Laurencin, Marie (1883–1956)
Laurencin, Marie (1883–1956)
French artist, poet, book illustrator, and set designer. Born in Paris, France, on October 31, 1883; died in Paris on June 8, 1956; buried in Père Lachaise cemetery; illegitimate daughter of Pauline Laurencin and Alfred Toulet; married Baron Otto von Waëtjen, on June 21, 1914 (divorced 1921); no children.
Entered the Lycée Lamartine (1893); studied porcelain painting at the École de Sèvres (1902–03); attended Académie Humbert (1903–04); met Georges Braque (1903); exhibited at Salon des Indépendants, Paris (1907); began six-year affair with Guillaume Apollinaire (1907); held first individual exhibit of her paintings, Galarie Barbazanges, Paris (1912); lived in Spain (1914–19); returned to Paris (1921); designed sets and costumes for "Les Biches," Ballet Russes (1923); awarded Legion of Honor (1937); published memoirs, Le Carnet des nuits (1942); adopted Suzanne Moreau (1954); inauguration of Marie Laurencin Museum, Nagano-Ken, Japan (1983).
There is a quality of child-like innocence that pervades the life and art of Marie Laurencin. Yet she was the only female artist associated with, and accepted by, the male-dominated, exclusive avant-garde art movements in early 20th-century Paris. In fact, it is difficult to envision the primly dressed, bourgeois-mannered young woman as an intimate of the aggressive, boisterous male artists and writers who comprised the inner sanctum of Pablo Picasso's studio, the Bateau-Lavoir, on the rue Ravignan in Montmartre. The bold artistic and literary productions of the group, which included Juan Gris, Matisse, Modigliani, Georges Braque, Max Jacob, and Guillaume Apollinaire, are in glaring contrast to the paintings of Marie Laurencin whose talent "ranged between a flutter and a coo," as she described it. She observed and listened to the creative giants of her time, the Cubists, Fauvists, Dadaists, Symbolists, and Surrealists, but she was not an imitator; she did "not try to compete with male artists on their own ground."
Apollinaire, poet and art critic, praised Laurencin's "typically French grace," her "vibrant and joyful" personality, and her feminine qualities. He believed, "The greatest error of most women artists is that they try to surpass men, losing in the process their taste and their charm." Laurencin was different, however, continued Apollinaire, "She is aware of the deep differences that separate men from women—essential, ideal differences…. Purity is her very element." This appraisal of a talented artist may have been, in part, colored by the fact that Laurencin and Apollinaire were lovers at the time. Marie did, no doubt, embody a feminine aesthetic which was greatly admired by her contemporaries. As her friend, the poet André Salmon, expressed it, "there is something of a fairy wand in the brush of Marie Laurencin." And with this delicate wand, she created a soft, pastel, feminine world that contrasted sharply with the vivid, arbitrary colors and geometric figures emanating from Picasso's flamboyant and daring coterie of male artists.
If I feel so distant from other painters, it is because they are men…. But if the genius of men intimidates me, I feel perfectly at ease with everything that is feminine.
It is curious that Marie Laurencin was able to develop and sustain warm relations with male friends, because her formative years were devoid of male influences. She was an illegitimate only child whose father made only occasional "unwelcome intrusions" in her life, but she idolized, and also feared, her elegant, aloof, authoritarian mother, Pauline, who "spoke little and sang very well." Pauline Laurencin came from Normandy and was said to be of Creole stock. Marie was given her mother's surname and inherited the "frizzy hair, rather full lips, and almond eyes" attributed to Creoles at that time. She was tall and thin and rather awkward in her movements. Laurencin claims she was "triste, laide, et sans espoir" ("sad, ugly, and without hope") when she was young. Her absentee father, Alfred Toulet, a deputy to the National Assembly from Picardy, was already married to another woman when Marie was born. His infrequent visits disturbed Laurencin who "had a horror of all these masculine episodes—the louder voice, the kisses on the forehead" which struck her as rather crude. Gertrude Stein , the most famous American expatriate, art connoisseur, and permanent resident of Paris, who knew and liked Marie, said the Laurencin women lived like two nuns in a convent, a rather sagacious observation for Pauline had intended to become a Carmelite nun.
