now married and still live in their Whixley home.

 Of his painting style which he termed visual surrealism, Neil wrote:

“…I paint the way that I do because I see the world as a dimension of shadows, shapes, contradictions and ever changing fragile boundaries…”

———————————————————————-

The majority of the information for this blog came from Neil’s own autobiography, Neil Simone.  The Memoirs of an Artist.  How long does it take? which is an excellent book with many reproductions of his work.

Neal and Heather’s gallery is at 2a High Street Pateley Bridge, North Yorkshire which I look forward to visiting in the summer.  The website is   http://www.simonegalleries.com/.

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.

—————————————————————

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.

—————————————————————————

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.

 

Paul Delvaux’s Sleeping Venus

Sleeping Venus by Paul Delvaux (1944)
Sleeping Venus by Paul Delvaux (1944)

In my last blog I looked at the life of André Masson, the French-born Belgian Surrealist and one of his paintings, which in some ways mirrored the physical and mental suffering he had to endure for most of his life.  Today my featured artist is the Belgian Surrealist painter, Paul Delvaux would never accept that he was a Surrealist or that his art followed the dictates of Surrealism.  In fact Delvaux was totally averse to being labelled with and sort of “–ism”.  Delvaux’s life could not be more different to that of Masson.  Delvaux’s dreamlike, somewhat gentle paintings I believe reflected his inner peace and contentment.

He was born in September 1897 in the home of his grandparents in Antheit-les-Huy, a small town in eastern Belgium.  He was the elder son of an affluent bourgeois family.  He was his mother’s favourite son and some say she molly-coddled and over-protected him.  His father was an Appeal Court lawyer and his younger brother André followed in his father’s footsteps and became part of the Belgian judicial system.

As a young child, in the summer he would go and stay with his four maiden aunts who lived in the nearby town of Wanze.  One of these ladies, his Aunt Adele, encouraged his early love of music, literature and art and when he was ten years old, for his first communion gift, she gave him a beautifully illustrated copy of Jules Verne’s Voyage to the Centre of the Earth.  This edition contained detailed engravings and illustrations by the French painter Édouard Riou, who collaborated with Jules Verne on many of his novels.  In Guy Carels 2004 biography of Delvaux entitled, Paul Delvaux – His Life, he quotes Delavaux’s comments about his youth and his passion for reading adventure novels:

 “…My overriding passion was the books of Jules Verne…. I was completely fascinated by the engraving of Riou showing Otto Lidenbrock the wise geologist from Journey to the Centre of the Earth. I reproduced this for the first time in 1939 in the Phases de la Lune I (Phases of the Moon I)….”

Delvaux attended the Athénée de Saint-Gilles School in Brussels, where he studied both Latin and Greek and it was at this time that he became acquainted with Homer’s great epic, the Odyssey with its adventures of Odysseus, the legendary Greek king of Ithaca.  It is often said that childhood memories play a part in one’s future life but one recollection by Delvaux of his early schooling was to have an influence on many of his later works.   It was one of his earliest memories of the music room of his primary school in which there were two full-sized skeletons, that of a man and a monkey.  The sight of the two skeletons frightened him and he never forgot them and skeletons would often appear in his art work.

 Such tales of adventure featured prominently in his early childhood sketches.   He completed his regular school education at the age of eighteen and much to his father’s disappointment it was obvious that Paul was not going to enter the legal system.   His parents decided that if their son wasn’t to study law then he should study architecture and so they had him enroll on the architecture course run by the Brussels Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts.   Paul Delvaux did not enjoy the course, which consisted of copying the plans and elevations of classical buildings but little did he realise at the time that this training would play a major part in his future works of art.  Much to his parents’ disappointment, but to his own relief, Delvaux had to abandon the course as he failed to pass the exam in mathematics, which was a prerequisite for the continuation of the course.  His time on the course was not completely wasted as his understanding of linear perspective like the classical architecture was to feature in many of his future paintings.

 Paul Delvaux had always wanted to study art so that he could take it up professionally although that was not the future his parents had in mind.   His stroke of good fortune came in the summer of 1919 when he was almost twenty-two years of age.  He was on a family holiday at the Belgium seaside resort town of Knokke-le-Zoute.  One day whilst painting a seascape watercolour he was noticed by a professional artist who was so enamoured by his work he spoke to Paul’s parents and persuaded them to let their son attend the Brussels Académie des Beaux-Arts and pursue his desire to become a professional artist.  They reluctantly agreed and Paul Delvaux enrolled in the decorative painting class, which was run by Constant Montald, who also taught the featured artist of my last blog, Andre Masson and it was whilst on this course that Delvaux would once again immerse himself into the world of ancient Greece and Rome.  Another of his artistic instructors at the Académie was Jean Delville, the Belgian Symbolist painter.

For Auderghem by Paul Delvaux (1923)
For Auderghem by Paul Delvaux (1923)

Delvaux remained at the Academy for four years and during this time he completed almost a hundred works of art, mainly of the naturalistic landscape genre, often depicting scenes of his home town on the river Meuse, with its castle, Le Fort de Huy, perched on a high cliff above the river.  One of Delvaux’s early works was entitled For Auderghem,  which he completed in 1923 and depicts the railway bridge in the town of Auderghem, which is located to the southeast of Brussels, and lies along the Woluwe valley at the entrance to Forêt de Soignes.   In 1925 Delvaux held his first solo exhibition and two years later set up his first studio in his parent’s house.  At this time in his life he had no interest in Modern art, which he considered to be merely a “hoax” and instead, preferred the works of the Flemish Expressionists such as Frits van den Berghe, Gustave de Smet and Constant Permeke, whose paintings featured themes such as the countryside and village life.

 All this was to change in the 1930’s when he veered towards the art of the Surrealists.  He was never a member of André Breton’s group but was greatly influenced by the dreamlike works of Giorgio de Chirico which he saw in a Paris exhibition in 1926.  He was particularly interested in de Chirico’s painting style known as Pittura Metafisica, (Metaphysical art) which had been extremely popular between 1911 and 1920.  Another artist, a fellow countryman, whose art was to have a great influence on Delvaux, was René Magritte.  Delvaux found his work both amusing if somewhat disconcerting.

Delvaux’s work took on strangeness about it from the mid 1930’s with the introduction of nude figures in a world which the intimacy of nakedness is portrayed in very public settings.  There was none of the automatism we saw in Masson’s paintings in my last blog.   Delvaux’s works seem to be, although bizarre, very calculated and lack the spontaneity of Masson’s “subconscious” works.

Delvaux’s mother died in 1933 and four years later, his father died and it was in that same year, 1937, that he married Suzanne Purnal.  The marriage was a disaster.  However, some believe the emotional turmoil of their marriage resulted in Delvaux’s best works.  Delvaux had been very much in love with Anne-Marie de Martelaere but the relationship foundered because of his parents’ disapproval of her. Whether his marriage to Suzanne was a “rebound” thing, one may never know.  However, ten years later in 1947, completely by chance whilst visiting St Idesbald, he met his first-love Anne-Marie who had never married.  Delvaux left his wife Suzanne and went to live with Anne-Marie and the pair married in October 1952.

The Crucifixion by Paul Delvaux (1952)
The Crucifixion by Paul Delvaux (1952)

In 1950, Paul Delvaux became professor of painting at the Ecole Nationale de la Cambre in Brussels and he would teach there until 1962.  In 1952 he received the commission to create the wall frescos at the Ostend casino.  In 1952 Delvaux created one of his most controversial works, The Crucifixion.  The painting which is in the Royal Beaux-Arts Museum in Brussels shows a skeleton Christ on a cross between two skeletal crucified robbers.  Standing beneath the crucified trio is the centurion also depicted as a skeleton.    When this work was shown at the 1954 Venice Biennale it caused a furore.   Cardinal Roncalli, who would later become Pope John XXIII, was horrified and Delvaux was accused of blasphemy.  However Delvaux was unrepentant stating:

“…Through the skeleton, I represent a different kind of being in a kind of medieval mystery play which is perhaps profane, but never profanatory – the idea of sacrilege never entered my mind – it was put there by others…”

This skeleton painting is considered to be one of the most powerful and the most unforgettable in contemporary art.

