37.5 x 50 cm (framed 68.7 x 80.7 cm/ 27’’x 31 ¾”)
Provenance: Frédérique Tison, Château de Chassy (Burgundy-Franche Comté - France)
Bibliography: J. Clair, V. Monnier Balthus, catalogue raisonné of the complete works, Gallimard, Paris 1999 - number D513 reproduced in black and white (page 231)
Related works :
• Another preparatory study (pencil on paper - 33x45.1 cm) is listed in the catalogue raisonné as D512
• A sketch in a sketchbook (catalogue raisonné reference CC1469/9)
• Paysage de Fribourg, an oil on canvas executed in 1944, dimensions 72 x 99 cm, referenced in the catalogue raisonné under number P146 (sold at Sotheby's on 4 December 1984 - number 71)
Balthus lived in Switzerland during the war and this preparatory study is a souvenir executed during the last days of his stay in Fribourg. Evoking the landscapes of the Italian primitives, he presents us with an immense, shadowless landscape, captured by the immobility of winter. The various preparatory studies allow us to better understand the artist's creative process.
1. Balthus, a unique artist in the art of the 20th century
Balthus occupies a special place in 20th century art, which is often marked by the legacy of Marcel Duchamp or turned towards abstraction. Balthus, on the contrary, presents figurative work, based on rigorous drawing and characterized by his ability to master form through meticulous construction. The work attracts and the artist disconcerts; there is somewhat of a "Balthus mystery", largely maintained and staged by the artist himself. During his lifetime, his work was the subject of numerous exhibitions organised in the world's greatest museums (at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris in 1966, at the Tate Gallery in London in 1968, at the Centre Pompidou in Paris and at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 1983-1984, and at the Palazzo Grassi in Venice in 2001, to name but a few).
Balthus was born on 29 February 1908 into a cosmopolitan family; his father was of Prussian and Polish origin and his mother, Elsa Dorothea Spiro, nicknamed Baladine, was of Ashkenazi and Russian descent. At the beginning of the war, his family took refuge in Switzerland, where he stayed with his mother while his parents separated. In 1919, his mother met the poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875 - 1926) who became her lover; Balthus (the nickname of the painter from which he chose his artist's name) was brought up in the artistic milieu of his mother's friends.
Balthus moved to Paris with his mother in 1924. He enrolled at the Grande Chaumière academy and frequented Pierre Bonnard's studio. In 1926, he travelled to Italy where he discovered the frescoes of Piero della Francesca and Masaccio, which had a lasting influence on his art. Influenced by the surrealists, he held his first solo exhibition in 1934. Alongside his paintings, which were increasingly successful, he created several theatre, ballet and opera sets, an activity he continued after the war. In 1938, he held his first exhibition in New York.
He married Antoinette de Watteville (1912-1997) in 1937 and the couple settled during the war first in Champrovent in Savoie, then in Fribourg in Switzerland where two of their sons were born and finally in Cologny near Geneva from 1942 onwards. In 1945 the couple separated and Balthus returned to Paris.
In 1953, Balthus, then aged 45, decided to move to the Château de Chassy in the Morvan region. He was soon joined there by his niece by marriage (the daughter of his brother Pierre Klossowski's wife from her first marriage), Frédérique Tison, who became his muse and mistress. At Chassy, facing the landscapes of the Morvan, in the immense space of the house, Balthus worked and created a huge number of works. His painting evolved to become closer to the fresco, in the manner of the Italian Renaissance masters.
Frédérique Tison accompanied Balthus to Rome when he was appointed Director of the Villa Medici by André Malraux in 1961. When they finally broke up in 1966, Balthus gave her Chassy where she settled. In 1962, during a trip to Japan, Balthus met Setsuko Ideta. She became his wife in 1967. In 1977, at the end of their time in Rome, they settled in a large chalet in Rossinière (Switzerland) where the painter lived until his death on 18 February 2001.
2. Description of the artwork
This landscape allows us to discover vast horizons with meandering views of the Sarine, the river that crosses Fribourg. The site is easily identifiable on a map of Fribourg and was probably drawn from the terrace of the Cordeliers convent, overlooking the other bank. The geometrically shaped hills rise towards the horizon; the landscape is structured by the many paths that cross it. A human presence is represented by a tiny, enigmatic silhouette on the edge of the river. The introduction of this figure allows us to measure the distance that separates us from the other bank and the immensity of this panorama. Like the landscapes depicted in the backgrounds of the Italian primitives, no shadows are represented, which gives this winter landscape a hypnotic strangeness.
The rather vaporous nature of the drawing, in which the landscape appears to be shrouded in a winter mist, contrasts with the precision with which the group of buildings and the few trees surrounding them in the foreground on the left are described. This meticulous description, together with the rather Germanic character of the building, evokes the precision of Dürer's landscapes.
3. Related works and creative process
A sketch kept in a sketchbook and another preparatory drawing give us a better understanding of the artist's creative process leading to the final painting.
It seems likely to us that the study in the sketchbook was the first idea for the painting and that Balthus subsequently studied the right-hand side (the drawing we are presenting) and the left-hand side of the painting in two separate studies that partly overlap (the house at the foot of the hill in our drawing being the one we find at the extreme right of the other study).
While in the final painting Balthus accurately reproduces the group of buildings on the right of our drawing, the group on the left of the other study is vastly simplified, while the river in the foreground is given a much more prominent place.
We have chosen to frame this preparatory drawing in a 17th century Spanish frame with faded gilding which further enhances the timelessness of this winter landscape.
Main bibliographic reference :
J. Clair, V. Monnier Balthus, catalogue raisonné of the complete works, Gallimard, Paris 1999
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