(French, 1908–2001), born Balthazar Klossowski, the Count de Rola, was a Modern painter best known for his controversial depictions of adolescent girls
. As a child growing up in Paris, Balthus was constantly surrounded by art. His father was a painter and an art historian, and his mother, a painter as well, engaged in a longstanding relationship with the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Major cultural figures like the writer André Gide and artist Pierre Bonnard
(French, 1867–1947) were frequent guests at the Klossowski household. Having lived between Berlin and Switzerland during his teenage years, the artist returned to Paris in 1924 to study Old Master paintings at the Louvre, and then moved on to Tuscany in 1926, where he studied frescoes of the Quattrocento.
Balthus’s work was greatly influenced by classical teachings. While still focusing on the nuanced eroticism that drove his work, he experimented with still life, genre scenes, landscape
, and techniques like classical perspective and composition. One of his most famous early works, entitled La Rue
(1933), incorporated childhood tales with the perspective and symbolism of Old Master teachings. In 1934, Balthus exhibited his first erotic paintings at Galerie Pierre in Paris. The most celebrated of these works is the La Leçon de guitare
(1934), a piece which portrays a woman and young girl in the midst of a music lesson, with the woman’s breast exposed and the young girl’s skirt above her waist. While the figures are clothed, the scene displays just as much eroticism, if not more, than paintings of the nude tradition. By modeling his composition off the classic pieta, Balthus makes this blatant moment of erotic behavior ‘high art,’ an idea which he carried into his later work. Other noteworthy paintings that played off of this theme are Thérèse Rêvant
(1938) and La Chambre
While much has been speculated about the artist’s personal life in relation to his work—he was known to date and marry women half his age—Balthus was fiercely private, even forbidding his family members from speaking with art critics and historians. In 1961, Balthus became the director of the Académie de France at the Villa Medici in Rome, remaining until 1977 to restore the building. The last 20 years of his life were spent in Switzerland. The artist’s work has been displayed at major institutions throughout the world, with retrospectives at the Tate Gallery in London, Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The artist died in 2001.