Marie Laurencin was an indifferent student and preferred the study of music and literature to painting; she was an avid reader and had a library of over 500 volumes when she died. All her life she had close friends in the Parisian literary community. When she began drawing at an early age, her mother discouraged her efforts and regularly destroyed her drawings. Pauline wanted Marie to be a teacher, but after graduating from the Lycée Lamartine, Marie began to study painting. She first attended the École de Sèvres to learn porcelain painting, and she also took drawing classes in Paris from the famous flower painter Madeleine Lamaire . Laurencin entered the Académie Humbert in 1903 and did her first etchings. Here she met the brilliant Georges Braque, who admired her talent and eventually introduced her to Picasso. In the early 1900s, Laurencin did a series of self-portraits which reveal "her inherent narcissism." Some critics allege that all her portraits of women resemble herself; as one remarked, "for [Laurencin] all of nature is nothing but a room of mirrors."
The year 1907 was a watershed in Laurencin's life and art, for Braque introduced her to Picasso and his circle of associates which included the poet, and aspiring art critic, Guillaume Apollinaire. To be allied with this avantgarde circle would prove to be immensely beneficial to Marie at this early stage of her career, and she was the only female admitted into this exclusively male bastion. For decades, her name would be linked to Picasso, Gris, Modigliani, Max Jacob, Francis Carco, and André Salmon. Apollinaire had met Picasso in 1904, and their friendship merged the poet's Left Bank literary crowd with Picasso's Montmartre group. Laurencin's inclusion in this artists' enclave led to her meeting Apollinaire; Picasso, certainly in jest, told Apollinaire that he had found his poet friend a "fiancée" and arranged for them to meet at Clovis Sagot's art gallery in Paris. The attraction was immediate and mutual between "the prophet of the Modern Movement" and the quiet artistic novice. To Apollinaire, Laurencin became his "little sun, a feminine counterpart of himself," a "twin soul." They were inseparable and were lovers for the next six years.
At age 24, Marie still lived with her mother, as did the 27-year-old Apollinaire. Both were illegitimate, brought up by domineering women, and both were "hypersensitive, capricious, and moody." Apollinaire had already established his literary reputation among the Symbolists and was a "cosmopolitan erudite" figure in Paris; Laurencin was thoroughly Parisian, never happy or comfortable outside of her familiar surroundings. Tyrannical and possessive, Apollinaire provided Laurencin with intellectual stimulation and encouraged her work. They were more than lovers, according to Douglas Hyland, "they were alter egos who completed one another."
Apollinaire was known to want to fashion, to shape, his women, and Laurencin was no exception. He and his artist friends "were the catalysts that sparked Laurencin's unique artistic vision"; moreover, he recognized her stylistic strengths and encouraged her to follow them. Consequently, the period from 1907 to 1914 is considered by critics to have been her best years as a painter. Marie, too, admitted: "The little I learned was taught me by the men whom I call great painters, my contemporaries, Matisse, Derain, Picasso, Braque…. If I never became a Cu bist painter it was because I never could… but their experiments fascinated me." Apollinaire launched Laurencin's career in the Paris art world, praised her work in his art columns, and ranked her among the great talents of the time.
If Apollinaire was understandably biased by his involvement with Marie, not everyone was so charmed by the young Parisian naïf. Picasso's mistress, Fernande Olivier , remarked that Marie had "the air of a little girl who was naive and a little vicious … a homely yet piquant-looking creature." Margaret Davies claims that Laurencin seemed rather like "a child lost among sophisticated adults" in her relations with the Montmartre group. If Marie was viewed as an
innocent among this unconventional bohemian set of hedonists, the fastidious, bourgeois, gourmand Apollinaire was also a distinct presence among them. Olivier claimed that because of his penchant for neatness he and Marie made love in an armchair to avoid wrinkling his bed covers—"his bed was sacred." Surprisingly, Laurencin and her lover never lived together, but Apollinaire did move out of his mother's house to live near Marie and her mother. And the lovers never married; both of their mothers strongly disapproved not only of their liaison but of their unorthodox, "ne'er-do-well" friends. One might reasonably assume that sex was only a part of Laurencin's and Apollinaire's mutual attraction; as an art critic, he promoted her work and encouraged her native talent, but his poems that dealt with their love affair are strikingly less sensual than those dealing with his other women. The Spanish poet, Ramon Gomez de la Serva, who knew Marie well, called her "la froide mais angélique Marie" ("the cold but angelic Marie").
