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Artists Balthus
Balthus Photo


French Painter, Illustrator, and Theatrical Set Designer

Born: February 29, 1908 - Paris, France

Died: February 18, 2001 - Rossiniere, Switzerland

Balthus Timeline


"Painting is a language which cannot be replaced by another language, I don't know what to say about what I paint, really."
"Balthus is a painter about whom nothing is known."
"I was born in this century, but I belong much more to the 19th century."
"Everything now is pornographic. Advertising is pornographic. You see a young woman putting on some beauty product who looks like she's having an orgasm. I've never made anything pornographic."
"The subject has no importance. The subject for me is always a pretext to make a painting."
"One must always draw, draw with the eyes, when one cannot draw with a pencil."
"Painting is the passage from the chaos of emotions to the order of the possible."

"I always feel the desire to look for the extraordinary in ordinary things; to suggest, not to impose, to leave always with a slight touch of mystery in my paintings.""

Balthus Signature


An unusual figure in the history of 20th century painting, Balthus both traveled among and drew upon the work of other major artists of his time, while at the same time following a unique individual trajectory. He was mentored by, friends of, and/or even collaborated with seminal creative figures from different eras, including Antonin Artaud, André Breton, and Rainer Maria Rilke, while cultivating his own highly refined style of painting. The scenes he usually depicted were very ordinary bourgeois interiors or outdoor settings, which nonetheless managed to reveal the heightened inner states of his subjects (often young females) as well as the states of mind of those who might be viewing them.

Key Ideas

Balthus's work demonstrates a commitment to classical painting while applying those techniques upon subject matter that reflects the concerns of the modern era in a highly restrained yet nonetheless often charged manner, revealing signs of sexuality, social transgression and anomie.
His channeling of the concerns of numerous thinkers and practitioners from other creative disciplines included the distillation of ideas and attitudes from individuals and artistic movements. Some ideas included renderings of exceptional psychological states and licentious interpersonal encounters.
Balthus's often disturbing imagery brings to the fore questions of propriety of displaying such works in public museums. His blatant violations of taboo topics were acceptable in the context of the French libertine avant-garde, but are now deemed improper by liberal-minded audiences.
His work in set design for stage production in ballet, opera and theater informed his own narrative ability to impart dramatic trajectories to the scenes he portrayed in his paintings of ordinary settings.
His investment in figurative image-making helped reinforce the value of representational painting as a critical force in a century which saw many artistic movements turn toward abstraction.

Most Important Art

Balthus Famous Art

The Street (1933)

In this scene of urban life, a tableau featuring a larger group of individuals than the more intimate couples or single individuals he usually painted - can be seen as his setting in the modern era the sort of outdoor group scenes rendered allegorically by early painters such as Breughel and Bosch. He updates this depiction of shared - or parallel -- sociality by combining the enigmatic affects, stiff postures and heightened atmosphere of Surrealism with a classical composing of figures in architectural space. For the latter, he draws on some of the techniques established in Renaissance-era painting, with carefully laid out proportions for each element, and the foreshortening of the individual figures at their different degrees of depth in a vanishing perspective for the viewer. He offers a more refined take on some of the ambiguous portraiture than his German contemporary Otto Dix produced around this same time, or the group tableaus in modern spaces that Max Beckmann was also rendering.
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Balthus Artworks in Focus:



Balthus (originally named Balthasar Klossowski) was born in Paris, France to an artistic family; his father was a prominent art historian and his mother was a painter. He was exposed at an early age to the arts and social scene in Paris at the turn of the 20th century, including his mentor (and his mother's lover) the celebrated poet Rainer Maria Rilke. His older brother Pierre was also a noted artist, author, philosopher and translator, whose own circle of acquaintances and influences included Georges Bataille. Bataille's interest in transgression - including ideas of sado-masochism studied in the work of the Marquis de Sade - would certainly have swirled around Balthus by way of his brother.

As a young boy, his drawings were published in his book Mitsou (1921), which included an introduction by Rilke. This started him off at an early age on a lifelong artistic career, and was also the beginnings of his use of cats in his work.

He became infatuated with Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights (1847) at a young age, and one of his first large projects was to create illustrations for it, including images of himself as Heathcliff. While the project was not commercially published, it did provide a theme that permeates his entire oeuvre. In his works he is essentially representing a reflective memory with a current desire. Both his own experiences as a child and his connection to the character of Heathcliff suffused the output of his career with both a mythic and simultaneously voyeuristic nature.

