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Balthus (1908 - 2001)

Lifespan: 1908 - 2001

Brother of: Pierre Klossowski

Related: figurative art - realism in the visual arts - erotic art - modern art - French art

Balthus (2003) - Gilles Néret
[FR] [DE] [UK]

French-German painter Count Balthasar Klossowski de Rola (1908-2001), known as Balthus, shocked the Parisian art world in 1934 with his dreamy, sensual, Neo-Classical portraits of nymphets at a time when Surrealism and abstraction were de rigueur. As a provocateur, Balthus was often scorned; as an artist, he was widely embraced as a prodigy. In response to critics of his realist style, Balthus said: “The real isn’t what you think you see. One can be a realist of the unreal and a figurative painter of the invisible.” His erotic, poetic paintings live on as examples of the best figurative work of the modern era. --from the publisher

Admirers of the painter Balthus (Count Balthazar Klossowski de Rola) revere him as a great artist. Detractors accuse him of pedophilia, pornography, and mysterious deviltry. --Phoebe-Lou Adams


Balthazar Klossowski de Rola (February 29, 1908 in Paris – February 18, 2001) was an esteemed Polish/French modern artist whose work was ultimately anti-modern. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Balthus [Mar 2006]

His style

Balthus' style is primarily classical and academic. Though his technique and compositions were inspired by pre-renaissance painters, there are also eerie intimations reminiscent of contemporary surrealists like de Chirico. Painting the figure at a time when figurative art was largely ignored, he is widely recognised as an important 20th century artist.

Many of his paintings show young girls in an erotic context. Balthus insisted that his work was not pornographic, but that it just recognized the discomforting facts of children's sexuality. [1]

Early life

In his formative years his art was sponsored by Rainer Maria Rilke, Maurice Denis, Pierre Bonnard and Henri Matisse. His father, Erich Klossowski, a noted art historian (he wrote a monograph on Daumier), and his mother Elisabeth Dorothea Spiro (known as Baladine Klossowska) were part of the cultural elite in Paris. Balthus' older brother, Pierre Klossowski, was a philosopher and writer influenced by theology and the works of Marquis de Sade. Among the visitors and friends of the Klossowskis were famous writers such as André Gide and Jean Cocteau, who found some inspiration for his novel Les Enfants Terribles (1929) on his visits to the family.

In 1921 Mitsou, a book which included forty drawings by Balthus, was published. It depicted the story of a young boy and his cat, with a preface by Balthus' mentor Rilke. The theme of the story foreshadowed his life-long fascination with cats, which resurfaced with his self-portrait as The King of Cats (1935). In 1926 Balthus visited Florence, copying frescos by Piero della Francesca, which inspired another early ambitious work by the young painter: the tempera wall paintings of the Protestant church of the Swiss village of Beatenberg (1927). From 1930 to 1932 he lived in Morocco, was drafted into the Moroccan infantry in Kenitra and Fes, worked as a secretary, and sketched his painting La Caserne (1933). [1]

A young artist in Paris

Early on his work was admired by writers and fellow painters, especially by André Breton and Pablo Picasso. His circle of friends in Paris included the novelists Pierre Jean Jouve, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Joseph Breitbach, Pierre Leyris, Henri Michaux, Michel Leiris and René Char, the photographer Man Ray, the playwright and actor Antonin Artaud, and the painters André Derain, Joan Miro and Alberto Giacometti (one of the most faithful of his friends). In 1948, another friend, Albert Camus, asked him to design the sets and costumes for his play L'Etat de Siège (The State of Siege, directed by Jean-Louis Barrault). Balthus also designed the sets and costumes for Artaud's adaptation for Percy Bysshe Shelley's The Cenci (1935), Ugo Betti's Delitto all'isola delle capre (Crime on Goat-Island, 1953) and Barrault's adaptation of Julius Caesar (1959-1960). [1]


Balthus' second wife was Japanese.

Balthus was the only living artist who had his artwork in the Louvre's collection (it came from Picasso's private collection when it was donated to that museum).