Paul Delvaux Museum at St Idesbald
Paul Delvaux Museum at St Idesbald

Paul Delvaux received many honours during his life.  In 1955, he received the Italian Reggio Emilia-award.  In 1956, he was admitted to the Royal Academy of Sciences, Letters and Fine Arts of Belgium.  In 1966 he received the Belgian State Prize for his work of art together and he was appointed Chairman of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts.  In 1982 the Paul Delvaux Museum opened in Saint Idesbald.   Delvaux died in Veurne, Belgium in 1994, at the age of 97.

Delvaux painted three versions of his Sleeping Venus.  The first he completed in 1932.    It is thought that the influence on the artist for this depiction was a visit in 1932 when he visited the Brussels Fair at which he came across the Pierre Spitzner’s Grand Musée Anatomique et Ethnologique, a travelling museum run by Pierre Spitzner,  which was a sort of travelling wax museum.    The centrepiece of the exhibition was a wax anatomical model of a sleeping woman, which opened to reveal her internal organs.  This bizarre Spitzner Sleeping Venus had a mechanical movement which was to emulate breath.   As if by magic, her chest rose and fell as she lay there, dressed in her white nightgown.    Delvaux didn’t exhibit the work until after his mother died, in 1933.  The painting received poor reviews and later Delvaux would destroy it.

The Sleeping Venus by Paul Delvaux Second version (1943)
The Sleeping Venus by Paul Delvaux
Second version (1943)

A second Sleeping Venus was completed by Delvaux in 1943.

 My featured painting today was his final version of Sleeping Venus, which he completed in 1944.  The setting is a Greco-Roman one.  The darkly coloured work is a dream-like depiction.  In the centre foreground, in a strange half-light, we have a female nude sleeping on a chaise longue.  However it is the characters which surround her which are the most puzzling.  Are we to believe they are part of the naked woman’s dream?  Who are the other naked women in the scene who seem to be visibly moved in prayer?   At the foot of the chaise longue we have one of Delvaux’s favourite inclusions – a skeleton (remember his fixation on skeletons since his primary school days).  Could it be that the sleeping woman’s dream is about death?  But if that was the subject of her subconscious why does she seem to be in a very relaxed state of sleep and not somebody who is experiencing a nightmare as she contemplates her mortality.  Another favourite feature often depicted in Delvaux’s paintings is present in this work – that of classical temple-like structures, which harks back to his early classical architectural training. Another common feature in this work which we see in a lot of his other works is his inclusion of a barren lifeless and petrified landscape.  To the left of the sleeping Venus is a fully-clothed lady whose pose is similar to that of a catwalk model!   Her expression, like many of the women in Delvaux’s works, is impassive.  She, like other females in his paintings, does not connect with us.   They have a haunting quality about them but as in a number of paintings by Delvaux there is a definite disconnect between the figures depicted.  All have a dream-like appearance.   It is almost as if he has added figures to the works without any reasoning behind the addition.

 Delvaux himself talked about his depictions of the Sleeping Venus in an interview he gave in which he described his first visit to the Spitzner Museum:

“…In the middle of the entrance to the Museum was a woman who was the cashier, then on one side there was a man’s skeleton and the skeleton of a monkey, and on the other side there was a representation of Siamese twins. And in the interior one saw a rather dramatic and terrifying series of anatomical casts in wax which represented the dramas and horrors of syphilis, the dramas, deformations.  And all this in the midst of the artificial gaiety of the fair. The contrast was so striking that it made a powerful impression on me … All the ‘Sleeping Venuses’ that I have made, come from there. Even the one in London, at the Tate Gallery. It is an exact copy of the sleeping Venus in the Spitzner Museum, but with Greek temples or dressmaker’s dummies, and the like. It is different, certainly, but the underlying feeling is the same…”

There is no doubt that there is a strange quality to many of Delvaux’s works and art historians have tried to figure out what is going on within the paintings.  They give their own interpretations and look for hidden symbolism but maybe we should be guided by the words of the artist himself as to his Sleeping Venus which he completed in 1944 during the Nazi flying-bomb attacks on his home town of Brussels.  Delvaux wrote about the painting in a letter:

 “…I remember that I placed my picture each evening when the painting session was over perpendicularly to the window thinking naively that, if a bomb should fall, it would be better protected in this position…….It is my belief that, perhaps unconsciously, I have put into the subject of this picture a certain mysterious and intangible disquiet – the classical town, with its temples lit by the moon, with, on the right, a strange building with horses’ heads which I took from the old Royal Circus at Brussels, some figures in agitation with, as contrast, this calm sleeping Venus, watched over by a black dressmaker’s dummy and a skeleton….I tried in this picture for contrast and mystery….It must be added that the psychology of that moment was very exceptional, full of drama and anguish… I wanted to express this anguish in the picture, contrasted with the calm of the Venus…”

Unlike the works of his contemporary André Masson, which I looked at in the previous blog, although Delvaux’s works with his naked women, skeletons, classical architecture are strange, even bizarre, there is something soothing about them unlike the disturbing works of Masson.  Could it be the fact that Masson and Delvaux’s lives were so different and their life experiences translated into the types of works they produced?

Figure at a Window by Dali (1925) and Young Virgin Autosodomized by her Own Chastity by Dali (1954)

Figure at a Window by Dali (1925)
Figure at a Window by Dali (1925)

My blog today looks at two paintings by the same artist, completed twenty-nine years apart.  There is an obvious a similarity about the works and yet they could not be more different.   As a non-painter, it is this difference in style which intrigues me.   The artist in question is Salvador Domingo Felipe Jacinto Dalí i Domènech, better known simply as Dali.

Dali was born in 1904 in Figueres, a Spanish Catalonian town close to the border with France.  He was born into a middle-class background.  His father, Salvador Dalí i Cusí, was a lawyer and notary and a fierce Catalan federalist.  His mother was Felipa Domenech Ferrés, a demure and pretty Barcelona girl, two years younger than her husband.   Felipa’s mother had been a talented craftsman, who had run a long-standing family establishment that specialized in making objets d’art.  Felipa Domenech before her marriage to Dali’s father in 1900 used to help her mother in the workshop and developed a considerable skill as a designer of `artistic objects’.    She was deft with her fingers, and was accomplished in drawing.  She would spend time fashioning delicate wax figurines out of coloured candles which was a source of amusement to her son.

It has been recorded that young Dali was both an intelligent and a precocious child.  His father was a strict disciplinarian and, thankfully for Dali, this was countered by the love he received from his mother, who often indulged her young son in his artwork and his many eccentricities.  This coddling of her son was probably partly due to her fear that she would lose him to illness as she did her first son.  It was not just his mother who spoilt him as he was the centre of attention of his maternal grandmother, Maria Ana Ferrés and his aunt Catalin.  His mother doted on him and at the first sign of illness he was allowed to take to his bed.  In her controversial book about her brother entitled Salvador Dali, Seen through the eyes of his sister,  Dali’s sister wrote how her mother only rarely let young Salvador out of her sight and would often sit by his bedside for hours at night as he slept for if he awoke and found himself alone, he would cause quite a commotion.   However his father’s relationship with his son was quite different.  He would never tolerate his son’s so-called eccentricities and often punished him.   Dali would often turn to his mother for affection after being chastised by his father and this would further annoy his father who looked upon Dali’s closeness to his mother as a kind of threat to the affection she gave to him, her husband and in consequence the father-son relationship deteriorated.  I am sure psychologists would consider this triangle of affection to have caused some of Dali’s future mental turmoil.