Laurencin's association with the artistic avant-garde resulted in her being included in their exhibit at the Salon des Indépendants in the autumn 1907. Cubists, Fauvists, and Symbolists were shunned by the more academic art movements and thus were forced to organize their own "independent" exhibitions. That Marie was accepted as a full-fledged member of the artistic elite is evidenced by her presence at the famous banquet held in Picasso's studio to honor Henri "Le Douanier" Rousseau in 1908. The following year, Rousseau portrayed Laurencin and Apollinaire in his painting "The Muse inspiring the poet." Marie also used friends as subjects; in 1908, she did her celebrated canvas, Apollinaire and His Friends. Apollinaire occupies a prominent position at the center of the painting, surrounded by Marie, Picasso, Fernande Olivier, and his dog Frika. One critic described it as "a flat, primitivizing composition dominated by sharp contours and arabesques." It appealed, however, to Gertrude and Leo Stein who bought it; Picasso also owned one of Laurencin's Cubist-inspired paintings, La Songeuse (The Dreamer). A year later, a larger, more ambitious painting of "friends," including Gertrude Stein and others, was completed. It belonged to Apollinaire, who hung it above his bed in the apartment he later shared with his wife Jacqueline Kolb . These two compositions show the Cubist influence on Laurencin's work during her early career, a distinct contrast to her later paintings in which soft pastels dominate, creating a kind of dream-like, fairyland quality. Laurencin cannot, however, be classified as a Cubist painter; this is evident in her two paintings, Portrait of Mme Fernande X and Young Girls (Jeunes Filles), included in the Cubist exhibition of 1911. Linked to the Cubists, but not one of them, Laurencin continued to exhibit in their gallery shows. In 1912, her paintings hung among those of Marcel Duchamp, Juan Gris, Robert Delaunay, and others at the Galerie La Boëtie and the Galerie Barbazanges.
By 1912, Laurencin was gradually breaking away from her domineering lover. When Apollinaire realized he was losing Marie, he responded by writing poems with her as the subject; "Le Pont Mirabeau," "Cors de Chasse," and "Marie" are all reflections on their fading love. In one of his finest poems, "Zone," he mourns the loss which propelled him "into one of his great troughs of despair." Shattered and unable to be alone, Apollinaire moved in with friends. A mutual friend, Louise Faure-Favier , tried to get the lovers to reconcile, but Marie adamantly refused. Even so, the poet and his muse remained in contact after their affair ended, and Apollinaire continued to hope that Laurencin would reconsider. In 1915, he told his fiancée Jacqueline (later his wife) that "with Marie it was a cerebral affair." Apollinaire's biographer, Margaret Davies, seems to endorse his assessment, stating that Marie "was a specifically French phenomenon, the 'jolie-laide' (pretty-ugly), who manages to prove that mind can always triumph over matter." In his La Poète assassiné (1916), Apollinaire recounts their turbulent affair; the hero is Croniamantal, a poet, the heroine, Tristouse Ballerinette, is his mistress about whom he writes, "She has the somber and child-like face of those destined to make men suffer." With Laurencin, as Francis Steegmuller notes, Apollinaire had "the most complete physical and spiritual relationship" he ever experienced.
Apollinaire was devastated by the break-up of their affair, but Laurencin was not; in fact, she did not need him any longer. An established artist in her own right now, Marie had secured a distinctive place in the world of modern art. In 1913, she obtained a contract with the German art dealer Alfred Flechtheim and, more important, with the Parisian dealer Paul Rosenberg. In addition, seven of her works were exhibited in the Armory show in New York. Laurencin was free now of the philandering Apollinaire, and when her mother died in 1913, she was finally on her own, free of the two persons who had been the dominating influences in her life.
Her independence did not last long, however, for in June 1914, she married Baron Otto von Waëtjen—a most inopportune time to marry a German national as war between France and Germany was imminent. Waëtjen was from a good noble family and had come to Paris to study art at the Académie Humbert. Charlotte Gere describes him as a competent artist in straight portraiture, though "little more than a competent plagiarist, without originality [or] imagination." But, she notes further, he considered his talent superior to Laurencin's.
