The Collection of Dorothy and Richard Sherwood
In late 1935 Balthus met Thérèse Blanchard, who lived several blocks from Balthus’s studio at 3, cour de Rohan. Thérèse’s appearance was unconventional, but she “had the grave and moody look that appealed to [Balthus],” writes Sabine Rewald, who selected the present work for the cover of the catalogue of the 2013 “Cats and Girls” exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In his first portrait of Thérèse, painted in 1936 (Monnier and Clair, no. P 95), Balthus concentrated on her “serious mien” (exh. cat., op. cit., 2013, pp. 8 and 68). He similarly depicted her two years later (P 118; illustrated here). Thérèse sur une banquette, which dates from 1939, is the culminant image in what would be regarded as the most brilliant series of Balthus’s career, considered by Rewald to be “among his finest works” (ibid., pp. 7-8). “The paintings of Thérèse show Balthus at the apogee of his strength,” Nicholas Fox Weber has stated (Balthus, New York, 1999, pp. 388-389). Of Balthus’s ten portraits of Thérèse, five are acknowledged masterpieces, four of which are in museums. Thérèse sur une banquette is the fifth.
A sibling or school-mate posed with Thérèse for Frère et soeur in 1936 (Monnier and Clair, no. P 94). Her brother Hubert, two years older, appears with her in Les enfants Blanchard, 1937 (no. P 100); both their names are recorded on the reverse of the canvas. Picasso, by then the world’s most famous living artist, purchased the latter painting from the dealer Pierre Colle in 1941. “You’re the only painter of your generation who interests me,” Balthus recalls Picasso having told him. “The others try to make Picassos. You never do” (quoted in Vanished Spendors: A Memoir, New York, 2001, pp. 9-10).
Balthus last portrayed Thérèse in the present painting, seated on the banquette in which she appears in two earlier full-figure portraits (Monnier and Clair, nos. P 101 and P 112). At one time he envisioned a larger composition—perhaps on the scale of Les enfants Blanchard or even larger—the conception of which is known only from a loosely brushed study on a medium-sized board, painted earlier in 1939, Trois personnages dans un intérieur (no. P 122; sold, Sotheby’s London, 25 June 2009, lot 240). The three figures in the high-ceilinged interior—likely set in Balthus’s cour de Rohan studio—are Thérèse leaning back on the bench seat (as seen in the present painting), Hubert standing, his knee propped on a chair, gazing out the window, and their mother, Madame Blanchard, viewed from the side, resting in an armchair placed before a table. Three of four known preparatory drawings for this interior scene focus on Hubert.
Partly reclining on the banquette and turned to her left, Thérèsein the present painting dangles a string from her raised hand. In the smaller, three-figure essay, this string is attached to a ball. A kitten—not shown here—rears up and attempts to grasp the ball. In dispensing with the ball and cat in this picture, Balthus avoided the anecdotal distraction of the creature captured in stop-motion, as one might enjoy in a sentimental genre scene. The figure of the girl alone instead evokes a deeper sense of myth. Thérèse becomes an exemplar of l’éternel féminin, one of the ancient fates, said to measure and determine man’s thread of life.
In Thérèse sur une banquette, Balthus attended to the primarily professional, compositional concerns he had in mind—he aimed to depict the figure of his model in a novel, unique posture, one with neither a familiar nor apparent precedent. He moreover sought to evoke the inner world of her reality with a sense of presence that was outwardly and convincingly grounded in the mechanics of movement, while exalting the architecture of the figure. “The portrait of Thérèse on a Bench is caught in the sort of delicate balance that cannot last for more than a moment,” Jean Clair has written (V. Monnier and J. Clair, op. cit., 1999, p. 38).
Indeed, Thérèse displays the acrobatic ease and grace of the young girl saltimbanque in Picasso’s Rose period Acrobate à la boule, 1905 (Zervos, vol. 1, no. 290; Pushkin State Museum of Fine Art, Moscow). Balthus’s treatment of Thérèse recalls the gentle poetry of Picasso’s Rose period, even if rendered in a technique more like that of the 19th-century masters Courbet and Corot. A token of the rose tonality is here in evidence; “no reproduction can convey the unusual color of Thérèse’s sweater,” Rewald has commented, “which mingles red with shades of pumpkin and orange” (exh. cat., op. cit., 2013, p. 88).