Dalí had had an older brother who was born nine months before him.  He had also been named Salvador but had died of gastroenteritis in infancy, just nine months before the artist was born.  The naming of their second son the same as their deceased son (as was the case with Vincent van Gogh and his deceased elder brother) may have played on Dali’s mind and he once recounted the story of the time, when he was just five years old, that his parents took him to the grave of his older brother and told him he was his brother’s reincarnation. Dali later wrote of this event and of his dead brother, saying:

“…[we] resembled each other like two drops of water, but we had different reflections.  ” He ” was probably a first version of myself, but conceived too much in the absolute…”

In 1908 his sister Ana Maria was born and it is her who features in the first of today’s paintings.  Dali started school at the age of four, attending the Escuela Pública (public school) in Figueres.   This was not the local Catholic school which he could have attended but his father who held an anti-Catholic sentiment decided to send him to the local state school.   Dalí had an aversion to school life, found concentrating during lessons very difficult and he spent most of his time daydreaming.  This lack of attention to his school work and his seemingly lack of progress with his academic work after the first year annoyed his father and caused him to have a re-think about his son’s schooling.  He eventually decided to have his son transferred to a private Catholic school, one run by the brothers of the French La Salle order,  where all of his classes were taught in French. This had a profound effect on Dali’s future life as although at home he spoke Catalan, he had been taught Spanish at that early school.  With his transfer to this new French speaking school, French was to become the language that he would use during his artistic career.  Dali was still not happy with life at school, maybe because he was bullied but also to him, being confined in a small classroom, which he looked upon as a kind of gaol, was very claustrophobic.

What Dali liked was the school holidays when the family would spend time together in the seaside town of Cadaqués, where his father had been born and where the family had a small holiday house.  It was during these long summer holiday periods that he felt free from the constraints of school life, free to paint and draw pictures of his family and his beloved Catalan coastline and it was whilst holidaying at Cadaqués that he met the artist, Ramón Pichot, who was a family friend .  Pichot was an artist who painted mostly in the style of the Impressionists, but more importantly to Dali, Pichot also liked to experiment with some styles of the Catalan avant-garde.

On February 6th 1921 Dali’s mother Felipa died of breast cancer.  The death of his mother hit the sixteen year old Dali very hard.  It was a very traumatic time in his life.  He described the time as:

“…the worst blow of my life.  I worshipped her;   she was unique….. Weeping and with clenched teeth I swore that with all the power of the holy light which would one day circle my glorious name I would rescue my mother from death and from fate…”

Dali’s father quickly married his deceased wife’s sister Catalin who had already been living with the family for the past eleven years.

Ramón Pichot continued to mentor Dali during his youth and it was he who managed to persuade Dali’s father to let his son leave school and enrol at the San Fernando Academy of Art in Madrid.  In the autumn of 1922, Dali along with his father and sister travelled to Madrid and Dali sat a gruelling six day entrance examination which comprised of the candidates having to prepare drawings of a classical sculpture.  Dali passed the exam and aged 18,  he became a student at the Academy.   Life at the Academy was so different to life at school and Dali revelled in the freedom of self-expression.   Whilst there he made a number of friends including Federico García Lorca, who would become one of Spain’s leading poets and dramatists  and Luis Buñuel, who became an international film maker and film director half a century later.   Whilst at the Academy Dalí experimented with a number of painting styles, mainly avant- garde, such as Cubism, Futurism and Purism, which he studied through reading articles and studying reproductions in art journals. Dali started exhibiting his work in galleries in Barcelona and Madrid and was allowed two solo exhibitions.  He would also exhibit work at exhibitions with other Catalan modernists. His work was greeted with acclaim which boosted his confidence.  He believed that he was progressing steadily in the art world but he believed such progression was, in a way, being nullified by the type of artistic tuition he was receiving at the Academy.  He felt that neither the tutors nor the art syllabus was sufficiently challenging enough.   His dissatisfaction led to him often criticising and openly challenging the authorities at the Academy which eventually lead to him being asked to leave in 1926.

I will leave Dali’s life story at this point to concentrate on the first of my two featured paintings, entitled Figure at a Window, which Dali completed in 1925.   The painting is not one which we would immediately attribute to Dali.  Like many of his early works it features two of Dali’s favourite depictions – the Catalan coastline and a member of his family.    This early work by Dali, completed when he was twenty-one years of age, is one of Dali’s best known and most important early oil on canvas works.  Dali used his sister Ana Maria as his model.  She would remain the artist’s only female model until his beloved Gala came along in 1929.   Salvador’s relationship with his sister was very close, even more so when their mother died in 1921 and in some ways she took over the role of the mother who had to constantly cope with the ever discontented son.    The work we see is the height of tranquility.  This serene and peaceful feeling one gets when one studies the work is a result of Dali use of the predominant colours of light blues and lavenders.   There is a stress-free intimacy about the painting, which would soon disappear from his works.  We cannot see the face of the girl.  She has her back to us as she leans against the sill of the open window.  She gazes out at the bay at Cadaques, the seaside resort much loved by Dali.   This viewpoint, while lending the picture an air of intrigue, ensures that the viewer’s eye is drawn, like the girl’s, to the landscape ahead.

Girl from Ampurdam by Dali (1926)
Girl from Ampurdam by Dali (1926)

Although this is simply a painting of his sister looking out of a window with a view across a stretch of water, there is something about the way he has depicted the girl and the way she is dressed which adds a modicum of sensuality to the painting.  The clothes Ana Maria wears cling tightly against her and one cannot help but notice the way the tight fitting dress accentuates the swell of her buttocks.  It is interesting to note that a year later Dali painted The Girl of Ampurdam in which we once again see the rear view of a girl, standing in a provocative pose which again accentuates the curvature of the cheeks of her bottom.  It is not certain whether Ana Maria was the model for this painting but once again we can be in no doubt as to the part of the female anatomy that appealed to Dali the most !   Ana Maria commented about the way in which Dali portrayed her and also incorporated the Catalan landscape:

“…During the hours I served him as model, I never tired of looking at the landscape which already, and forever, formed part of me. He always painted me near a window. And my eyes had time to take in all the smallest details….”

Young Virgin Autosodomized by her Own Chastity by Dali (1954)
Young Virgin Autosodomized by her Own Chastity by Dali (1954)

And now to the second painting, which although in complete contrast to the first, I am sure you can recognise a certain similarity.  In this second work, which has the bizarre and somewhat tasteless title, Young Virgin Autosodomized by her Own Chastity, the tranquillity and the innocent peacefulness of the first painting is nowhere to be seen.   Why would an artist suddenly change the atmosphere of the painting?  Why would he want to depict the violation of the female, who held a similar pose to the one in the earlier painting, which had been modelled by his sister?

For the answer to that maybe we need to consider a couple of books, one an autobiography and one a biography.  In 1942 Dali published his autobiography entitled, The Secret Life of Salvador Dalí  and seven years later in 1949 his sister, Ana Maria published her own biography of her brother, Salvador Dali as Seen by his sister.   Unfortunately Dali’s autobiography was a somewhat sanitised version of his life story and was quite different to the way in which his sister viewed him in her book.   Dali was horrified by Ana Maria’s version of his life and the way in which he lived it.  He felt it cast him in an unflattering light and viewed her words as a blatant betrayal and sadly his perceived view of her disloyalty led to the total collapse of their relationship.   So incensed was he by this betrayal by his sister that in 1954 he decided to paint another version of his 1925 Figure at the Window which had featured her.  He called his new painting Young Virgin Autosodomized by her Own Chastity.  The figure of the young woman was, according to Robert Descharnes 2002 Dali biography, Dalí, L’héritage infernal, based upon a photograph published in a 1930’s pornographic magazine.

In the painting we once again have a rear view of a woman who is looking out over a stretch of water  at a distant landscape.  She is depicted leaning over a rail with horned shaped objects being pointed at her. One of these horns has positioned itself as the one which will sodomize her. These horned shaped objects are phallic-like in shape.  So what do the horns symbolise?  According to one of his biographers, the rhinoceros horns in the painting were symbolic and that  a rhinoceros is a very forceful animal as well as a very dangerous one.  The one thing about a rhinoceros, though, is that they do not attack unless provoked. This adds another element to the painting. Is it that Dali was provoked by his sister’s autobiography to paint this work?   If the woman is being sodomized, is it because she brought it upon herself?    The railing, which she is bent over and which is shattered by one of the larger phallic horns, symbolizes a chastity belt and its destruction symbolizes the destruction of her chastity.

