Balthus - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale London Friday, October 13, 2023 | Phillips
  • “Personality cults by contemporary painters infuriate me. One must seek the opposite, fade away more every day, and find exactingness only in the act of painting, and always forget oneself.”

    Serene and quietly still, Étude pour ‘Le Peintre et son modèle’ captures the poignant ephemerality of the passing moment. So absorbed in her book and comfortable in herself that her body seems to hold this awkward pose effortlessly, the young model of this delicately executed study seems at complete peace, if only for a moment. In the fully realised composition - the commanding Le Peintre et son modèle, now held as a masterwork in the collection of the Musée nationale d’Art moderne, Centre Pompidou – this narrative element is drawn out as the painter of the title stands to draw back the curtains. We can almost feel the imminent change in atmosphere as the room floods with light, breaking the girl’s reverie as her eyes adjust, her pose shifting. On the cusp of adulthood herself, the model embodies this sense of the fragile beauty and transience of these passing moments.


    Balthus, Le Peintre et son modèle, 1977, Musée nationale d’Art moderne, Centre Pompidou, Paris. Artwork: © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2023


    Owing a debt to Balthus’ exposure to theatre set design by his father, and his own foray into these commissions in Paris the 1930s, Le Peintre et son modèle, registers the somewhat disquieting atmosphere typical of the artist’s compositions, its various narrative components arranged like a stage set. In this exquisite study however, Balthus seems more preoccupied with trying to capture the troublesome passage between adolescence and adulthood itself. Provoking a flash of recognition in the viewer, Balthus elicits a powerful tenderness towards our own youthful innocence, those fading moments as we shed our childhood selves and step, tentatively into the adult world for the first time. Recalling these lost versions of ourselves for the briefest of instants, we understand the drive to cherish and protect these precious moments, what the artist articulated more directly as, ‘the sweet and innocent mind, something not yet realised […] [that] must be preserved at all costs’.i


    In their quieter approach, the drawings help to recontextualise the strange atmopshere of the painting, more completely capturing that ‘tremulous, disquieting emotion’ which is ‘one of the hardest to translate into words because, even while it can be instinctively grasped and understood, it remains utterly mysterious to our rational selves.’ii Identifying a profound tension between the visible surface and the hidden depths below, Balthus’ drawings reach towards something more psychological than physical, as Michelina – an earlier, favourite model would emphasise:

    “He tries to find in you things that he can depict, aspects of you that are not simply physical. He tries to transcribe what you are; and so everything depends on the model, if she can reveal herself to the artist, who then draws what he wants to bring out […] For me [his pictures] show someone managing to capture an important moment of passage – that from childhood to adulthood.” 

    One of two detailed studies for Le Peintre et son modèle - the present work being the more complete and finely finished - Balthus started working on these drawings almost as soon as he arrived in Rossinière. This was a moment of significant change for the older artist who had passed the previous sixteen years as the Director of the Académie de France at the Villa Medici in Rome. As Isobelle Monod-Fontaine has suggested, although one of the first works completed in Switzerland upon his arrival there in 1977, Le Peintre et son modele remains strongly 'Italian' in feel. Trying to return this lost time, Balthus recreates on canvas the old studio with its familiar clutter, the young Swiss neighbour who is the model here even adopting the porcelain skin and flattened features of the Piero della Francesca’s fair-haired figures, some of the most emblematic images of the Renaissance. A keen observer of the Italian master’s treatment of pictorial structure, in the model’s exaggerated pose and the rhythmic exchange between vertical and diagonal elements, Balthus achieves a delicately balanced symmetry, one that is even more rigorously applied in Étude pour ‘Le Peintre et son modèle’.


    Intuitively finding a perfect point of equilibrium, the young girl leans her weight forward onto casually folded arms which, counterbalanced against her outstretched legs, lend the composition the dramatic diagonal line of her body as an organising principle.  A favourite pose of the artist’s, it first appeared in his 1933-1934 drawings for Wuthering Heights and has gone on to feature in some of his most striking works, including the 1937 Les Enfants Blanchard, now held at the Musée Picasso in Paris, and Patience, once part of legendary dealer Pierre Matisse’s collection and now forming part of The Art Institute of Chicago’s permanent Collection.


    Balthus, Les enfants Blanchard, 1937, Musée Picasso, Paris. Image: © Photo Josse / © Fonds Balthus / Harumi Klossowska de Rola / Bridgeman Images, Artwork: © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2023


    Reinterpreted by artists across the centuries, the trope of the male artist at work painting his model is a perennial mainstay in the Western art historical canon, making prominent appearances in the work of Jan Vermeer, Pablo Picasso, and a host of more contemporary artists. Turning to this subject at such a late stage in his career, it seems as though Balthus is reinforcing his identity as an artist, although as 21st century viewers we are also asked to consider the complex power set of power relations that exists between the young model and older painter as it is staged here. In his sensitive drawings Balthus was at his most self-reflective, with Étude pour ‘Le Peintre et son modéle’ especially capturing the ‘look that studies the look, the artist’s eye observing what the artist’s eye is envisaging’ iii In a further, touching reference to the life he had left behind in Italy, and to the more self-reflective aspects of this composition, the book that the model appears so absorbed in is the same portfolio of images that sisters Katia and Michelina would often look through as he painted them, and one that reappears across a selection of Balthus’ most famous paintings.


