Les trois soeurs was painted by Balthus in 1963-1964 and is the culmination of his work on a subject that had occupied him for a decade. Depicting three sisters caught at the delicate crossroad of puberty, this painting brings an intimate, composed atmosphere to the pantheon of young girls of Balthus’s art. Discarding the violence and tension that at times envelop the young girls who populate Balthus’s art, Les trois soeurs aims at depicting that ineffable, unspoken bond which unites the sisters in the carefree days of their youth. At the same time, the picture is suffused with a light that recalls Renaissance frescoes as well as the mysterious ambience that cuts to the heart of Balthus's unique, poetic vision.
The genesis of Les trois soeurs occurred in 1952 when Balthus, wishing to repossess one of the most significant works of his early career, La jupe blanche, contacted Carmen Colle, widow of the art dealer Pierre Colle, who had been the artist’s patron and promoter in the 1930s. Agreeing to return La jupe blanche to Balthus, Carmen asked him for a portrait of her three daughters - Marie-Pierre, Béatrice and Sylvia - in exchange. That was the beginning of a series of five group portraits V. Monnier & J. Clair, Balthus: Catalogue Raisonné of the Complete Works, Paris, 1999, P 234, P 252, P 327, P 325, P 326), three smaller studies (Monnier & Clair, P 231, P 232, P 233) and a series of drawings (Monnier & Clair, D 737-D 745) that would occupy the artist for over a decade. Within Balthus’s oeuvre, the series of Les trois soeurs constitutes the largest body of works on a single subject.
This dedication to the subject on Balthus’s part might be explained by the significant role that Pierre Colle, the girls’ father, had played in Balthus’s life and by the friendship that tied him still to his widow Carmen. Pierre Colle, who had entered the world of art through the encouragement of Max Jacob, opened his first gallery in 1931. While exhibiting the works of Picasso, Matisse, Derain, Braque, Modigliani and De Chirico, he also chose to support the Surrealists, showing Dalí, Giacometti, Miró and Calder. It was in Colle’s gallery that André Breton organised the momentous 1939 exhibition of Mexican art which introduced the work of Frida Kahlo to a Parisian audience. Balthus, who always remained aloof of the constantly changing artistic tendencies, gained Colle’s admiration and patronage; it was through Colle that Picasso bought althus’s Les enfants (1937). After Colle’s premature death in 1948, his wife Carmen continued to cultivate the circle of artist friends that had gravitated around her husband, transforming her house into a place of rich, intellectual encounters in which Balthus figured prominently.
Les trois soeurs is one of the last two works from this important series. Balthus had begun working on the project during the summer of 1954, when the three sisters, on holiday from boarding school, were together at the family house at Biarritz. On that occasion, Balthus executed a number of sketches on paper which would provide the basis for the entire series of portraits of the three sisters. Once back at Chassy later that year, Balthus executed three studies of the sisters: Sylvia by herself (Monnier & Clair, P 231), Marie-Pierre and Sylvia (Monnier & Clair, P 232) and Marie-Pierre and Béatrice (Monnier & Clair, P 233). The following year, Balthus executed the first group portrait of the sisters, uniting the ideas expressed by those three initial studies into a single, frieze-like composition (Monnier & Clair, P 234). That same year, Balthus reworked the composition into another portrait (Monnier & Clair, P 252), executed in a larger, less horizontal format and with the most luminous of colours of the whole series. While the attitude of Sylvia remains unchanged in these two first portraits - she appears absorbed in her reading - the poses of the other two sisters vary: while in the first work Marie-Pierre appears holding a flower, in the second one she looks at herself in a mirror; meanwhile Béatrice, who in the first work was eating an apple, in the following canvas appears peeking into a yellow box, one of those Dodin chocolate boxes which Christian Dior - Carmen’s close friend at the time - would bring to the girls to entertain them while they were posing for Balthus (M.P. Colle, S. Lorant & B. Saalburg, op. cit., 2000, p. 82).
In those first two portraits, nothing interrupts the flat, horizontal succession of the composition: figures and furniture are aligned parallel to the background, while walls, floor and sofa introduce into the composition monochrome areas. That linearity would be interrupted in the following version, which Balthus began in Chassy and completed in Rome (Monnier & Clair, P 327). A photograph of an earlier state of the picture shows the background geometrically divided into squares (Monnier & Clair, P 327, first state). Reworking the picture in 1965, Balthus renounced the geometrical division of the wall in favour of the geometrical pattern of the sofa. Marie-Pierre’s pose, moreover, now more frontal, interrupts that horizontal fluidity of poses that had characterised the first two portraits in the series. Even the light, now casting a diagonal shadow on the wall, introduces an unprecedented element of asymmetry and division to the picture. Yet, in its misty realism, this version nonetheless constitutes a segue from the previous two.