One would wonder who would want to own such a disturbing painting.   However we do know who owned it up until February 2003 at which time he sold it at Sotheby’s London auction.   It was none other than Hugh Heffner who had, on behalf of Playboy Enterprises, sold it for two million pounds.  It had been hanging in the entryway to the dining room of the Great Hall in his Playboy Mansion in Los Angeles.

 I am not sure it is the kind of painting I would like to have hanging in the dining room of our Bed & Breakfast establishment.

I and the Village and The Birthday by Marc Chagall

I and the Village by Marc Chagall (1911)
I and the Village by Marc Chagall (1911)

Having just completed my four part look at the quartet of Scottish Colourists I am turning to a painter from the same era but one who could not be more different in style.  For my blog today I want to look at the early life of and two fascinating paintings by the Russian-Jewish artist, Marc Chagall.  He was a painter of poetic, surreal images that to him, represented a topsy-turvy world, combining fantasy and spirituality with a modernist style

house
Chagall’s family home in Vitebsk

 Marc Chagall, a name he did not use until 1915 when he arrived in Paris,  was born Moishe Segal on the 7th of July 1887 in the small Jewish shetl of Liozna part of the town of Vitebsk, which was in the Russian Empire but now is situated in Belarus.   He was the eldest of nine children born into a Hasidic Jewish family.  His parents led a simple yet spartan life.  His mother Feige-Ite ran a small grocery shop from their home.  His grandfather worked as a teacher and a cantor in a local synagogue and had secured a position for Marc Chagall’s father as a clerk at a wholesale herring merchants but in Marc Chagall’s autobiography, My Life, he criticised his grandfather for his father’s placement and derided the job description of “clerk”.  He wrote:

“…My grandfather, a teacher of religion, could think of nothing better than to place my father – his eldest son, still a child – as a clerk with a firm of herring wholesalers, and his youngest son with a barber. No, my father was not a clerk, but, for thirty-two years, a plain workman. He lifted heavy barrels, and my heart used to twist like a Turkish pretzel as I watched him carrying those loads and stirring the little herrings with his frozen hands……Sometimes my father’s clothes would glisten with herring brine. The light played above him, besides him. But his face, now yellow, now clear, would sometimes break into a wan smile…”

 Chagall would always remember those early days of hardship and how hard his father worked to provide for his family.  In his 1922 autobiography, My Life, Chagall recalled those difficult times:

 “…Day after day, winter and summer, at six o’clock in the morning, my father got up and went off to the synagogue. There he said his usual prayer for some dead man or other. On his return he made ready the samovar, drank some tea and went to work. Hellish work, the work of a galley-slave. Why try to hide it? How tell about it? No word will ever ease my father’s lot… There was always plenty of butter and cheese on our table. Buttered bread, like an eternal symbol, was never out of my childish hands…”

 As a young child, Chagall went to the local heder, an elementary Jewish school in which children were taught to read the Torah and other books in Hebrew. Later he transferred to the local secular secondary school and it was here that young Chagall started to show an interest in art.  The fact that he, as a Jew, was allowed to go to the local secular school was in itself rather unusual as according to government dictates at the time, Jewish children were not allowed to study at secular schools.  In 1906 when Marc was nineteen years of age and with help from his mother, and despite his father’s protests, he enrolled at a private school of drawing, Artist Pen’s School of Drawing and Painting run by Yethuda Pen.  Yethuda Pen was a talented Jewish artist and art teacher and one of the outstanding figures of the Jewish Renaissance in Russian and Belarusian art.   Chagall remembers the day he first cast his eyes on the school and how it impressed him.  He recounted the time in his autobiography:

“…I learned about Pen when I was riding on a streetcar.  It was crossing the Cathedral Square and I saw a banner – white letters on blue: Artist Pen’s School. ‘What a cultured city is our Vitebsk,’ I thought...”

Later, in 1921, Chagall told his former tutor, Penn, about the day he first entered the college, accompanied by his mother, for an interview for a place on Penn’s art course and how nervous he was.  He wrote:

 “…I recall how, as a boy, I climbed the steps of your studio. And the tremor with which I awaited you: you were to decide my fate in my mother’s presence. I know how many other young boys in Vitebsk and the entire gubernia [administrative district] had their fates decided by you. For dozens of years your studio was the first to lure people in town… You have trained a vast generation of Jewish artists…”

He remained only a few months at Penn’s art school and in 1907 with little money, he left Vitebsk and headed for Saint Petersburg.  Chagall had already seen and felt the full force of the anti-Semitic Russian laws in his home town but they paled into insignificance compared to the discriminatory policies against Jews in Saint Petersburg.  However for Chagall these legal hardships and the fact that he had little money to live on, was of little consequence as he was now able to immerse himself in the whirlpool of artistic life.  These were also revolutionary times and the revolutionary mood of the Russian people against their Tsarist ruler could be seen in every-day life, through avant-garde magazines and art exhibitions which pioneered new and modern western art.  The art world was waking up to the new art of the French Fauves, the German Expressionists and the Italian Futurists.  This was an exciting time for the young Russian artist, Chagall, and this new art would greatly influence him.  Although he absorbed this new art and knew about the various artistic groupings, he was his own man and he wanted to stand alone and create his own unique artistic style.  The one thing Chagall was determined about was that he would never ever forget his childhood background and the people of Vitebsk.  He would never forget his family’s or his poor but happy upbringing and the family’s lowly status.  He would never forget the hand to mouth existence and the importance of the land and the farms that provided food for its people.  He would never forget the onion-shaped cupolas of the churches, the wooden houses with the grass roofs which helped insulate them.  His home town of Vitebsk was tattooed on his very heart and he would always remember it in his art with great affection.

Whilst living in St Petersburg Marc Chagall earned a living by working at the editorial office of the Russian-Jewish periodical, Voskhod.   He also carried on with his artistic studies first at the school of the Society for the Encouragement of Art Society of Art Supporters where he studied under the Russian painter and stage designer Nikolai Roerich and the following year he enrolled as a student at the Yelizaveta Zvantseva’s School of Drawing and Painting where one of his teachers was the great Russian artist and costume designer Leon Bakst.  Bakst had lived in Paris from 1893 to 1897, where he studied at the Académie Julian, and he would eventually persuade Chagall to head for the French capital, the then art capital of the world,  so as to best continue his artistic studies.

Bella Rosenfeldcourtesy of http://www.marcchagallart.net/
Bella Rosenfeld

In 1909, Chagall met Bella Rosenfeld who lived in his home town and had been visiting friends in St. Petersburg.   It was love at first sight and within a short time they had become engaged.   Although both Marc and Bella were from Vitebsk, their social worlds could not have been more different and for that reason Bella’s parents were very unhappy with the liaison.  Bella’s parents, Shmule and Alta Rosenfeld were extremely wealthy and ran a very successful jewellery business back in Vitebsk and had managed to put Bella through the best education culminating at the University of Moscow.  She was particularly interested in the workings of the theatre and in art, and whilst studying at university, she contributed articles to a Moscow newspaper.  Chagall’s love for Bella, who became his wife in 1915, was deep and enduring and in his autobiography he wrote with passion about his true love:

“… Her silence is mine, her eyes mine. It is as if she knows everything about my childhood, my present, my future, as if she can see right through me; as if she has always watched over me, somewhere next to me, though I saw her for the very first time. I knew this is she, my wife. Her pale colouring, her eyes. How big and round and black they are! They are my eyes, my soul…”

In 1910, Chagall held his first solo exhibition, which was in the editorial office of the St Petersburg avant-garde magazine Apollon.  One of the visitors to the exhibition was Maxim Vinaver, a lawyer and deputy of the State Duma.  Vinaver, who was one of the outstanding figures in Russian Jewry of his time. He played a distinguished role as a Jewish communal leader, as well as one of the leaders of the Liberal Cadet Party. He was always a champion of the Jewish cause and as a deputy in the Russian Duma, Vinaver organized the Society to Secure Equality for the Jews in Russia.  Impressed by the talent of Chagall, he became his patron and gave him a monetary scholarship and with this financial assistance Chagall was able to go to Paris to carry on his artistic studies.  It was on arriving in the French capital that Moishe Segal adopted the French-sounding pseudonym, Marc Chagall.