After they married, Marie and Otto left for a beach on the Atlantic coast of France. When war broke out, they fled south to Bordeaux and then to Spain, where they would live for almost five years. Laurencin never saw Apollinaire again; he joined the French army in December 1914 and was sent to the front. He suffered a serious head wound two years later and never fully recovered. Apollinaire died in the influenza epidemic of 1918. During the war, he had sent poems to Laurencin in Spain through a friend in Paris. He missed his "muse," Marie missed Paris. Despite being involved with the avantgarde movement in Madrid, she was lonely and depressed. She was, however, able to study the works of Goya, and during this time her characteristic, mature style began to emerge. Laurencin was not inspired to paint while in exile—she was isolated from her beloved and familiar Paris and from her friends. However, she did have contact with Picabia and the Dadaists in Madrid and Barcelona, and she contributed several poems to the Dada review 391. Untouched by her contacts with Dadaism, she was influenced by Spanish culture; several of Laurencin's postwar paintings include the Spanish-inspired figure of a young girl with a black shawl in her group scenes of dancers. At the end of the war, Marie and Otto left Spain for Düsseldorf (1919). Here she designed wallpaper for an Art Deco decorator and did the illustrations for a friend's novel. But Laurencin still had little inclination to paint. She was still an expatriate, still longing for "her" Paris.
In 1921, Marie returned to Paris and began divorce proceedings. Some of her acquaintances assumed that she divorced Otto because he was German. In fact, Otto was an alcoholic, and their marriage had deteriorated. Laurencin never allowed even close friends to be privy to her most intimate thoughts and actions; not even her mother or Apollinaire had fathomed the depths of her character. Laurencin's world was private and closed; her reality was of her own creation, reflected and re-created in her art. The von Waëtjen family in Germany had lost everything in the war. Quietly and consistently, Laurencin remained in touch with them, sending money when she could. Moreover, she kept in contact with Otto in Paris until he died in 1942.
Marie never remarried, but she had numerous male friends and several lovers. Apollinaire had been a philanderer, and her marriage to Otto had forced her to live in exile, cut off from her "natural" surroundings. Now her work would occupy her energies, and her close female friends, who made fewer demands on her than men, became important to her need for a more settled, stable lifestyle. Nicole Grout , a fashion designer and sister of the famous couturier Paul Poiret, was one of her intimate friends. Armand Lowengard, nephew of a well-known Paris art dealer, was Marie's devoted companion for many years; a scholar and graduate of Oxford, he wanted to marry her although his family disapproved. There were rumors that Marie had female as well as male lovers. Her name was associated with Natalie Clifford Barney and the Princess Violet Murat . If true, Marie's relationships with Barney's openly lesbian circle of famous and talented women did not damage her reputation with the public.
Laurencin's artistic career of 50 years can be divided into three distinct periods, as can her life. The first phase dates from her introduction into Picasso's circle until the end of World War I, during which time she produced large, complex paintings in bold colors. The two versions of Apollinaire and His Friends and Les Deux Soeurs (The Two Sisters) all reveal Cubist influence, as interpreted by Laurencin, of course. Her last large canvas, Society Ball, was completed in 1913. No young artist could have been more fortunate than Marie, to have one's own "publicity agent" in the person of the well-connected Apollinaire who praised and publicized her work, including her among the best of the experimental artists of the time in his critiques written for avant-garde journals. Marie's association with Picasso, Gris, Modigliani, and other "moderns" also provided her entrée to Gertrude Stein's select gatherings. And with Stein, Laurencin also acquired another admirer of her individual style. Then, in her second creative phase, Marie turned to feminine portraits, employing "an entirely feminine aesthetic," as Apollinaire described it; virginal women with pale, oval-shaped faces, fair hair, and black, almond-shaped "fathomless" eyes.
