Marie Laurencin - Biography and Legacy
French Painter, Poet, and Illustrator
Biography of Marie Laurencin
Marie Laurencin was born in Paris on October 31, 1883, and grew up in an apartment with her mother, Pauline Laurencin. Laurencin was an illegitimate child and did not dare to ask her mother about her father, the politician Alfred Toulet, learning his identity only at the age of 21, though he visited the pair occasionally. Laurencin's ongoing celebration of women and femininity can be traced to her childhood years, in which her father's appearances were an unwelcome interruption. As a child, Laurencin collected portraits of European queens and delighted in visiting a convent. She read widely and enjoyed drawing, but came last in all her classes at school, which meant she could not become a teacher, as her mother had hoped.
Early Training and Work
Laurencin, who described her late teenage years as "sad, ugly and devoid of hope," responded to her academic failure by beginning to draw self-portraits, which she would continue throughout her life, and studying porcelain painting at the École de Sèvres. In 1903, she moved to the Académie Humbert, where she worked on drawing, painting and printmaking. Here, Laurencin met other artists who would become central to the avant-garde, with classmates including Georges Braque and Francis Picabia.
At the same time, Laurencin began to attend Natalie Barney's famous neo-Sapphic gatherings, at which a crowd predominantly comprised of lesbian and bisexual women socialised and discussed links between female desire and creative production. Barney envisaged her gatherings as escapes into a realm inspired by the archaic Greek poet Sappho's group on the island of Lesbos, creating a space in which societal convention could be left in favour of a realm of creativity centred upon female connection and inspiration. The influence of Barney's utopia on Laurencin's creative production can be seen throughout her oeuvre. Laurencin's first print-making efforts, in 1904, were illustrations of Pierre Louÿs's The Songs of Bilitis, a text celebrating erotic love between women. Laurencin referred to her own "preference for women" during this period, though details of her love affairs prior to 1907 are scant.
In 1907, aged 24, Laurencin had her exhibition debut at the Salon des Indépendants, held at the Gallery Clovis Sagot in Montmartre. The Cubists, with whom this exhibition is often linked, were eager to claim Laurencin as one of their own, despite her repeated resistance to such characterization of her work. At the exhibition's opening, Pablo Picasso introduced Laurencin to Guillaume Apollinaire, introducing her as Apollinaire's future "fiancée." The pair had a relationship that lasted for six years, during which Apollinaire wrote frequently about Laurencin, referring to her as "Our Lady of Cubism" and further cementing her association with the movement. Laurencin herself, during their relationship and afterwards, resisted the likening of her work to Cubism. Instead, she drew from the dreamlike imagery of modern poets, including Apollinaire, and the soft colors of Impressionists such as Auguste Renoir.
Laurencin and Apollinaire lived apart throughout their relationship; each was the illegitimate child of a single mother, with whom they continued to live. The pair never married, likely due both to the disapproval of their mothers and to their shared interest in modern life and in rejecting bourgeois convention. Their symbiosis can, instead, be seen in Henri Rousseau's 1909 portrait of Laurencin and Apollinaire, in 1909, entitled The Muse Inspires the Poet.
Laurencin, in this period, was a regular at Picasso's open studio at 13 Rue Ravignan in Montmartre and socialized and exhibited regularly with the group who came to be known as the Bateau-Lavoir, after the building's nickname. She met, here, Max Jacob, André Salmon and André Derain, along with Gertrude Stein, to whom she made her first sale in 1908. In 1911, Laurencin was the only woman to have work included in the Maison Cubiste, alongside others including Fernand Léger and Marcel Duchamp. When this exhibit was attacked by members of the public, Laurencin and Charlotte Mare kept guard, armed with umbrellas. In 1912, she participated in the Section d'Or exhibition at Paris's Galerie Boëtie, while in 1913 her work was included at the landmark Armory Show in New York, introducing European modernism to North American audiences.
In 1913, Laurencin's mother died and she broke up with Apollinaire, who had acquired a reputation for philandering. Apollinaire only accepted that the relationship was over in 1914, when Laurencin married Otto van Waëtjen, a German painter who had been among her classmates at the Académie Humbert. This effectively ended Laurencin's relationship with Cubism, though she would remain close to Apollinaire until his death, aged 38, in 1918. Laurencin felt depressed and unstable during these years, telling friends that she had married van Waëtjen as he reminded her of her mother.
When war broke out in Europe, Laurencin and her German husband went to Spain in order to avoid France's anti-German sentiment. Here, Laurencin became involved with the Dada movement , editing 391 alongside Francis Picabia, and spent time looking closely at the work of Francisco Goya, whose dignified, dark-eyed women captivated her. In this time, too, Laurencin became close with Sonia Delaunay and Robert Delaunay, who had similarly left France to avoid the War. In 1919, Laurencin and van Waëtjen moved to Dusseldorf, where Laurencin filed for a divorce from her husband. Laurencin was asked if she had left van Waëtjen because he was German; she responded that it was, in fact, rather that he had become an alcoholic. They remained on good terms, keeping in touch until von Waëtjen's death in 1942.