Following in the sequence, Les trois soeurs establishes a new departure. Although similarly arranged and still inhabiting the space of a living room, the figures have lost all claims of resemblance to their original models. Here, Balthus has removed the specificity of their features: occupying a space that is quintessentially geometrical, they appear abstracted in comparison to their previous portraits. Abandoning any sense of flat, uninterrupted horizontality, Balthus has fragmented the space surrounding the three sisters into a complex harmony of patterns and flat colours, perpendicular lines and planes. Balthus also altered the picture compositionally: Sylvie now appears at the right of the painting, while Béatrice - in what looks like a further variation of the poses of Balthus’s Les enfants - is now perched over a table, precariously balancing her body on a chair.
In 1963 and 1964 - at the time when Les trois soeurs was executed - Balthus was living in Rome. In 1961, he had been elected Director of the Académie de France by his friend, the then Minister of Culture, André Malraux. The challenging tasks of renovating the Villa Medici and redefining the position and role of the Académie now fell on him. The appointment, only intended to last six years would occupy Balthus for sixteen. His programme of alterations remains to this day one of the most extensive taken on at the Villa Medici. Guided by a very personal sense of taste and a deep knowledge of Cinquecento Italian art, Balthus stripped the Villa of all the decorative ornamentations and embellishments that had cluttered its rooms through the centuries. He then proceeded to refurnish its rooms, personally roaming flea markets and antique shops to select the pieces for their unique, aesthetic value. Les trois soeurs was executed in one of the rooms of the Villa Medici, while Balthus was redefining its space according to his own artistic sensibility and in harmony with the Renaissance aesthetic. While the first three portraits of the series were set in the music room of Carmen’s house in Biarritz, in Les trois soeurs one recognises the interior of the Director’s Blue Salon in the Villa Medici.
To this day, the subdued blue of the background of Les trois soeurs remains one of Balthus’s aesthetic signatures in the Villa Medici. One of the major legacies of the renovation plan undertaken by the artist was the restoration of the villa’s walls. Removing ornate tapestries and multiple layers of paint, under Balthus’s guidance the team of conservators discovered a series of fresco friezes from the Renaissance period. Entering a dialogue with those remnants of the Cinquecento, Balthus devised an original restoration technique for the rest of the walls, sampling all the layers of colours which had succeeded one another over the course of the centuries in order to choose the one that best complemented the frieze above. Once that selected layer was uncovered, it would be reworked, refined and brought alive through a series of further re-paintings and careful brushwork. In Les trois soeurs, Balthus faithfully reproduced the misty effect achieved on the walls in the Blue Salon. That particular restoration had involved Balthus very closely: unsatisfied by the results of the initial restoration, the artist tried to give texture to the wall by scraping its surface with the bottom of a glass bottle. This improvised technique pleased him so much that, soon afterwards, the artist and the rest of his family were all working on the walls with bottles.
The sofa on which Marie-Pierre sits in the picture is also one of Balthus’s very personal contributions to the Villa Medici. Balthus expressly commissioned Henri Samuel, interior decorator to Baron Edmond de Rothschild, to create that Knole settee, based on a design he had seen in an English country-house and which he had copied in a sketch. This was the only instance in which Balthus had recourse to a professional designer for the furnishings – the rest he created himself. The piece must have had a particular resonance for him, as was attested by its prominent inclusion in Les trois soeurs. The perhaps unsuspected intrusion of Balthus’s renovation work on the Villa Medici in Les trois soeurs seems almost to suggest that the artist saw it as a continuation of his work as a painter: adjusting the shades, selecting the forms, directing the light. The sense of luminous austerity that the Villa Medici acquired under his
patronage is akin to the rigour governing the rooms and streets in his pictures. Yet, the striking change brought in the series by Les trois soeurs suggests that the experience at the Villa Medici might also have nourished the artist’s works. Dominating Les trois soeurs is a sense of architectural structure which is missing from the previous three works in the series. The colours have acquired a more resolute decorative role, evoking the brilliant surfaces of Renaissance frescoes, while the composition is now organised pyramidally, emphasizing the psychological relationships of the figures through space. At the time he painted Les trois soeurs, Balthus executed a further portrait of the three Colle sisters (Monnier & Clair, P 325). The picture shares the same composition as Les trois soeurs with some minor changes: Sylvia’s right hand is raised, the carpet is monochrome, a cat crosses the scene. That last work, however, does not achieve the same boldness of Les trois soeurs: figures and space have lost their solemn concreteness and the picture appears possibly unfinished. Within the series then, Les trois soeurs captures a definite point of departure and a culmination of a subject which Balthus was evidently trying to make his own, transcending the genre of portraiture.