This second phase of Laurencin's long career began when she returned to Paris in 1921; her most productive period was the two decades between the wars. From 1921 to 1937, Laurencin produced her most typical, and recognizable, work, which reveals her mature style. Marie had found her own artistic genre, and "her mood too shifted to one of lyrical melancholy." Her world was depicted in muted pastel hues of soft pink, pale blue, dove-grey, and a dominance of shades of white, and this world was "an orderly feminine one, in which it was difficult to imagine the male." Marie consciously and aggressively took charge of her art and of her life. She commenced a business arrangement with Paul Rosenberg who exhibited her pictures in his Paris gallery and received large commissions from the sale of her paintings. He also paid all her bills, relieving her of this banal burden. With her reputation re-established after a single exhibition on her return to Paris, Laurencin was suddenly financially secure. She achieved great success as a portrait artist and painted some of the most fashionable and famous people of the time, including the Baronne Gourgaud, Coco Chanel , Lady Emerald Cunard (Maud Cunard ), and W. Somerset Maugham. Coco Chanel disliked her portrait, saying it did not look like her, but as one of Marie's critics remarked, "likeness was never the primary aim of Laurencin's portraiture." When Lady Cunard, an elegant London society hostess, expressed her displeasure at being portrayed on a horse, Laurencin threatened to replace the horse with a camel. The horse remained, for Marie always won artistic debates with her clients. The gentle, dream-like depiction of Lady Cunard hung in her fashionable residence in London and was greatly admired by her society guests. Laurencin had intended to paint her friend Adrienne Monnier , whose bookstore was one of the literary focal points of Paris, but Adrienne insisted that Marie include her nose in the painting—Laurencin portraits were often "noseless." "I don't see you with a nose," Laurencin informed her, and no portrait was done.
Preferring to paint slender, willowy young women, Marie charged double for portraits of men—except for Maugham, who was a personal friend. The Maugham portrait is not one of her more notable paintings, and Laurencin made a gift of it to Maugham; years later, he professed not to care for Laurencin's style, but he kept the painting. Marie also increased her price for those who bored her, and for brunettes since she preferred blondes. And she avoided painting children—they did not arouse her creative senses. Marie needed to relate to her subjects, to be "in sympathy spiritually" with them. In light of this, it is striking that so many of her portraits of women resemble one another and, as some critics claim, actually look more like the artist than themselves.
Laurencin's talent extended beyond portraiture. In 1923, she designed the set and costumes for Sergei Diaghilev's ballet, Les Biches (The Does, or Hinds), choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska , sister of the famous Russian dancer Nijinsky. First performed by the Ballets Russes in Monte Carlo in 1924, it was also a resounding success in Paris and later in London and Berlin. A revival of the ballet in London in 1964 included exact reproductions of Laurencin's set and costumes which had contributed so much to the initial success of the Diaghilev ballet. Other famous artists, including Picasso, Matisse, and Juan Gris, also designed sets—at the time, art was not confined to canvas and stone or to displaying one's work in art galleries. To many of the Cubists, Symbolists, and others of the 1920s' avant-garde, art was wed to literature and to theater, and their interests were inclusive rather than exclusive. Laurencin's contribution to Les Biches led to further commissions, and she continued to produce stage designs and costumes for over two decades; her last involvement was with Sleeping Beauty for Ballets de Monte Carlo in 1947. She also collaborated with André Grout on the "Chambre de Madame" for the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs in Paris (1925). Laurencin was a multitalented artist, never limited to a single genre to express her imagination and creativity. Wallpaper, interior decoration, stage settings, costumes, portraits, paintings of flowers and landscapes were all within her realm of art.
In the 1920s and 1930s, Marie was one of the three most well-known women in France, along with Colette and Coco Chanel. She exhibited in Paris, London, New York, and Berlin, and her paintings sold well. In 1925, she was able to acquire a country house in Champrosay and three years later purchased a large apartment in Paris. The Laurencin exhibits attracted admirers and buyers; in addition to portraits, she painted flowers and a few landscapes which attracted additional admirers and buyers. Laurencin also illustrated more than 20 books. In 1929, Janet Flanner (writing under her famous nom-de-plume Gênet) penned her regular "Letter from Paris" for The New Yorker magazine: her subject, Laurencin's illustration of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Alice, Flanner notes, looked like Laurencin, and the Rabbit wore "a little pink Marie Laurencin hat and looks like a French poodle." She was not a great fan of Laurencin's portraits, either. This negative reaction was not widespread, however. Marie was in demand by both authors and publishers; she illustrated Katherine Mansfield 's Garden Party and books by André Gide and Marcelle Auclair (the founder of MarieClaire fashion magazine in France). Respected and successful, Laurencin taught at an art academy in Paris from 1932 to 1935.