I will leave the life story of Marc Chagall at this stage of his life and return to it in a later blog but for now I want to look at two of his paintings.  The first painting, and one of his most famous, is entitled I and the Village, which he completed in 1911, whilst living in Paris.  It is currently housed in the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

The painting on first sight is, like many of his works, unfathomable and one has to look carefully at all the elements depicted to try and understand what was going on in Chagall’s mind as he put brush to canvas.  It is a dream-like image with many overlapping elements.  This lively composition and the geometrical structures, such as lines, angles, triangles, circles, and squares clearly displays aspects of Cubism.  Some would have us believe that Chagall’s assortment of large and small circular forms are meant to depict the sun’s revolution within our solar system as well as the earth’s revolution around the sun, and the moon’s revolution around the earth. The moon being in the lower left of the painting is causing an eclipse of the sun.  However, maybe like me, this cosmic interpretation of the painting is possibly a step too far!

It is a collage of various objects.  It portrays the artist’s memories of the Hasidic Community of Vitebsk in which he was brought up, a peasant community, which relied heavily on the land and their animals for food. There are human and animal elements in the work which are both fragmented and randomly assembled to produce an abstract composition. The colours Chagall uses are vibrant and he has produced a severe contrast between the red, the green and the blue which he has liberally used.

Let us look more closely at the work and see if we can unravel the meaning of some of its elements.  If you look at the top right hand corner of the work you can make out a small town.  There is a church with its onion-shaped cupola and some brightly coloured houses some of which are upside down.   This inclusion, as he did in many of his works, is probably Chagall’s home town of Vitebsk and the fact that some of the houses are upturned could well be his way of illustrating that it is his town as visualised by him in his dream.  In front of the row of houses is man dressed in black with a scythe over his shoulder, presumably returning home after a hard day’s work in the fields.  In front of him is an upturned woman.   The woman, according to some descriptions is playing a violin.  However although people playing violins feature in many of Chagall’s works I beg to differ as far as this woman is concerned.  I have studied pictures of the painting, inverted it to see her better, and have concluded she is simply a peasant woman swinging her arms as if dancing.  I will let you decide.  This dream-like depiction of the peasant woman whether a violinist or a dancer could be a reference to the importance that music and dance played for entertainment for the people of Chagall’s erstwhile small Jewish community.

eye contact
Eye contact

The two main elements of the painting are, on the right, a green-faced man wearing a cap and on the left an animal.   The green colour of his face is an example of Fauvism where the colour used is not the one we would normally associate with in reality.  On the left is the head of an animal, possibly a horse or goat or cow.  On its cheek Chagall has painted an image of smaller goat or cow being milked.  If you look carefully you will see Chagall has drawn a line between the eye of the man and the eye of the animal and this probably refers to the close relationship, the inter-dependence between a peasant and his animal – a kind of “seeing eye to eye”, understanding the important relationship between man and beast.  The man, who wears a cross around his neck,  clutches hold of a small flowering branch, the seeds from which seem to be scattering, which could allude to the sowing of seed in the ground.

The Birthday by Marc Chagall (1915)
The Birthday by Marc Chagall (1915)

The reason why I chose Chagall for my blog today was because it was Valentine’s Day and I wanted to feature a painting which in some ways was the essence of true love between two people.  I could have gone for The Kiss by Gustave Klimt or Francesco Hayer or some other erotic and sensuous painting but I came across the painting by Chagall entitled Birthday and in a way it said everything to me about the love between two people.   Chagall painted the picture in 1915,  the year he married his beloved Bella Rosenfeld.  For Chagall his relationship with her was everything he could have wanted and I believe the couple in the painting are Marc and Bella.

Bella with White Collar by Marc Chagall (1917)
Bella with White Collar by Marc Chagall (1917)

Chagall painted Bella in many of his works and I believe this is one of them.  The painting depicts the man and the woman.  Although the woman’s face is clearly defined the man’s face is somewhat of a blur.   In the work we see them both seemingly elevated by their love for each other.  For them it was possible to float above the reality of the world and just enjoy each other’s company.  Look at the feet of the man and the woman.   They seem to be pointing in opposite directions.   Maybe he has given her the bunch of flowers and has walked past her but realises that the flowers without a kiss is not enough and so he literally bends over backwards to please his loved one by offering up a kiss.  She holds the flowers that he has given her and purses her lips in readiness for his kiss but he has walked past her.  However before disappointment can set in he returns, lips ready to kiss his beloved girl!  What could be more romantic?  However there is much more to this work of art than the two lovers.  Look at the amount of detail Chagall has put into the painting.  See how he has depicted the seeds of the watermelon which lies on the counter, the exotically detailed Indian blanket which lies on the bed and the blue lace fabric which hangs below the window.

I end by wishing you all a Happy Valentine’s Day and hope that your loved one manages to bend over backwards for you !!!

The photo of Chagall’s home and Bella Rosenfeld were courtesy of http://www.marcchagallart.net/

Gare Montparnasse, (The Melancholy of Departure) by Giorgio de Chirico

Gare Montparnasse, (The Melancholy of Departure) by Giorgio de Chirico (1914)
Gare Montparnasse, (The Melancholy of Departure) by Giorgio de Chirico (1914)

“…One must embrace all forms of art…”

With those words from the lecturer who gives us weekly Art History talks still ringing in my ears when I dared query the relevance of Surrealism, Abstract and Performance Art, I will, for his sake, attempt to seduce you with a modicum of Pittura Metafisica and talk about the life of its founder and main proponent and leave you to decide whether you can embrace my tutor’s concept.

Pittura Metafisica or Metaphysical Art was a movement formed by the Italian painter, writer and theatre designer, Giorgio de Chirico and is a term applied to his work in the early twentieth century and to the work of his friend Carlo Carrà.  So in a few words, what is Metaphysical Art?   It is a depiction of dream-like things with sharp contrasts of light and shadow which sometimes gives the impression of being slightly threatening and has a mysterious quality. There is often a feeling of neoclassicism about the works and in many instances there is a mood of depressing purposelessness and a scary-type remoteness of a world alienated from man and, by the way the artist has arranged completely unrelated objects in the work, has somehow created a secret, often magical meaning to the work with their recognizable iconography and their illusory depictions with their subverted one-point perspective.  Often within the paintings, regularly of types of architecture found in Mediterranean cities, one would see classical statues or what look like tailor’s mannequins or expressionless human beings.  To this was often added inanimate objects such as coloured toys, geometrical instruments, fruit and small realistic paintings.

Giorgio de Chirico was the elder son, born in Vólos, Greece in 1888, of Italian parents.  His mother was Gemma Cervetto,  a noblewoman of Genoese origin and his father, Evaristo, was from Sicily.  He had a brother Andrea, who was two years his junior, and the two would remain close friends and confidants until the death of their mother in 1936 at which time, they started to drift apart.  The parents had moved from Tuscany and were living in Greece as his father was an engineer who was involved in the overseeing of the construction of the Greek railway system in Thessaly.  Giorgio and his brother  had early parental encouragement to take an interest in art and in the stories from Greek mythology and this latter was probably made somewhat easier by the fact that de Chirico’s home town of Vólos was built on the area which was once the site of the ancient port of Ioclos, which was were Jason boarded his ship Argo accompanied by the Argonauts as they set sail in their quest to find the Golden Fleece.  De Chirico’s childhood health was not good and it is recorded that he suffered from numerous bouts of stomach disorders which could well be the reason for his ever increasing bouts of melancholy which would, in later life, turn towards a more serious form of depression and lead him to having a fairly jaundiced view of life.  His initial artistic training came at the age of seven when his father arranged for him to have drawing lessons from a Swiss painter, Emile Gilleron, who taught his young charge the fundamentals of drawing.  De Chirico completed and signed his first work, a depiction of a galloping horse, at the age of seven, which was acquired by the Austrian-Hungarian Consulate General in Vólos.  In 1899, his father moved the family from Vólos to Athens.

