BALTHUS, Baltusz Klossowski de Rola,
a French painter, 1908-2001
Texts and pictures 2009 retrieved from:
Since 1933 by Balthus,
"Guitar Lesson" 1934 at:
“André Derain” 1936,
© 2009 Oxford University Press
Source: Oxford Art Online
French painter, illustrator and stage designer 1908-2001.
Appreciated for many years by only a handful of collectors,
and ostensibly out of step with the modern movement,
Balthus’ classically inspired work won the recognition
and admiration of a wider public only late in his career.
Although he received no formal training,
he came from a highly artistic family background.
His father, Erich Klossowski (1875–1949),
was a painter and art historian,
born to an
aristocratic family in
and the author of a book on Daumier;
his brother, Pierre Klossowski,
was to become a painter and writer;
and his mother, Elizabeth Spiro, was also a painter.
Beginning in 1919, she engaged, under the name of Baladine,
in a long-lasting relationship with the poet Rainer Maria Rilke,
providing etchings to accompany many of his poems.
In this environment Balthus met the writers André Gide and
his earliest guidance. Rilke also acted as Balthus’s mentor,
writing the preface for an album of drawings by the 13-year-old
narrative themes and stylistic traits of the later work are already
Apart from a cycle of religious paintings in tempera (1927)
works are Parisian scenes, which betray influences not only
from Old Masters but also from his friends Pierre Bonnard and
The culminating work of this first period is The Street
of the Quattrocento is blended with memories of the
illustrations for the children’s story Struwwelpeter by
Heinrich Hoffmann, and those
In April 1934 Balthus exhibited a group of erotic paintings,
based on illustrations he had done in 1933 for Emily Brontë’s
Their unusual character and overt sexuality, allied to the
fact that Loeb was then representing the Surrealists, and
that the exhibition was enthusiastically reviewed by
Antonin Artaud, created the false myth of Balthus as a
Through Artaud, Balthus became involved with stage design
Aix-en-Provence in 1950.
During this period Balthus also established himself as an
outstanding portrait painter with penetrating studies
of André Derain
while continuing to explore a troubling eroticism in
pictures of childhood and puberty such as
(1938; private col, see 1983 catalogue, no. 52),
and at Google images),
(1937, Louvre) once owned by Picasso, and
In the mid-1930s Balthus returned to his earlier interest
in landscape, notably in The Mountain (Summer)
this represents memories of the mountainous terrain near
Berne in which he had lived as a child and to which he was
to return in 1977.
His interest in landscape was further confirmed when he
matured after his move c. 1954–5 to the château de Chassy
The period at Chassy is distinguished by a marked
lightening of the palette, dryness of the paint surface,
occasionally mannered systematic brushwork and
conspicuous lack of depth, as in
Large Landscape with Trees (the Triangular Field)
(1955; H. Gomès priv. col., see 1983 exh. cat., p. 181).
while still living in
paintings that rank as masterpieces:
The Room (1952–4; priv. col., see 1983 exh. cat., p. 171)
and Passage du Commerce-St-André (1952–4; priv. col.,
see 1983 exh. cat., p. 175).
The claustrophobic atmosphere of the former, full of
intrigue and anxiety, could be taken as an illustration
of Artaud’s concept of the Theatre of Cruelty, although
in mood it is also reminiscent of Henry Füseli.
The other is a companion piece to his earlier painting
The Street. Taking as its setting a pedestrian alley
Balthus lived in
the Cour de Rohan near the Odéon), it is also an
allegory of the ages of man, and a comment on history,
particularly on the French Revolutionary events with
which this street was closely associated.
In 1961 André Malraux, then French Minister of Culture,
appointed Balthus as Director of the Académie de France
This brought about an abrupt change of direction in his
work, as his energies became directed by his taste for
the theatre and for history.
He supervised the restoration of the Villa Medici,
rediscovering ancient frescoes, and replanted the
gardens in their old splendour.
His few paintings from this period, such as the
Turkish Room (1966; Paris, Pompidou), and some
from later years, as in the Painter and his Model
(1981; Paris, Pompidou), are set in and around the villa.
They betray a final influence, that of Japanese art,
by a trip to
his second wife.
From Grove Art Online
© 2009 Oxford University Press
in a real place—the rue Bourbon-le-Château,
Part of the work's tension comes from the diversity in the traditions it fuses. Its receding architectural perspective emulates Renaissance geometry, for Balthus much admired Quattrocento artists, particularly Piero della Francesca. But another, quite different influence links him to his Surrealist peers: long after painting The Street, he would still say that he had never stopped seeing things as he saw them in childhood. He well knew children's books such as Lewis Carroll's "Alice" stories, with their illustrations by John Tenniel, and, indeed, the girl caught in the tussle has been said to be Alice herself; the youth in the center resembles Tweedledum or Tweedledee; and the man with the plank could be Carroll's carpenter, without his walrus companion-though his simultaneous resemblance to a figure in Piero's Discovery and Proving of the True Cross, at Arezzo (c. 1455), suggests a different symbolic register.
Painting and Sculpture