Picasso surely appreciated Balthus’s mastery of the unusual pose, which lends Les enfants Blanchard, the painting he chose for his own collection, its visual novelty and charm, qualities that Thérèse sur une banquette shares with the earlier picture. Her poses in both pictures comprise a trapezoidal shape, which forms the base for a classic, Renaissance conception of a pyramidal composition. The pinnacle of this pyramid in the present painting is Thérèse’s upraised hand; in the room with her brother, his head in profile at the top center edge of the canvas. The artist also incorporates as a constructive means the diagonal emphasis characteristic of Baroque painting. Balthus invested the figures in both compositions with carefully plotted contrapposto, while also employing contrasts of bodily form with the geometry of furniture, and reiterations of formal elements, such as the arching of elbows and knees. From such imbalance and asymmetry Balthus created a configuration of parts that is sprawling and dynamic—yet stable, harmonized and whole.
Balthus prided himself on his thoughtful, patient, and methodical technique, traditional qualities in perception and execution from which, he believed, modern painting had irrecoverably strayed. “Modern society can never imagine painting’s unsuspected requirements,” he lamented. “If one wants to enter into painting and arrive at painting’s heart, these demands and deliberation must be accepted, but contemporary painters cannot resolve to do so… If we could return to Giotto’s deliberation, Masaccio’s exactitude, and Poussin’s precision!...Real modernity is in the reinvention of the past, in refoundoriginality based on experience and discoveries” (quoted in J. Clair, op. cit., 2001, pp. 77 and 81).
Thérèse sur une banquette was fittingly his last tribute to Thérèse and perhaps his last painting before the onset and dislocations of war, rendering the timelessness and mythical suggestion of the fates in Thérèse’s suspended string all the more poignant. On 1 September 1939, Nazi Germany invaded Poland. Balthus, having already done his initial, obligatory military service, was called up for duty the next day. On 3 September, France and Great Britain, as per treaty with the Warsaw government, declared war on Germany. Accounts of the artist’s war experience vary; a leg injury led to his early demobilization in December 1939. After living in the Savoie, in the unoccupied zone following the fall of France, Balthus and his wife Antoinette moved to her native Switzerland, where they spent the remainder of the war. By the time Balthus returned to Paris in 1946, his young muse from the rue de Seine had married and relocated to a different neighborhood in Paris. Thérèse died in 1950 at age 25 from an unknown cause.
The finest works of the series each had eminent private stewards before entering public collections: Pablo Picasso (who acquired his example in 1941; Musée Picasso); Lindy and Edwin Bergman, pioneering collectors of Surrealist art and Cornell boxes (acquired 1963; The Art Institute of Chicago); Mr. and Mrs. Allan D. Emil, who remade the New York University campus with their gift of Picasso’s monumental “Bust of Sylvette” in 1968 (acquired 1958; The Metropolitan Museum of Art) and Jacques and Natasha Gelman, whose magnificent bequest to the Met in 1998, including their portrait of Thérèse, represented the largest the museum had then received (acquired 1979). Thérèse sur une banquette was acquired by the Sherwoods from Balthus via dealer Frank Perls in Paris in 1962 and has remained in their collection ever since.
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The Collection of Dorothy and Richard Sherwood
Thérèse sur une banquette
and dated 'Balthus 1939' (lower left)
The Arts Club of Chicago, Balthus, September-October 1964, no. 10 (illustrated).
Berkeley, University Art Museum, Balthus: Matrix, November-December 1980 (illustrated).
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Monet to Matisse: French Art in the Southern California Collections, June-August 1991, p. 133 (illustrated in color; titled Interior).
Venice, Palazzo Grassi, Balthus, September 2001-January 2002, p. 264, no. 60 (illustrated in color, p. 267; with incorrect support).
New York, The Metropolitan Museum, Balthus: Cats and Girls, September 2013-January 2014, p. 88, no. 13 (illustrated in color on the cover; illustrated in color again, p. 89; titled Thérèse on a Bench Seat and with incorrect support).
J. Leymarie, Balthus, New York, 1982, p. 130 (illustrated; titled Thérèse Lying on a Bench).
Balthus, exh. cat., Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1984, p. 349, no. 56 (illustrated).
V. Monnier and J. Clair, Balthus: Catalogue Raisonné of the Complete Works, New York, 1999, p. 136, no. P 121 (illustrated, p. 137).
J. Clair, Balthus, New York, 2001, p. 264, no. 60 (illustrated in color, p. 267).
R. Bouvier, Balthus, exh. cat., Fondation Beyeler, Basel, 2018, p. 121 (illustrated in color, p. 120).
Frank Perls, Beverly Hills (acquired from the artist, 1962).
Acquired from the above by the late owners, April 1962.