Prime Ministers and rock stars alike attended the funeral of Balthus. Bono, lead-singer of U2, sang for the hundreds of mourners at the funeral, including the President of France, the Prince Sadruddhin Aga Khan, supermodel Elle McPherson and the photographer Cartier-Bresson. [1]

Influence and legacy

The work of Balthus shows numerous influences, including the writings of Emily Brontë, the writings and photography of Lewis Carroll, and the paintings of Masaccio, Piero della Francesca, Simone Martini, Poussin, Jean Etienne Liotard, Joseph Reinhardt, Géricault, Ingres, Goya, Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Courbet, Edgar Degas, Félix Vallotton and Paul Cezanne. His favourite composer was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

His work has strongly influenced several contemporary artists; among them Jan Saudek, Will Barnet, Duane Michals, John Currin, Eli Levin, and Emile Chambon. [1]

Influences on film-makers and writers

He has also influenced the filmmaker Jacques Rivette of the French New Wave. His film Hurlevent (1985) was inspired by Balthus' drawings made at the beginning of the 1930s. As he says in an interview with Valerie Hazette: "Seeing as he's a bit of an eccentric and all that, I am very fond of Balthus (...) I was struck by the fact that Balthus enormously simplified the costumes and stripped away the imagery trappings (...)".

A reproduction of Balthus' Girl at a Window (a painting from 1957) prominently appeared in François Truffaut's film Domicile Conjugal (Bed & Board, 1970). The two principal characters, Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and his wife Christine (Claude Jade), are arguing. Christine takes down from the wall a small drawing of approximately 25 X 25 cm and give it to her husband: Christine: -"Hold, take the small Balthus". Antoine: "Ah, the small Balthus. I offered it to you, it's yours, keep it."

In the third book of the Hannibal Lecter Series (Hannibal), it is implied that the fictional serial killer Hannibal Lecter is a distant cousin of Balthus. [1]


  1. Balthus - Jean Clair (Editor) [Amazon US] [FR] [DE] [UK]
    The painter Balthus, nee Balthazar Klossowski, is one of the most original and disturbing of European modern painters.He is something of a cult. I am happy to have received, promptly, this rather smart, large book dedicated entirely to his enigmatic work. This is the capricious plastic world of the elusive painter Balthus, where females endlessly appear, like succubus, gracing an artistic landscape that's both alluring and repulsive. One cannot help but compare some of the imagery in the Interpretation of Dreams by Freud, to the visions depicting Balthus sexual agonies. Look up Balthus 'La Chambre' on page 329, perhaps one of the most inspired and perverse canvases, ever. There is no other painter like him. Like Picasso he shocks, but with a much more simple and personal vocabulary. There is something of El Greco here, the angst. He is limited like Modigliani though soon his ouvre becomes very telling. A persistent parade of pictorially enticing nubiles that is both delicious and repellent. The book by Rizzoli is a treasure almost 500 pages in all. Part art book part encyclopedic tome. Many color pages. In this book by Jean Clair there are, along the many art pages, also photographs, sketches, private correspondence, etc. A lot of personal information offered us fascinated by Balthus. It's a big book that can double as an object d'art. I'm more than pleased with it. --Chany Catala, amazon.com

  2. Balthus - Stanislas Klossowski De Rola () - [Amazon US] [FR] [DE] [UK]
    Balthus is almost as famous for his reclusiveness and reluctance to divulge personal information as for his provocative paintings of young women, a fact his eldest son addresses with some pique in his introduction to this superb volume, the most extensive collection of his father's lustrous and enigmatic work yet published. Klossowski de Rola defends Balthus' insistence on privacy, then offers a few tantalizing biographical facts and a set of striking photographs of the artist. Readers are free, then, to study and interpret Balthus' intriguing, unsettling, brilliantly stylized, richly textured, and strongly composed street scenes, portraits, still lifes, and landscapes. His most famous paintings date from the 1930s and 1940s and feature, in his son's words, "languid adolescent" girls, images Klossowski de Rola insists are "untouchable archetypes of purity," but which are clearly erotic works of the highest order. Balthus, nearly 90 and still working, is a profoundly sensual painter, both in his handling of paint and in his subject matter. What's "pure" and magnificent here is the artist's sense of eroticism and immense talent. Donna Seaman

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