In 1903, at the age of fifteen, Giorgio attended the Athens Polytechnic, which at the time was both an engineering school and the Academy of Fine Art. Here he studied drawing and painting and received tuition from, amongst others, Georgios Roilos and Konstantinos Bolonakis, who were the most important and influential Greek painters of the late 19th-early 20th century.  De Chirico’s father died in 1905 and this event is thought to have been a contributing factor to Giorgio’s failure in his final Academy exams that same year.   In the autumn of the following year, the family left Greece and went to live in Munich where Giorgio enrolled at the Munich Academy of Fine Arts.    It was during de Chirico’s eighteen month tenure at the Academy that he came across and was influenced by the artistic works of the Swiss Symbolist painter, Arnold Böcklin and the bizarre works of the German Symbolist painter and sculptor, Max Klinger.   It is thought that their art was one of the reasons why de Chirico began to reject naturalism and instead concentrate on more illusionary and imaginary subjects for his paintings.   He was also influenced by the literary works of the German philosophers, Schopenhauer, Weininger and Frederick Nietzsche.  It was Nietzsche who tried to persuade artists of the time to “refute reality”.

In March 1910, de Chirico left Germany and travelled to Milan to rejoin his mother.  He stayed there for six months before moving on to Florence the following year.  Whilst staying in the Tuscan city he studied the works of the great thirteenth century Florentine painter and architect Giotto de Bordone.   It was whilst in Florence that de Chirico began a series of works known as his Metaphysical Town Square paintings, which depicted deserted public squares with sombre monolithic arches which cast giant dark shadows.  The first painting in the series which he completed in 1910 was entitled The Enigma of an Autumn Afternoon and the idea came to him after he spent an afternoon wandering around the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence.  He recalled that time and what he experienced on that day and explained his painting by saying:

“…One clear autumn afternoon I was sitting on a bench in the middle of the Piazza Santa Croce in Florence. It was of course not the first time I had seen this square…The whole world, down to the marble of the buildings and fountains, seemed to me to be convalescent…Then I had the strange impression I was looking at these things for the first time, and the composition of my picture came to my mind’s eye. Now each time I look at that painting I see that moment. Nevertheless the moment is an enigma to me, for it is inexplicable…”

In July 1911 he and his mother left Florence and headed for Paris where his brother Andrea was living but on his way they stopped off for a few days at Turin.  De Chirico liked Turin and was intensely stimulated by what he saw in that city and often referred to the city’s architecture, with all its archways and piazzas, as the ‘metaphysical aspect’ of Turin, something which would shape his art in the future.  De Chirico arrived in the French capital that same month, joining his brother Andrea and it was through him that Giorgio de Chirico was introduced to Pierre Laprade who held the powerful position as one of the jurists at the Salon d’Automne.  De Chirico managed to get three of his works exhibited at that 1912 Salon and in 1913 exhibited paintings at the Salon des Indépendants, one of which he sold.  Soon his works became popular and he was introduced to the Parisian art dealer, Paul Guillaume with whom he signed a contract to produce more works for sale.  At the time, Guillaume Apollinaire, who was looked upon as the apostle of modern art, noticed de Chirico’s canvases and the two met at one of Apollinaire’s soirées.  Apollinaire was the first person to coin the term metaphysical to de Chirico’s art in an article he wrote for the left-wing French newspaper,  L’Intransigeant.  It was also through Apollinaire that Giorgio de Chirico and his brother, Andrea met Pablo Picasso and the Fauvist painter, André Derain.  Apollinaire showed great interest in the Giorgio’s work and soon became a great supporter of the artist introducing his work to the late Surrealist painters such as Max Ernst, Salvador Dalí, Giorgio Morandi, and René Magritte.  The Surrealists were influenced by his paintings but de Chirico had a love-hate relationship with them and when his style changed he was criticised by the Surrealists and he turned on them referring to them as “the leaders of modernistic imbecility.”

At the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, de Chirico decided to leave Paris and return to Florence.  In June 1915, de Chirico and his brother were conscripted into the Italian army and sent to join their regiment in Ferrara.  In 1917, he suffered a mental breakdown and was admitted to the town’s military hospital.  It was whilst at the hospital that he met the artist Carlo Carrà and together they decided to launch the art movement la scuola metafisica (Metaphysical Painting movement).  When the war ended in 1918, the two artists set out the basic theories of the Pittura Metafisica and de Chirico published their ideas in the form of articles for the magazine Valori Plastici, a newly founded Rome-based magazine which focused on the aesthetic ideals and metaphysical artwork. The articles focused on his belief that there should be a return to traditional methods and iconography.  Although their Metaphysical Painting movement and ideas influenced the Surrealist painters of the time, the movement was short-lived and ended shortly after the two founders, de Chirico and Carrà fell out in 1919.

 From 1918 de Chirico’s work was exhibited extensively in Europe.  He returned to Paris in November 1924 but he no longer had the support from his friend Apollinaire who had died six years earlier.  This time during his stay in the French capital he became friends with the surrealist painters Max Ernst, René Magritte, Yves Tanguy and Salvador Dalí. In 1929, Giorgio de Chirico married the Russian ballet dancer Raissa Gurievich Kroll and he worked with the Russian Ballet company of Sergei Diaghlev and during the next six months designed scenery and costumes for them. His first marriage ended in 1930 and he remarried that same year to another Russian émigré Isabella Pakswer.  This second marriage lasted for the rest of his life. In that year he also published an autobiographic novel Hebdomeros, Le peintre et son génie chez l’ecrivain.  In August 1935 he moved to New York, buoyed by the success of his earlier exhibitions in the city.  He remained there until January 1938 and then headed back to Italy eventually settling down in Rome.  Giorgio de Chirico died in Rome in 1978, aged 90.

The featured painting by de Chirico I am featuring today is entitled Gare Montparnasse, (The Melancholy of Departure), which he completed in 1914 just before he left France for Italy.  It is a classical example of his early work.  The setting for the work is the Paris station Gare Montparnasse and we see the long shadows and deep colors of early evening.  It is a dream-like, somewhat nightmarish depiction and some art historians believe that the subject of the painting coincided with a period of acute homesickness experienced by de Chirico whose overwhelming and all-consuming thought was to leave Paris, board a train and return to Italy.  One can only conjecture on some items he has included in the work and one can only ask questions which remain unanswered about other objects.  In many of de Chirico’s works, including this one, a steam train is featured and this could well be due to his early memories of his father, the railway engineer, and his fascination with rail transportation.  The painting is strange in many ways.  Look at how the smoke from the steam train rises vertically and yet the flags on the clock tower and the building to the left flutter furiously in a wind coming from right to left.  Was there a reason for this inconsistency?   There is absolutely no perspective in the way the artist has depicted the yellow road on which we see two figures and yet to the left of the road there is a structure which visibly recedes into the distance.  So why apply the laws of perspective to one element of the painting and not the other?  The strangest part of this painting is the inclusion of a large bunch of bananas in the right foreground of the painting.  This is not the first time such an object has been incorporated into his paintings, but what is the significance of this fruit with a French railway station?  I am sure art historians have had a field day postulating on the meaning!

I will leave you to decide whether you can take on board my art lecturer’s advice to “embrace all forms of art”.  For me his advice is a little hard to swallow!

