Balthus, Thérèse, 1938
39.5 x 32 in.
Balthus (1908-2003) was a Polish-French painter, an important modern artist. Born Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, Balthus was staunchly opposed to any biographical information being given with his work (even once sending a telegram to the Tate Gallery that said "Balthus is a painter of whom nothing is known. Now let us look at the pictures."), so I will not say too much about his life. Born in Paris, his parents were among the Parisian cultural elite, his father an art historian and his mother a painter herself. Among the intellectuals he grew up around were Rainer Maria Rilke (a lover of his mother's), Andre Gide, and Jean Cocteau (who gained some inspiration for his novel Les Enfants Terribles from his visits to the family). Rilke became Balthus's sponsor and intellectual mentor. Balthus's distinctive style has a certain angularity as well as distinctive tonality. Although he had a long and diverse career, certain preoccupations appear repeatedly in his work. One of Balthus's main obsessions throughout his career is his love of cats, even calling his 1935 self-portrait The King of Cats. He also demonstrates a continual interest in painting young girls, and often combined the two. Sometimes these pieces were quite explicit, as in 1934's The Guitar Lesson. Balthus insisted these works were not erotic, but rather recognized the discomforting aspects of children's sexuality. He was also engaging with the status of women as sexual objects throughout art history. One of his earliest and most successful models was his neighbor Thérèse Blanchard. He first painted her with her brother, Hubert, and then several times by herself. One of his most successful pieces is Thérèse Dreaming (1938). This 1938 portrait is an extremely striking image, and unlike some similar pieces it does not verge on sexual. Thérèse fills almost the whole scene and her pose extends her legs, taking up more space. She does not look at us, but gazes off to the side, perhaps still dreaming. The colors here are quite well done—the greenish tinge of the wall and chair, her dark skirt, pale olive skin, and of course most prominently her red jacket that focuses the entire composition. This is a masterpiece of form and color, creating a thoroughly fascinating portrait of this young girl.