1883 – 1956 / French painter with a style between cubism and fauvism
Despite considerable opposition, from a very young age Marie Laurencin was able to assert her desire to become an artist. She began a porcelain painting apprenticeship, where her remarkable artistic talent was quickly recognized. This led to her acceptance to Académie Humbert in Paris. Acquaintances initiated her into the bohemian scene in Paris, introducing her to painters like Pablo Picasso, George Braque and Henri Matisse. She experimented with cubism and fauvism, dissected motifs into planes, played with perspective and subjective colour schemes. Even her earliest sketches attest to her extraordinary talent and visionary perspective.
Laurencin quickly made a name for herself as an independent female artist, joining Sonia Delaunay and Suzanne Valadon as one of the very few women who managed to gain acceptance in male-dominated Montmartre. Laurencin received support from art dealer Berthe Weill, who was the first Parisian gallerist to show Pablo Picasso’s work and, as a woman in a male-dominated field herself, supported the few female artists of Montmartre. Laurencin exhibited her work at Weill’s gallery in 1908, having had her first public exhibition one year earlier at Salon des Indépendants. The influential American art collector and author Gertrude Stein was also taken with Laurencin’s style and purchased her paintings. In 1913, Laurencin took part in the legendary Armory Show in New York, which ushered in American modern art. A grand total of seven of her pieces were shown among the work of the most important figures of European modern art: Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, George Braque, Robert Delaunay, Vincent van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Édouard Manet, Edvard Munch, Kazimir Malevich and Wassily Kandinsky.
In Paris, Laurencin soon became an established painter, enjoying the company of French cubists like Robert Delaunay, Jean Metzinger and Francis Picabia. Nevertheless, she kept a certain distance. Rather than devoting herself entirely to cubism or fauvism, she found her own ethereal, almost timeless style.
With delicately arching contours and an atmospheric colour palette, she painted mainly female figures – pale creatures with dark, melancholy eyes. Her other motifs were flowers, birds, dogs, and guitars. Her representations, though figurative, often come close to abstraction. The contours blur, while pastel blues, pinks, and greens lead the viewer into a mystical world.
Throughout her career, Laurencin took on various commissions, created costumes and sets for theatre and dance pieces, including the prestigious Ballets Russe, and illustrated books. After years of exile in Spain and Germany, she experienced her greatest commercial success in 1920s and 30s Paris. She was a renowned portrait painter of high society, and it became fashionable to have a Laurencin hanging in one’s parlour. Coco Chanel had her portrait painted by Laurencin, but the fashion designer rejected the final work and refused to purchase it – apparently, she couldn’t identify with the mystical pastel colours and atmospheric quality of the piece. Perhaps she saw the delicate, ultra-feminine style as a threat to her professional reputation as a designer of clean, functional, masculine fashion.
Even today, Laurencin’s work is often referred to as feminine, and Laurencin herself is regarded as the muse of the writer Guillaume Apollinaire, with whom she had a relationship for several years. This was a classic role ascribed to women artists in avant-garde circles. In reality, Laurencin led a liberated life, was a professed bisexual, and was one of the first woman artists to depict female homosexuality.
Laurencin’s unique style, which was an elegant balancing act between cubism and fauvism, may have made it difficult for art historians to categorize her. But while European art history largely excluded its avant-garde female artists, in Japan Laurencin is venerated and regarded as an equal to Braque and other male painters of her generation. Perhaps the Japanese can appreciate her poetic, ethereal style because they have a different, non-dismissive regard for the decorative arts. Private collector Masahiro Takano opened his Marie Laurencin Museum in Nagano in 1983, and then another in Tokyo in 2017. The Tokyo branch now houses 600 of Laurencin’s paintings. Back in Europe, Laurencin received brief attention in 2014, when German art forger Beltracchi claimed to have forged two of her paintings. In a way, that deed can be regarded as a tribute to this great modern artist.