Petit Sphinx Ermite by Leonor Fini

Petit Sphinx Ermite by Leonor Fini (1948)

In a couple of recent blogs I looked at the life and works of two female artists who were possibly best known because of their partners.   I featured Frida Kahlo whose fame partly derived from her marriage to the Mexican muralist Diego Rivera and I showcased the life and works of Gabriele Münter whose one-time partner was Wassily Kandinsky.   Today I want to introduce you to an artist who on her own merits would become the most celebrated female painter of her time.  Her name is Leonor Fini.

I would like to tell you that I have always been a lover of her work but sadly I have to admit that until last Monday I had never even heard of her.  It was purely by chance that I came across a painting of hers, which I am featuring today.  It was one of those paintings, which once viewed, was hard to forget.  I found it fascinating.  I was mesmerised by it and I had to return to stand in front of it a number of times.  It is housed in the Tate Modern in London and I was there primarily to see the Edvard Munch exhibition but thought that I would take the opportunity to look at some of the paintings in the permanent collection of the museum.  I think I have said before that I am not a lover of modern art and find a lot of it very hard to understand but I am constantly being told that I should “embrace all types of art” a suggestion I tend to ignore!    I had just sailed up the Thames on the Tate to Tate boat which transports you from the Tate Britain to the Tate Modern as I had been to the Pre-Raphaelite exhibition at Tate Britain in the morning.  It was interesting to note the difference in the age group of the people attending the two Tate museums.  The Tate Modern certainly had a younger audience and maybe for the young there was an element of rebellion in the art on display there, in comparison with the more staid, more formal art work of the Tate Britain.

Leonor Fini was born in Buenos Aires in August 1907.  Her father, Erminio, was an Argentinean of Italian descent and her mother, Malvina Braun Dubich, was a Trieste-born Italian with German and Slavic origins.  Her parents’ marriage was anything but happy and their turbulent partnership ended in divorce when Leonor was just one year old.  Her mother left her abusive husband and took Leonor back to Trieste to live with her grandparents.  Leonor’s father made a number of attempts to abduct his daughter and have her back with him in Argentina.  His wife, who received no protection from the local authorities and was so afraid that Leonor would be taken from her, decided to take the matter into her own hands and so for the next six years she dressed her daughter up as a boy whenever they ventured out the house.  Eventually Leonor’s father gave up his attempts to snatch her and went back home to Argentina and was never seen again.  Despite this traumatic early part of her life in Trieste, Fini grew up in a very cultivated, well-ordered household.  Having had to suffer the threat of being kidnapped during her early life, Leonor was to suffer another trauma during her early teens when she contracted an eye disease, which forced her to wear bandages on both of her eyes.   She was now locked into a prison of darkness in which she had no alternative but to develop an inner vision and during these long periods of darkness, she would visualise fantastic images, which in some ways would be later mirrored in her art.  It was with these strange images that she had conjured up in her mind during those days of enforced darkness that once her sight was restored she decided that she wanted to become an artist.

Leonor Fini

Leonor was a very determined and headstrong teenager and was expelled from several schools on account of her rebellious behaviour and her unwillingness to abide to school regulations. Like many teenagers she was very precocious and in a way this manifested in the creation of a persona of incredibly strong will and intense sensitivity.  She became an avid reader and it is said that by the end of her teenage years she had read all the works of Freud.   In a way she educated herself and this thirst for knowledge made her popular within the local artistic and literary circles.  Her interest in art was furthered by her visits to her uncle, a lawyer, where she spent many hours in his library rummaging through and reading his extensive collection of art books about the lives of artists and was especially enthralled by those of the artists of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, Aubrey Beardsley and Gustav Klimt.  She also travelled widely in Italy and Europe visiting all the museums.  Once her decision had been made to become an artist and having no formal training, she taught herself anatomy by studying corpses in the Trieste mortuaries.  When she was seventeen years of age she had some of her artistic works shown at an art exhibition in Trieste and this led to her receiving portrait commissions from some leading dignitaries in Milan.  In 1929, aged just twenty-two years of age, she managed to stage a show of her work at the Galerie Barbaroux in Milan.  Seven years later she left Italy and went to live in Paris, a city Leonor would often referred to as “my real city”.

In 1936, in Paris, she staged her first one-woman exhibition of her work at the Galerie Bonjean, whose director was Christian Dior and the success of this brought her into contact with a number of Surrealist painters such as René Magritte, Paul Eluard, Salvador Dali, Max Ernst, Viktor Brauner and their de facto leader, André Breton.  It was around this time that she started to paint Surrealist images and began to be drawn close to this artistic movement.   However her youthful rebellious nature once again surfaced and she would not kowtow to the dictates of André Breton’s and intensely disliked his authoritarian leadership.   She sided with Dali’s view of Breton and his Surrealist theories.  Dali described Breton as having a typical petit bourgeois mentality.  However, despite this, she did exhibit with the Surrealist group.   The eminent American feminist writer and curator Whitney Chadwick wrote about Leonor’s early days in Paris:

“…In Paris she became a legend almost overnight. When one of the Surrealists saw a painting of hers in a Paris gallery in 1936 and sought out its creator, she arranged a rendezvous in a local cafe and arrived dressed in a cardinal’s scarlet robes, which she had purchased in a clothing store specializing in clerical vestments.   ‘I liked the sacrilegious nature of dressing as a priest, and the experience of being a woman and wearing the clothes of a man who would never know a woman’s body…”

Leonor’s dislike of Breton’s despite his redoubtable charisma was mirrored by his dislike of what he viewed as her often scandalous behaviour and pension for the company of homosexuals.  Breton was known to be fiercely homophobic.   Although she strongly denied she was a Surrealist she did align herself with the group and they welcomed her.  She made her first trip to New York in 1936, showing at the Julian Levy Gallery and in December of that year she participated in the famous “Fantastic Art, Dada and Surrealism” exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art

With the onset of the World War II looming, Leonor fled Paris with her close friend André Pieyre de Mandiargues, a French writer and an associate of the Surrealist set.   The two of them spent part of the summer of 1939 as guests of Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington in Ardèche, before they moved on to Arcachon, where Salvador and Gali Dali had their wartime refuge, the Villa Salesse.  From there the pair went to Monte Carlo.

The bottle for the perfume “Shocking”
designed by Leonor Fini

In the 1940’s, after World War II her career branched out and she began to design theatre sets and costumes for the theater, opera and ballet.  She also worked for Elsa Schiaparelli, the Italian fashion designer, and designed the bottle for the perfume Shocking, which was to become the top selling perfume for the House of Schiaparelli.  The bottle was in the shape of a woman’s torso, which was said to be inspired by Mae West’s tailor’s dummy and Dalí paintings of flower-sellers.   The packaging was also designed by Fini and was in shocking pink, which was one of Schiaparelli’s signature colours.

Leonor Fini had a number of lovers but was married only once.  Her husband was Federico Veneziani but the marriage was short lived and following her liaison with the Italian Count, Stanislao Lepri, she and her husband divorced in 1941.  Lepri, who was the Italian consul in Monaco where Leonor was living, abandoned his career shortly after meeting Fini and the two lived together.  With her encouragement, Lepri became a painter, and the couple moved to Rome shortly before the Allies liberated the city in 1943.  Several years later, they returned together to what had once been her home in the rue Payenne, Paris.  In 1952 she met the Polish writer Konstanty Jelenski, known as Kot Jelenski, in Paris soon after the war.   Kot joined Leonor and Lepri in their Paris apartment in 1952 and the three remained inseparable until their deaths.   In a way she managed to put into practice one of her more famous quotes:

“…Marriage never appealed to me, I have never lived with one person. Since I was 18, I’ve always preferred to live in a sort of community – A big house with my atelier and cats and friends, one with a man who was rather a lover and another who was rather a friend. And it has always worked…”

In the summer of 1954, Leonor, during her travels, discovered a haven of tranquility in Corsica.  It was a ruined monastery near Nonza. It was set in a wild landscape and she immediately felt at peace in this place and from then on she would return to it every summer to paint.  Leonor was, from an early age, a great lover of literature and reading and she illustrated more than 50 works by writers such as Charles Baudelaire, who was one of her favourite authors. In her later life, she continued to design sets and costumes for the theatre, opera, and film.    In early 1960, Leonor Fini moved to an apartment in Paris’ rue de La Vrillière, between the Palais Royal and the Place des Victoires.  She was rarely alone, always in the company of her friends and surrounded by her numerous Persian cats, (at one point she had 23 cats) which along with the sphinx, often featured in her paintings.  Fini adored cats, which were Egyptian symbols of dignity and power, and she identified herself with the sphinx, the mythological hybrid of lion and woman.  She divided her time between the apartment and her home in Saint-Dyé-sur-Loire, in Touraine, up until her death in January 1996.  Leonor Fini died at the age of 88 but one of her obituaries commented that it was impossible to imagine her being old.   It went on to say that she would always be, for those who admired her, the wild, raven-haired, ill-proportioned beauty who haunted her pictures.   The lethal yet irresistible sphinx, the vampire we would most like to visit us.   Her obituary in The Times paid homage to her beauty, the erotic quality of her art and mentioned her legion of lovers whose names “read like a roll call of the literary and artistic talents of that brilliant age.”