    Johannes Vermeer, The Art of Painting, c. 1666-1668, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna


    Balthus was only thirteen when he published his first set of drawings, encouraged by his mother’s lover the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke and under the guidance of novelist and playwright André Gide. During his time at the Villa Medici, drawing once again occupied a central position in the artist’s practice, his appointment as Director having left him little time for the more painstaking execution of his works on canvas, finding new delight in the discipline. In this late drawing, the exceptional draughtsmanship recognised so early on and now ranked amongst the ‘highest peaks of the great French tradition’ is immediately obvious, the elegant handling of the work in terms of both its compositional arrangement and execution marking it out as a work of remarkable beauty.iv


    Coming to auction with exceptional provenance, having remained in the possession of the illustrious Flammarion family since the 1980s, Étude pour ‘Le Peintre et son modéle’ brings art and literature – the stuff of beauty, of life, and of quiet contemplation – together, reminding us that, for Balthus, the ‘drawing’s caress seeks to rediscover a childlike grace that vanishes so quickly, leaving us with an inconsolable memory. The challenge is to track down the sweetness so that graphite on paper can recreate the fresh oval of a face, a shape close to angel’s faces.’v


    Collector’s Digest


    • Executed in 1977, the same year as a rare and significant retrospective of the artist’s paintings and drawings was presented at Pierre Matisse Gallery in New York, the study demonstrates Balthus’ remarkable skill as a draughtsman, and the key themes that occupied him throughout his life.

    • Following his first major institutional exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, exhibitions of the artist’s work have been held at important institutions worldwide and examples of his work can be found in the permanent collections of the Tate, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Musée nationale d’Art moderne, Centre Pompidou in Paris, and the Art Institute of Chicago. The present work is one of two detailed studies for the painting Le peintre et son modéle, held in the Musée nationale d’Art moderne, Centre Pompidou.

    • The present work is coming to auction from the esteemed Flammarion family, who have retained ownership of the work since the 1980s.




    i Balthus, Vanished Splendours: A Memoir, New York, 2001, p. 65.

    ii Giovanni Carandente, Balthus: Drawings and Watercolours, London, 1983, p. 7.

    iii Claude Roy, Balthus, New York, 1996, p. 140.

    iv Giovanni Carandente, Balthus: Drawings and Watercolours, London, 1983, p. 7.

    v Balthus, Vanished Splendors, A Memoir, New York, 2002, p. 65.

    • Provenance

      Galerie Claude Bernard, Paris
      Galerie Alice Pauli, Lausanne
      Thomas Ammann Fine Art, Zurich
      Odyssia Gallery, New York
      B.C. Holland Fine Art, Chicago
      Drouot, Paris, 16 December 1988, lot 183
      Mr. and Mrs. Henri Flammarion, Paris
      Collection de Monsieur et Madame Henri Flammarion, Christie’s, Paris, 21 October 2003, lot 79
      Private Collection, Paris (acquired at the above sale)
      Thence by descent to the present owner

    • Exhibited

      Paris, Galerie Claude Bernard, Balthus: Dessins, 5 December 1978 – 27 January 1979
      Bern, Kunstmuseum, Balthus: Zeichnungen, 18 June – 4 September 1994, no. 79, p. 106 (illustrated)

    • Literature

      Jean Leymarie, Balthus, Geneva, 1978, no. XII, n.p. (illustrated, n.p., titled as Jeune femme agenouillée)
      Jean Leymarie, Balthus, Geneva, 1982, pp. 117, 155 (illustrated, p. 117; titled as Jeune fille agenouillée)
      Jean Leymarie, Balthus, Geneva, 1990, no. XII, n.p. (illustrated, n.p.; titled as Jeune femme agenouillée)
      Jean Leymarie, Balthus, Geneva, 1990, pp. 110, 159 (illustrated, p. 110)
      Claude Roy, Balthus, Paris, 1996, p. 226 (illustrated)
      Jean Clair and Virginie Monnier, Balthus: Catalogue Raisonné of the Complete Works, Paris, 1999, no. D 1373, p. 378 (illustrated)

Property of a Distinguished French collection


Étude pour ‘Le Peintre et son modèle’

signed with the artist’s monogram ‘Bs’ lower right
pencil on paper
70 x 100 cm (27 1/2 x 39 3/8 in.)
Executed in 1977.

Full Cataloguing

£280,000 - 400,000 ‡♠

Contact Specialist

Rosanna Widén
Senior Specialist, Head of Evening Sale
+44 20 7318 4060

Olivia Thornton
Head of 20th Century & Contemporary Art, Europe
+44 20 7318 4099

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

London Auction 13 October 2023