The third, and final, phase of Laurencin's extensive career is regarded by most critics as her "bad" period. Her work then is said to lack the delicacy of earlier periods, with "a much coarser use of form and color." Critics claim to observe a decline in quality, even in her portraits of women that frequently "verge on the saccharine." She was considered "dated" and too obviously stylized, too predictable. To a great extent, this is true; Laurencin had developed her own distinctive style, her own vision of reality, and she changed little in the depiction of her chosen subjects. Her artistic genre had brought her international recognition and financial rewards; her success was not based on imitating "popular" styles nor on following or reacting to modern trends. Instead, Laurencin insisted that she painted nature as she saw it, that she was a "natural painter," not an "instinctive" one.
The French government awarded Laurencin the Legion of Honor in 1937 and purchased her painting The Rehearsal which hangs in the Musée National d'Art Moderne in Paris. Two years later, Europe was embroiled in another war, but Laurencin risked her life to remain in Paris—she wanted to complete paintings she was working on. Invasion and occupation by the Germans was obviously less odious to her than living in exile again. Paris was her home, her artistic milieu, and a German presence could be tolerated better than a lonely, isolated existence in a foreign land. Like Natalie Barney, Marie regarded women as victims of war as much as men were, and she endured the privations suffered by civilians in Paris during the bleak years of Nazi occupation, 1940–44. The Germans requisitioned her large apartment, and she was forced to move into a smaller one and rent a studio. Despite the hardships, Laurencin continued to paint during the war, to design sets, and to exhibit her work. In 1942, a book of memories and reminiscences was published, entitled Le Carnet des Nuits (literally, The Notebook of Nights).
Laurencin suffered from a variety of ailments and serious bouts of depression for many years, but she continued to paint until she was nearly 70. Following the liberation of France and the end of the war, Marie tried, unsuccessfully, to reclaim her apartment. She went to court in 1951, but the case was not settled until 1955, when she finally regained possession. Before her claim was settled, she adopted her housekeeper, Suzanne Moreau , who had been with her for almost 30 years. (After Laurencin's death, Suzanne would become the zealous guardian of her reputation, refusing scholars access to Marie's papers to protect her benefactor's much-cherished privacy.) Marie Laurencin died of a heart attack on June 6, 1956, and was buried in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, joining Apollinaire, Colette, Gertrude Stein, and other great cultural icons.
In 1983, the 100th anniversary of her birth saw the inauguration of the Marie Laurencin Museum in Nagano-Ken, Japan. Her paintings still sell well—Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis owned one—and continue to be exhibited; in Paris, her work hangs among that of Dufy, Modigliani, Léger, and other famous artists of her time.
An artist and a poet's muse, she painted a world she viewed through her short-sighted eyes, was a friend of some of the greatest creative figures of the 20th century, and skillfully managed to fashion a personal life that met her need for privacy and independence. A long-time friend described Marie Laurencin as "a poetic being who managed to sustain the magic of childhood throughout her life," a life that was "a peculiar mélange of nun and libertine."
Davies, Margaret. Apollinaire. Edinburgh and London: Oliver and Boyd, 1964.
Gere, Charlotte. Marie Laurencin. NY: Rizzoli, 1977.
Hyland, Douglas, and Heather McPherson. Laurencin: Artist and Muse. Birmingham, AL: Birmingham Museum of Art, 1989.
Steegmuller, Francis. Apollinaire: Poet Among Painters. NY: Farrar, Straus, 1963.
Allard, Roger. Marie Laurencin. Editions de la Nouvelle Revue Française, 1921.
Day, George. Marie Laurencin. Paris, 1947.
Olivier, Fernande. Picasso et ses amis. Paris: Stock, 1933.
Shattuck, Roger. The Banquet Years. London: Farber, 1960.
Warnod, Jeannine. Le Bateau-Lavoir. Paris: Presses de la Connaissance, 1976.
Marie Laurencin's unpublished correspondence, notebooks, photographs, official documents, and exhibition catalogues are located in the Bibliothèque Jacques Doucet, Paris, France.
Jeanne A. Ojala , Professor of History, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, Utah