She continued to be friends with some of the best known writers, artists, and thinkers of her time while simultaneously being a bona fide cat lady. Throughout her artwork, Leonor always venerated the female form.  She would often show females as the dominant ones of a partnership, who were protecting their male lovers or in some instances, women loving other women. She depicted women exploring their own identity at a time when female identity, both physically and mentally, was being defined by men.

My Daily Art Display featured work today is the painting entitled Petit Sphinx Ermite, (Little Hermit Sphinx), which Leonor Fini completed in 1948. Fini adored cats, and she used the image of the Sphinx, the mythological hybrid of a lion and woman, partly as a self-portrait. She looked upon the Sphinx as a symbolic intermediary between the human and animal realms, and between the conscious and the uncharted areas of the mind and spirit.   The sphinx in this work is child-like domesticated creature, which we see sitting in front of its ramshackle home. At its feet we see a skull of a bird and more bizarrely above the sphinx’s head we see a creatures body hanging from the door lintel, which in a way adds a sense of violence to the scene.

Maybe having seen the painting you will understand why I kept coming back to it, trying to fathom what it was all about !!!   Her works of art are fascinating and I urge you to take a look at more of her paintings.

Madame Récamier by Jacques-Louis David, Francois Gérard and Magritte

My Daily Art Display today is about one woman and three paintings.  The woman in question was Jeanne-Francois Julie Adélaïde Bernard Récamier and she was a celebrated French beauty and some would say she was the most beautiful and graceful woman of her day.   Add brains, confidence and charms to this exquisite loveliness and you have as they said, the perfect woman.

She was born in Lyons in 1777.  Her father Bernard was a banker and when she was young she and her father moved to Paris.   At the tender age of fifteen she married Jacques Récamier a wealthy banker, some thirty years her senior.  Her residence in Paris was a place of rest for the distinguished men of the day. She was the perfect hostess.  She was witty, a great conversationalist and a natural beauty and the soirées she held at her salon attracted the most important politicians and literary figures.   Invitations to her salon were much in demand, as to be a guest at her house guaranteed one the best of food and drink and the company of the “great and good”.   The fact that you attended one of her gatherings meant that you had achieved social respectability.   She entertained the likes of Lucien Napoleon, the young brother of Napoleon Bonaparte, and painters such as Gustave Moreau and Jacques-Louis David.  Madame Récamier, who had a sweet disposition and was unspoiled by the constant homage she received, was extremely well liked.  Strangely, there was never a hint of scandal regarding all the men that came to visit her.

All was going well until her husband was ruined financially through the policies of  Emperor Napoleon whom he had bankrolled and because of this the visitors to her salon were sympathetic to her and her husband and her house became a home for people who wanted Napoleon’s reign to come to an end.  This led to the Récamiers being forced into exile on the orders of Bonaparte and they fled to Italy for their own safety.   Madame Récamier did not return to France until the fall of Napoleon in 1815.  Husband and wife returned to Paris and she re-opened her salon but further financial setbacks befell them in 1819 and she had to move to a small apartment and despite the downsizing she still was inundated with eminent writers and statesmen.

Even in old age and with little money Madame Récamier retained her popularity.  Her health began to fail and she became almost blind but despite that she never lost her attraction.  Juliette Récamier died of cholera in 1849 aged 72 and is buried in the Cimitière de Montmartre.

Madame Récamier by Jacques-Louis David (1800)

Let us look now at the first of my three paintings and for this we must go back to the year 1800 when the artist Jacques-Louis David, a frequent visitor to her salon, was asked to paint a portrait of Madame Récamier.   The painter who favoured the Neoclassical style was looked upon as the pre-eminent painter of his day.  He had the young twenty-three year old lady bedecked in a white empire-line sleeveless dress like a modern version of a vestal virgin.  We view her from a distance and so her face looks quite small.  It is thought that David wanted his painting to be not just a mere portrait but an ideal of feminine elegance and charm.  Her antique pose, the bare décor and light dress all epitomize his neoclassical ideals.  She is shown in an almost bare space with the exception of the Pompeian furniture.  She reclines on a French empire méridienne sofa, looking slightly backwards over her right shoulder.  We know that David never finished the painting, which may account for the bareness of the canvas.  Besides the sofa there is just a stool and candelabra shown in the painting.  There is an austere minimalism to this painting.

Madame Récamier became impatient with David and the slowness of his work and, unbeknown to him, commissioned one of his pupils, Francois Gérard, to paint her portrait instead.  David, when he heard about this new commission was furious and said to Madame Récamier:

“….Women have their whims, and so do artists; allow me to satisfy mine by keeping this portrait….”

The painting never left David’s atelier until it was finally exhibited at the Louvre in 1826.

Madame Récamier by Francois Gérard (1802)

And so to the second of my three paintings; the one Madame Récamier commissioned Gérard to paint in 1802.  Besides the fact that she thought David was taking too long to complete the painting, she was also unhappy with what she saw on his canvas.  She thought his depiction of her was too low-key and was displeased with his portrayal of her in a Neoclassical style.

Gérard was by no means a novice painter.  In fact he was looked upon as one of the most popular portraitists of the day.  Her instructions to him were quite simple.  She wanted to be painted in a more natural setting.  She wanted a more close-up portrait which would emphasise her natural curvaceous beauty and she wanted her complexion to be somehow echoed in the colour of the background.  She must have been delighted with the finished painting.  The red curtain which acts as a backdrop compliments the sitter giving her flesh a rosy tint.  Look how the slight twist of her body, the low neckline of her Empire dress which only just cover her breasts and her bare feet exude a seductive yet charming air.  There is an erotic charisma about her demeanour.  However, it was not looked upon as erotic at the time.  It was said to be just an intimate and thoughtful pose.  Gérard’s version was not a type of Neoclassical painting.  He has followed more closely the Romanticism movement of the late 18th century.

Perspective: Madame Récamier by David by Magritte

So finally and briefly let us look at the third painting of Madame Récamier.   During the late 1940s and early 1950s, the Surrealist painter René Magritte made a series of “Perspective” paintings based on well-known works by the French artists François Gérard, Jacques Louis David, and Édouard Manet, in which he substituted coffins for the figures represented in the original paintings.  This 1951 irreverent work of art by Magritte, entitled Perspective: Madame Récamier by David is almost identical to the painting by Jacques-Louis David with the one big exception – where Madame Récamier reclined seductively; Magritte substituted her body with a coffin.    The only reminder we have of the lady is her white gown which we see cascading to the floor.

I will let you decide which painting you prefer and will close with one final piece of useful (useless?) information.  The next time you go into a furniture shop looking for a sofa and the haughty salesperson talks to you about possibly purchasing a récamier you will know what he is talking about as the piece of furniture we see Madame Récamier reclining on in Jacques-Louis David’s painting was named after her!!