To raise oneself up toward beauty, and supplant grief and suffering by rediscovering childhood innocence. [To] create sacred work because it’s a way out of chaos.
To paint is not to represent, but to penetrate, to go to the heart of the secret, to work in a way to reflect the interior image. The painter is also a mirror; he reflects the mind, the line of interior light.…[and] project[s] himself toward [the dark unbreakable core] to draw from it the true identity of the person portrayed.
Balthus (Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, 1908-2001), a child prodigy in art, is best known for his precocious early drawings of cats and for his psychologically provocative and penetrating portraits of young girls on the threshold of puberty.2,3 His father, Erich Klossowski, was a noted Polish art historian, painter, and critic, and his mother, Elisabeth Klossowski, also known as Baladine, was an established painter. Because his parents were part of the cultural elite in Paris, France, Balthus was exposed to the world of art early in life. His childhood was disrupted by the outbreak of World War I when his parents’ status as German citizens forced the family to move to Berlin, Germany. They lived there under difficult circumstances that resulted in his parents’ separation in 1917; afterward, his mother moved to Switzerland with him and his brother. Rainer Maria Rilke, one of the leading German poets of his time, befriended her. Baladine illustrated Rilke’s poems and became his lover. Rilke became the leading influence in Balthus’ life and encouraged young Balthus’ artistic talent. In 1921, Rilke arranged for the publication of a book of 40 ink drawings by 12-year-old Balthus and wrote the preface to the book.3,4 The drawings illustrate Balthus’ emotional devastation at the loss of Mitsou, a stray cat he had taken in and loved. These drawings initiated Balthus’ lifelong fascination with cats.
The “Mitsou” drawings begin with Balthus finding a stray cat on a park bench. They go on to depict Balthus and Mitsou snuggling in bed, walking through the streets of Paris (with Mitsou prancing ahead), and sitting together by a Christmas tree. Balthus studied with the cat by his side; they played together under a table, and Mitsou once presented him with a dead mouse. Sadly, Mitsou went missing while Balthus was ill in bed. He searched frantically but could not find Mitsou. In the last drawing in the book, Balthus is shown crying inconsolably.
Balthus (Balthazar Klossowski de Rola; 1908-2001), French. Painting © Balthus, Girl With Cat, 1937. Oil on canvas, 87.6 × 77.7 cm (34½ × 30½ in). Edwin and Lindy Bergman Collection. Art Institute of Chicago.
Rilke’s continuing support allowed Balthus to study art and establish himself as an artist so that by 1933, Balthus had his first art studio in Paris and had begun his art career. In 1936, Balthus began his paintings of children using Thérèse Blanchard and her brother Hubert as his models. These paintings have become widely recognized.2,3 The children were his neighbors at the Cour de Rohan, near the place de l’Odeon in Paris. His painting of both sister and brother, The Children (1937), was later acquired by the Louvre Museum in Paris from the private collection of Pablo Picasso, a close friend, making Balthus one of the few living artists to be represented in its collection.
Balthus’ 10 paintings of the 11-year-old Thérèse Blanchard are among his best known. In them, Balthus captures the vulnerability and willfulness of a girl on the threshold of adolescence. These are realistic images that show her on the verge of puberty (Figure 1). In them, Thérèse appears self-absorbed, aloof, or dreaming; she never smiles. A cat is her sole companion and playmate. Balthus contrasts the image of this sly, knowing cat to that of the ostensibly innocent girl. Thérèse is not a pretty girl. Her hair is short and dark, and her eyes are darker still. A sense of intelligence, and some sense of her stubbornness too, is conveyed in these paintings. Balthus insisted his paintings of her were not erotic. However, others recognized in them a discomforting sense of a young woman’s emerging sexuality.2,3,5
In Girl With Cat (Figure 1), Thérèse is depicted reclining. She wears a red shirt and a hair band. Her kneesocks and sleeves are rolled asymmetrically; her left kneesock is falling down, and her left shirtsleeve is folded below the elbow. Perhaps she has been called away from play to pose. Her skin is pale with a turquoise tint. Her skirt rises up too far, showing white undergarments that, along with her red shirt, stand out against the dark background of the painter’s studio. A fat, placid tiger cat whose facial expression mirrors her own is at her side.