More than a mere portrait, Les trois soeurs is in fact a glimpse into the universe of Balthus. Rather than letting the three girls express themselves through their poses, Balthus has controlled the composition of the picture from the very beginning of the commission. Marie-Pierre would later remember: ‘Balthus was drawing with his pencil for a moment, then he would get up, move Sylvia’s feet, straighten Béatrice’s back, arrange the folds of my dress or the position of my doll. Although we were kids, we understood the difficulties of painting, of creation, of bated breath’ (M.P. Colle, S. Lorant & B. Saalburg, op. cit., 2000, p. 114). What inspired Balthus was a clear, abstract artistic idea, rather than a wish for realism. ‘What guided me, indeed, is my “personal mathematics”, the admiration that has inspired in me Piero [della Francesca] with his“harmonies of angles”‘, explained Balthus (quoted in M.P. Colle,
S. Lorant & B. Saalburg, op. cit., 2000, p. 16).
In harmony with the artist’s admiration for the rigour of Renaissance art, the art historian Jean Leymarie often quoted the three virtues painted by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in the Palazzo Pubblico in Siena as the spiritual predecessor to Balthus’s Les trois soeurs series. This confluence of present and past in the highly intellectualised art of Balthus has often been acknowledged as one of the entrancing qualities of his paintings (cf. J. Clair, ‘The Hundred-Year Sleep’, pp. 7-56, in Monnier & J. Clair, Balthus: Catalogue Raisonné of the Complete Works, Paris, 1999). Asked to comment on Balthus, Federico Fellini chose to do so through references to the Villa Medici to which the artist was so inextricably linked: ‘Then I would like to describe the place where one can meet Balthus, Villa Medici, with its severe entrance halls and its vast rooms shimmering with the green shadows cast by the plants outside; a place in which one seems to take a journey back through time, immersed within and protected by the unbroken flow of the “memory” of art. Because, for me, Balthus occupies either end of that “memory”’ (F. Fellini, ‘Balthus…’, pp. 116-118, in Balthus, exh. cat., Paris, 1983, p. 117). Part of Balthus’s modernity is his way of looking at the past, not as a model to imitate or as a burden to repudiate, but rather as a cultural environment in which to find wisdom and from which to provoke and comment on the present world. Evoking the solidity of Renaissance art and transforming three twentieth century girls into effigies of artistic tradition, Balthus has created a portrait that not only defeats the genre’s constrains, but also the boundaries of the contemporary world, becoming a timeless commentary of girlhood and sisterhood. Balthus completed Les trois soeurs ten years after he had made the first sketches of the girls in 1954; by the time the work was completed, the three sisters were already in their twenties. Yet, through his highly personal, absolute vision of art, Balthus managed to capture some fundamental quality of the interior world of the three sisters. Marie-Pierre affirmed: ‘With the passing of the years we resemble more to those three adolescents captured by the painter, in the essence that he was able to express. We became more and more ourselves: we are ourselves’ (M.P. Colle, S. Lorant & B. Saalburg, op. cit., 2000, p. 126).
Les trois soeurs
Oil on canvas
PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE COLLECTOR
Signed and dated 'Balthus 1963-64' (on the reverse)
Balthus , 20th Century, Paintings, oil, France, Modern, figures
Paris, Musée des Arts décoratifs, Balthus, May-June 1966, no. 48, p. 53 (illustrated p. 54).
Knokke-le-Zoute, Municipal Casino, Balthus, July-September 1966, no. 44, p. 53 (illustrated p. 54).
New York, Pierre Matisse Gallery, Balthus: "Les Chambre turque", "Les Trois Soeurs", Drawings and Watercolors (1933-1966), March-April 1967, no. 3 (illustrated).
London, Tate Gallery, Balthus, October-November 1968, no. 58, p. 88 (illustrated).
Marseilles, Musée Cantini, Balthus, July-September 1973, no. 44 (illustrated).
Venice, Biennale Internazionale Arte Venezia, Balthus, 1980, no. 42, p. 63 (illustrated).
Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Balthus, January-March 1996.
Rome, Accademia Valentino, Omaggio a Balthus, October 1996-January 1997, p. 105 (illustrated).
IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART
49 3/8 x 67 1/8 in. (125.4 x 170.3 cm.)
J. Leymarie, Balthus, New York, 1978, pl. 40 (illustrated).
J. Leymarie, Balthus, New York, 1982, p. 137 (illustrated pp. 106, 137).
Exh. cat., S. Rewald, Balthus, . The Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1983, p. 53 (illustrated).
X. Xing, Balthus, Shanghai, 1995, pl. 60 (illustrated).
C. Roy, "Notezien zu Balthus", Du, Zurich, 1996, p. 201.
J. Clair & V. Monnier, Balthus, Catalogue Raisonné of the Complete Works, Paris, 1999, no. P.326, p. 191 (illustrated).
M.-P. Colle, S. Lorant-Colle & B. Saalburg, Balthus, Las Tres Hermanas, Milan, 2000 (illustrated on the front cover, p. 39 and throughout in detail).
Private collection, a gift from the artist; sale, Christie's, New York, 8 November 2006, lot 78.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
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