Balthus and Cats
Born in Paris, Balthasar Klossowski (1908-2001) later became known as Balthus. Both of Balthus’ parents were painters and intellectuals. When he was just eight years old, his mother painted him with the family cat. Thus began his long relationship with cats and art. Three years later, at just age 11, he produced a book entitled Mitsou with 40 pen and ink drawings illustrating the story of a young boy who rescues a stray cat. Among the drawings there are two where Mitsou gives Balthus (the boy) a dead mouse and the two play under a table. In the final drawing of the set, a distraught Balthus hunts for the missing cat and cries inconsolably at its disappearance. The Austrian-German poet Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926), a family friend and eventually the lover of Balthus’s mother Baladine, encouraged the publication of the short book in 1921 even writing the preface. Rilke was an important creative influence in Balthus’ life sometimes even acting as a surrogate father after Balthus’ mother and father had separated.
Balthus’s love of cats continued throughout his life as mirrored in his art. The epitome of this love is the full length self-portrait of Balthus standing next to a big tabby cat which leans lovingly against his leg. The painting is called: H.M. The King of Cats Painted by Himself completed in 1935 when he was 27 years old. Later on, he would paint The Cat of La Méditerranée (1949), again a self-portrait, but this time he is the happy cat with a rainbow of fish raining down on his plate.
However, perhaps more controversial are his languorously seductive paintings of young adolescent girls and cats which would span two decades beginning in the 1930’s. In these paintings, young girls are erotically posed with a seemingly disinterested cat located somewhere on the canvas. Sacred and profane are balanced with the cat being representative of the artist himself. Many of these paintings were of his neighbor in Paris, Thérèse Blanchard (1925-1950). For further insight into the artist’s life and works, a recently published book, BALTHUS Cats and Girls by Sabine Rewald is available from Amazon.