Hovering between innocence and knowledge

The Met on a Balthus exhibition in 2013:

Balthus: Cats and Girls—Paintings and Provocations explores the origins and permutations of the French artist’s focus on felines and the dark side of childhood. Balthus’s lifelong fascination with adolescence resulted in his most iconic works: girls on the threshold of puberty, hovering between innocence and knowledge. In these pictures, Balthus mingles intuition into his young sitters’ psyches with an erotic undercurrent and forbidding austerity, making them some of the most powerful depictions of childhood and adolescence committed to canvas.

That’s a very Humbert Humbert sort of take. It frames the girls as budding prostitutes, gradually learning how to lure men. It also frames them as being all about sexuality and nothing else, when in fact it’s Balthus who is leering at them.

Between 1936 and 1939, Balthus painted the celebrated series of 10 portraits of Thérèse Blanchard (1925-1950), his young neighbor in Paris. They are regarded as his most perceptive and sensitive portrayals of a young sitter and are among his finest works. At this point in Balthus’s career, the artist was chafing under the burden of portrait commissions, which he resented. So his neighbor’s youth must have been a welcome respite. But then, Balthus always felt a kinship with children; even as a child himself, he had been conscious of childhood’s importance. The portraits of Thérèse show her reading or daydreaming, posing alone, with her cat, or with her brother Hubert.

Therese teaser


And lounging with one foot on the floor and the other on the same plane as her body, with Balthus positioned between her knees and her skirt dropped back toward her hips. She’s “daydreaming” and the nice man next door is painting her crotch.

Thérèse became the inspiration of the leitmotif in his oeuvre until the years toward the end of his life, as the artist found other models and muses. In Balthus’s work, all of the girls who play with cats peer into mirrors, read, daydream, or appear completely self-absorbed. Their ostensibly unself-conscious postures sometimes suggest sensuality and languor, sometimes ungainliness—a contradiction that is perfectly in keeping with the phenomenon of puberty. Balthus rendered his young models with as much dignity and importance as someone their own age would have perceived them.

And with their legs wide open for the viewer’s convenience.

I wonder what killed poor Thérèse Blanchard at 25.

Thanks to Sackbut for the link.

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