Early Training

Balthus Biography

Clearly his early exposure to creative energies both from his parents and through their social circles propelled him to an artistic career from a young age. He created art throughout his youth, while traveling overseas and when he served in the army in Morocco in the early 1930s.

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Balthus Biography Continues

After his military service, he began dedicating himself to developing his paintings in his Paris studio. During this time, he began to paint from young models, including his neighbor Therese, who is prominently featured in some of his early works.

As a central hub of modernism, Paris at its height was home to some of the artistic expressions that have shaped abstract contemporary art today, including Cubism. Balthus, however, retained his earlier classical influences and continued to work in a representational mode.

His first Paris exhibition was held in 1934, and he made his debut into the art world with a scandalous start. Perhaps his best-known (and most notorious) work is The Guitar Lesson (1934), one of his first paintings to use young girls to address serious themes.

He was friends with many in the Parisian cultural elite, and Picasso, Giacometti, Man Ray, and Breton were among his social group (although he was not fond of the latter). He designed sets for plays staged by Albert Camus and Antonin Artaud, and was generally well respected as an artist by these many notable peers.

At this time he was surrounded by Surrealist colleagues who sought to capture the subconscious in man through various forms of automatic and free expression. He strove to distance his own psychological state from interpretations of his work, preferring to cast it as a way to reflect the unconscious of others, including both his subjects and those who viewed them.

Balthus Photo

It is important to consider that, thematically, the portrayal of young children - and especially young girls - was in no way foreign to his contemporary artistic milieu. Despite the public outrage at The Guitar Lesson, its subject matter drew from the similar interests of other artistic creators by whom Balthus was surrounded. In particular, Man Ray's work with photo collage incorporated many seductive positions inhabited by prepubescent girls, while Rilke explored themes of child sexuality in his literary works. Artists Egon Schiele and Otto Dix also created explicitly sexual imagery of young girls, and Balthus would have been familiar with all these artists' work.

From the beginning of his work in painting and drawing, he infused each of his pieces with elements of care and respect for the figures depicted in them. While his young children may seem promiscuous, they are given the clarity and gravity previously reserved in portraiture for dignitaries and adults deemed more worthy. Unlike the treatments given his subjects' stiff predecessors, he imbues his subjects with an awareness of the world around them, and reflects a sense of their internal drives and passions.

In these pieces the desires of the children represented are embodied within an object or setting that the artist has placed as a "safe" enclosure for those desires. His dedication to and respect for his subjects is also apparent in the assiduous techniques with which he portrays them within formal compositions meticulously rendered.

Balthus's work as a set designer in the theater is crucial to the context of his life and creative career, as he essentially mastered from a young age the creation of characters and narratives through setting the physical scene for the tableaux in which they are ensconced (one critic referred to this aspect of the stiffly set scenes in his paintings as "button-pushing theatricality"). His father's own experience designing for theater in Berlin and Munich no doubt influenced his own early engagement in productions for ballet, opera and theater.

In 1937 he married Antoinette de Watteville, a long acquaintance and frequent model for his work, with whom he eventually had two sons. However, as the 1940s brought war and political disruption to Europe, he moved his family, first to the French countryside, and then to Switzerland, before returning to Paris in 1946 after the war was over.

Mature Period

Balthus Portrait

Given his influential artistic social circle, it is no surprise that his work was included in a number of notable exhibitions around the world. In New York he was represented by the Pierre Matisse Gallery (run by the son of Henri), and in 1956 he had his first major museum solo exhibition at New York's Museum of Modern Art. By this time, his tendency towards the eccentric had become well established.

In 1964 he moved to Rome, integrating with the cultural set there and befriending cultural legends such as Federico Fellini, while serving as director of the French Academy in Rome at Villa Medici. He moved again to Switzerland in 1977 and married his second wife - the Japanese artist Setsuko Ideta - with whom he had a son, who died at a very early age. Adding to the continual aura of the scandalous surrounding him was the fact that she was thirty-five years younger than Balthus when they married.

The mystique that endures around his life and career was in no doubt fostered by the artist himself, but it is clear that his eccentricities also contributed to his establishment in the art history canon. Scholars who have focused attention on his work have proposed that Balthus's eccentric life was actually essential to the idiosyncratic character of his work. While his work contained subject matter that many saw as erotic and borderline pornographic, Balthus barely if ever addressed these claims formally, which allowed him to be removed from the painting as seen by the viewer. While an audience may seek to uncover hidden intentions and meaning in artwork based on the artist's biography, he remained committed to maintaining distance between the artist and his paintings.