Balthus has imbued Thérèse with an innocent exhibitionism, capturing her in an unguarded moment.3 Still, many viewers find her pose suggestive. Balthus always emphasized her innocence and referred to the young girls that he painted as angelic. The 1995 Penguin edition of Vladimir Nabakov’s novel Lolita used Girl With Cat on its cover. In 1996, Balthus told Michael Kimmelman, the chief art critic of the New York Times: “I really don’t understand why people see the paintings of girls as Lolitas. You know why I paint little girls?…Little girls are the only creatures today who can be Poussins, pure and timeless. My little model is absolutely untouchable to me. Some American journalist said he found my work pornographic. What does he mean? Advertising [with female models] is pornographic.”6(p7,8) As for Nabakov’s book, Balthus said that the subject did not interest him.
In 1940, following the invasion of France by German forces, Balthus, with his wife of 3 years, Antoinette, fled to the French region of Savoy and then to Switzerland, where he joined the French Resistance. After the war, he returned to France, eventually settling in Château de Chassy in the Morvan in Burgundy where he was joined by his 16-year-old niece by marriage, Frédérique Tison, who became his favorite model.
Balthus (Balthazar Klossowski de Rola; 1908-2001), French. Painting © Balthus, Young Girl at the Window, 1955. Oil on canvas, 196 × 126 cm. Private collection.
In Young Girl at the Window (Figure 2), Frédérique is depicted from behind as she leans far out of one of Balthus’ studio windows on the second floor at Château de Chassy. Wearing a red pullover and blue skirt, she rests her left knee on a chair to maintain her balance as she leans out the window. The sunlight highlights the line along her left shoulder and arm. The window faces west and looks out toward a barn on a nearby hill lit by the sun. The gnarled tree branches are lit in a manner that creates an ornamental lattice in the landscaped screen before her; it contrasts with the gray interior. The painting has none of the suggestiveness many see in Girl with Cat. Instead, the painting elicits a sense of adolescent longing.3 The mood is pensive, not melancholic. It reflects the dreaminess of adolescence and emphasizes Balthus’ growing expertise in landscape painting.
Balthus’ reclusive way of life ended in 1961, when, at the invitation of André Malraux, the French Minister of Culture, he became director of the French Academy in Rome, Italy, and remained in that position for 16 years. In 1966, he divorced Antoinette and, the following year, married Seksuku Ideta, a Japanese artist, in Tokyo, Japan. During the last 30 years of his long life, Balthus was a widely admired painter and stage designer. Following his years in Rome at the French Academy, Balthus secluded himself from the public. He said that he needed quiet to work because painting was like prayer for him. In his last years, he said that “one should die amid the sweet promise of meeting God, in the splendor of which, I’m convinced, painting has always sought to pave the way.”1(p230)
Throughout his long and productive life, he completed 350 paintings and 1600 drawings. He died at 92 years of age in February 2001. His home was always filled with cats. His last cat, a gift from his daughter Harumi, was named Mitsou II, after the stray cat of his boyhood that launched his career in art.
Corresponding Author: James C. Harris, MD, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Developmental Neuropsychiatry, Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, 1800 Orleans St, Baltimore, MD 21287 (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Conflict of Interest Disclosures: None reported.
Balthus. Vanished Splendors: A Memoir. Ivry B, trans. New York, NY: HarperCollins; 2002
S. Balthus: Cats and Girls. New York, NY: Metropolitan Museum of Art; 2013.
A. Balthus and Cats. Radzinowicz D, trans. Paris, France: Flammarion; 2013.
NF. Balthus: A Biography. New York, NY: Knopf; 1999.
M. Portraits: Talking With Artists at the Met, the Modern, the Louvre, and Elsewhere. New York, NY: Random House; 1998.