Marie Laurencin returned to Paris in 1920 and produced much of the work for which she is known during the interwar period, having refined the style, subject matter and color palette for which she would be remembered. Paul Rosenberg began to act as Laurencin's dealer, giving her greater financial security, though she often disobeyed his business advice, giving her work as a gift to those she liked. Laurencin set higher prices for work which she found dull than for that which she enjoyed; she charged men double what she asked of women, charged brunettes more than blondes and had a reputation for painting only children whom she liked.
Laurencin's world became, after the war, far more closed. She appears to have protected her privacy more intensely than in earlier years and her experimentation with prevailing artistic trends was dropped in favor of her personal vision, creating the pastel portraits of women and dogs for which she is now known. Laurencin had a reputation, in this period, of moving from lover to lover, though the specifics of these affairs are largely unknown. It is likely she slept with some of the women she painted, including Nicole Groult, a dress designer, and was romantically involved with Armand Lowengard, a scout for the most famous art dealer of the day, Joseph Duveen, whose marriage proposals she repeatedly refused.
Laurencin's artistic media ranged widely during the interwar years. She designed wallpaper and textiles for André Groult, illustrated editions of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Katherine Mansfield's The Garden Party, and contributed to the French Embassy Pavilion at the Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in 1925. She taught, informally, at Amédée Ozenfant's open studio, alongside Fernand Léger and Alexandra Exter. Laurencin's work reached a wide audience when she designed the set and costumes for Sergei Diaghilev's Les Biches, which was performed in Paris, Monte Carlo, Berlin and London in 1924. The ballet, exploring sexual fluidity in Parisian society, was a fitting choice for Laurencin and her work was well-received, though some criticised the themes of the performance. She continued to design for the theatre throughout the 1920s, creating a three-dimensional version of the world that existed within her paintings. She had, however, despite the success of her costumes, little time for fashion, often offending her sitters by covering their couture dresses with the plain scarves she kept in her studio.
By the end of the decade, Laurencin was a successful artist and sought-after portrait painter. In 1931, she was among the founding member of La Société des femmes artistes modernes, participating in their annual exhibition until the outbreak of World War II. From 1932 to 1935, she taught at the Villa Malakoff, developing teaching methods that she had explored at the Atelier Ozenfant during the 1920s. In 1937, seen as the height of her career, a retrospective of Laurencin's work was held in conjunction with the Great Exhibition of Independent Art Masters at the Petit Palais. In this same year, Laurencin acquired glasses, which changed her life considerably; she had been extremely short-sighted since childhood and had had difficulty negotiating staircases since the 1920s. Laurencin remained in Paris during World War II, painting and working on designs for the ballet, and in 1942 she published Le Carnet des Nuits - a collection of poetry with short memoir pieces in prose.
In later years, Laurencin became increasingly isolated, suffering from bouts of depression and other health complaints, though she continued to paint throughout. Her primary companion was her maid, Suzanne Moreau, who had lived with her since 1925. It is unclear if Laurencin and Moreau were romantically linked, but this seems likely; they were certainly close and Laurencin legally adopted Moreau, then aged 49, in 1954, making Moreau the beneficiary of Laurencin's estate. This decision was perhaps prompted by Laurencin's legal struggle, resolved the following year, with tenants living in the apartment that she owned. Laurencin died of a heart attack in 1956 and was buried in Père-Lachaise, as per her wishes, with Apollinaire's love letters and a rose in her hand, wearing a white dress.
The Legacy of Marie Laurencin
After her death, Marie Laurencin's work was largely forgotten until the 1970s, when there was a resurgence of interest spurred by Feminist and Queer Art historians. There were a number of books published, including catalogues raisonnés of both her engravings and her paintings, during the 1980s, and prominent exhibitions in France and the United States brought Laurencin's work to the attention of a new generation. In 1983, the Musée Marie Laurencin opened in Nagano, Japan, on the initiative of collector Masahiro Takano, an executive at Hitachi Systems, who began to collect Laurencin's works in the 1970s; it was, at this point, the only museum in the world specialized to focus on a female painter. Her reputation has since continued to grow.
Laurencin's influence can be seen across the work of a number of artists who have employed visual languages of femininity in order to explore the place of women and gender expectations in modern life. Louise Bourgeois, Laurencin's most celebrated student, similarly used clothing and other symbols of womanhood in order to explore female relationships, using psychoanalytic ideas to consider familial relationships, the human body and emotional states. Hannah Wilke and Harmony Hammond deployed imagery associated with womanhood in order to explore lesbian identity in the wake of the civil rights movement. More recently, Karla Black's use of pastel cosmetics has expanded Laurencin's distinctive color scheme into three-dimensions and continued her project of visual pleasure as a form of female advocacy.