In 1968 a retrospective of his work was held at London's Tate Gallery, and in preparation the painter sent them the following telegram: NO BIOGRAPHICAL DETAILS. BEGIN: BALTHUS IS A PAINTER OF WHOM NOTHING IS KNOWN. NOW LET US LOOK AT THE PICTURES. REGARDS. B.

The idea of having a retrospective without any biographical information may seem unusual, but it is a sign of his attempt to disengage conceptions of the artist from the artwork.

Both Balthus and his son addressed dismissively the notion that his work was erotic or pornographic. For Balthus, the voyeuristic intention seen by the viewer is one that reflects the viewer's unconscious drives, not the artist's. Therefore, if the work was seen as pornographic, it was the viewer not the artist who gave it this meaning.

Balthus's son wrote about his father, and was adamant that his father did not see his subjects as objects of sexual or erotic lust, but rather as muses in the sense of how real-life individuals have served as inspiring models for traditional master artists. He points to the many influences from his social circle as well as the great tradition of painting young women seen throughout art historical movements.

He continued to work until his death, but he led a more and more reclusive life with his wife. He died in 2001 in Switzerland.


Balthus Portrait

His melding of these more classical approaches to the 20th century's expansive possibilities as developed in Surrealism and Neo-expressionism showed the influence of his contemporaries and peers such as George Grosz, Max Beckmann, Rene Magritte, Man Ray, Pablo Picasso, and Alberto Giacometti. His accomplishments in creating tableau that were both highly composed visually and heavily evocative of extreme psychological states, even while placed in banal settings, pre-figured theatrical framings and setups by later film directors such as Alfred Hitchcock. New Wave filmmaker Jacques Rivette based his 1985 film Hurlevent on work by Balthus, while François Truffaut's Domicile Conjugal (1970) features a prominent scene in which an arguing husband and wife contend over a drawing by Balthus.

Among those artists he influenced are painters of later generation figurative expressionism such as Francis Bacon, Lucian Freud, John Currin, Alex Katz, and Will Barnet. The intimate and intense scenes depicted by Balthus have also been cited as an influence by photographer Duane Michaels. More contemporary homages to his work have been undertaken by Hisaji Hara and Julie Blackmon. His more implicit as well as explicit indicators of sexually charged and socially transgressive encounters further pointed the way to exploring such themes for the countless more radical artists willing and interested in taking up similar themes in his wake.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Interactive chart with Balthus's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart


Édouard ManetÉdouard Manet
Jean-Auguste-Dominique IngresJean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres
Gustave CourbetGustave Courbet
Nicolas PoussinNicolas Poussin


Antonin ArtaudAntonin Artaud
Man RayMan Ray
Pablo PicassoPablo Picasso
Alberto GiacomettiAlberto Giacometti
Joan MiróJoan Miró


Years Worked: 1920s-2001


Francis BaconFrancis Bacon
Lucian FreudLucian Freud
John CurrinJohn Currin
Alex KatzAlex Katz


Antonin ArtaudAntonin Artaud
Pablo PicassoPablo Picasso
Man RayMan Ray
Joan MiróJoan Miró



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Content compiled and written by Rachel Cohen

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
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Useful Resources on Balthus





The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.


Balthus: Cats and Girls Recomended resource

By Sabine Rewald

Balthasar Klossowski de Rola (Balthus), 1908-2001: The King of Cats (Taschen Basic Art)

By Gilles Neret

Balthus: A Biography

By Nicholas Fox Weber


By Stanislas Klossowski De Rola (Balthus' son)

More Interesting Books about Balthus
MoMA, New York

Interesting Drawings and works in the MoMA collection

Gagosian Gallery

Representing the Artist

Infatuations, Female and Feline Recomended resource

By Roberta Smith
New York Times
September 26, 2013

Saltz on the Painting the Metropolitan Museum of Art Won't Show You Recomended resource

By Jerry Saltz
Originally appeared September 30, 2013 issue of New York Magazine

My Visit with Balthus

The New Yorker
September 27, 2013

What You Might Be Missing at MoMA

By Thomas Micchelli
November 3, 2012

More Interesting Articles about Balthus
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