BALTHUS (1908-2001)
BALTHUS (1908-2001)
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BALTHUS (1908-2001)

Les trois soeurs

BALTHUS (1908-2001)
Les trois soeurs
signed and inscribed 'Balthus 1965 Collection Frederique Tison' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
51 3⁄8 x 68 7⁄8 in. (130.5 x 175 cm.)
Painted in 1964
Frédérique Tison, Chassy, France (acquired from the artist).
Tony Curtis, Los Angeles (by 1968).
Thomas Ammann Fine Arts, Zürich (by 1976).
Acquired from the above by the late owner, 31 January 1984.
J. Leymarie, Balthus, Geneva, 1978 (illustrated in color, pl. 41).
J. Leymarie, Balthus, Geneva, 1982, p. 137 (illustrated; illustrated again in color, p. 107; dated 1966).
G. Régnier, Balthus, exh. cat., Musée national d’art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, 1983, p. 377, no. 216 (illustrated).
J. Heilpern, “The Bass Reserve” in Vogue, December 1988, p. 348 (illustrated in color; dated 1966).
C. Irvine, Remarkable Private New York Residences, New York, 1990, p. 11 (illustrated in color in situ in Mrs. Bass's home, p. 15).
J. Leymarie, Balthus, Geneva, 1990 (illustrated, pl. 42).
J. Leymarie, Balthus, Geneva, 1990, p. 136 (illustrated; illustrated again in color, p. 95).
X. Xing, Balthus, Shanghai, 1995 (illustrated in color, pl. 61).
C. Roy, Balthus, Paris, 1996, p. 200 (illustrated in color).
V. Monnier and J. Clair, Balthus: Catalogue Raisonné of the Complete Works, Paris, 1999, p. 191, P 325 (illustrated).
J. Leymarie, M.-P. Colle, S. Lorant and B. Saalburg, Balthus: Las tres hermanas, Mexico City, 2000, p. 41 (illustrated in color; details illustrated in color, pp. 73 and 124; dated 1964-1966).
J. Clair, ed., Balthus, exh. cat., Palazzo Grassi, Venice, 2001, p. 344 (illustrated in color, fig. 7).
Paris, Musée des arts décoratifs and Knokke-le-Zoute, Municipal Casino, Balthus, May-September 1966, no. 50 and 46, respectively.
New York, Pierre Matisse Gallery, Balthus: “La chambre turque," "Les trois sœurs,” Drawings and Watercolors, March-April 1967, no. 4.
London, Tate Gallery, Balthus, October-November 1968, p. 40, no. 59 (dated 1965-1966).
Marseille, Musée Cantini, Balthus, July-September 1973, no. 44.
New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, Acquisition Priorities: Aspects of Post-War Painting in America, October 1976-January 1977, p. 37, no. 24 (illustrated in color; dated 1966).

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Lot Essay

Between 1954 and 1964, Balthus painted five group portraits, three smaller studies, and a dozen drawings on the theme of Les trois soeurs—three adolescent sisters, mingling together in an intimate interior. The present version of the composition is one of the two culminating works from the series, which constitutes the most extended and ambitious meditation on a single subject that Balthus ever undertook. “The Three Sisters is among Balthus’s masterpieces,” Nicholas Fox Weber has written. “Subtle yet authoritative, and unique in its delicacy, it encapsulates a realm of human existence into which few observers have so daringly or skillfully ventured” (Balthus: A Biography, New York, 1999, p. 472).
The models for Les trois soeurs were the daughters of Balthus’s late friend and dealer Pierre Colle, who had died in 1948. The genesis of the project dates to 1952, when Balthus paid a visit to Colle’s widow Carmen Baron, the hostess of an avant-garde artistic salon on the rue de Varenne in Paris. The artist’s goal was to buy back La jupe blanche, a provocative portrait of his wife Antoinette and one of the masterpieces of his early career, which he had sold to Colle shortly before the dealer’s passing (Monnier and Clair, no. P103). Carmen requested a portrait of her three daughters in exchange for returning the canvas, and Balthus readily agreed.
The eldest of the Colle girls, Marie-Pierre, visited Balthus in his studio at 3, cour de Rohan in Paris for some preliminary sittings early in 1954. Work on the portrait only commenced in earnest that summer, though, when Balthus spent a holiday with the Colle family at Le Chapelet, their villa in Biarritz. Every morning, before the three sisters were permitted to go to the beach, they were enlisted to pose in the music room, clad in summer outfits from Carmen’s friend Christian Dior. “We didn’t pose for Balthus because he was the great painter of the century,” Marie-Pierre later recalled. “We posed because he was a friend of the family” (quoted in ibid., p. 462). To sweeten the deal, they were provided with boxes of chocolates—further gifts from Dior—to sample while they sat for Balthus.
The artist left Biarritz with a trove of drawings of the three girls together. Marie-Pierre, enthroned in the center of the composition, appears self-possessed, her foot resting on the sofa with insouciant ease. The middle sister, Béatrice, sits curled up on the floor and Sylvia, the introspective one of the family, is enfolded protectively in an armchair, absorbed in a book.
Back in his studio at Chassy, Balthus worked up these studies into three preliminary oil paintings that feature the girls alone or in pairs (Monnier and Clair, nos. P231-233). The next year, in 1955, he painted the first two group portraits of the sisters, first in earthy tones on an elongated canvas (no. P234) and then, on a larger scale, with more compact proportions and lighter color harmonies (no. P253). In both versions, the pictorial space is flattened and frieze-like, and the figures are linked through a regular succession of half-round arcs that draws the eye across the canvas. “These riveting canvases show Balthus at his most eloquent and revealing,” Weber has written. “The Three Sisters is not so much the real world as Balthus’s version of the real world. The art that emerges is serene but tense, totally languid but charged up” (op. cit., 1999, p. 473).
During the ensuing years, Balthus remained close with the Colle family. “If he had to be in town for a few days, he stayed at Carmen’s, where he had his own room,” recalled the British-born sculptor Raymond Mason, who frequented her salon in Paris. “He was the favorite of the household; indeed, if truth be told, he was the darling child of the entire company, who considered him a rare, quintessential artist” (quoted in J. Clair, ed., op. cit., 2001, p. 125). In 1959, Balthus began a new oil version of Les trois soeurs, which he took with him—still unfinished—when he moved to Rome two years later as the newly appointed director of the Académie de France (Monnier and Clair, no. P327). Marie-Pierre Colle visited him in Rome in November 1963, renewing his interest in the theme. The next year, he brought the third oil in the series to completion and painted two subsequent, culminating works—the present canvas and a close variant (no. P326; sold, Christie’s London, 24 June 2014, lot 44).
In the final two versions of Les trois soeurs, the setting is no longer the music room at the Colle sisters’ home in Biarritz but rather the director’s salon at the Villa Medici, the site of the Académie de France and Balthus’s own residence for sixteen years. During his tenure in Rome, Balthus undertook an extensive program of conservation at the famous villa, stripping the interior of centuries of decorative accretions to restore its original Renaissance character, monumentally stark and austere. He then painted the vast expanses of bare wall to harmonize with the surviving cycle of Cinquecento frescoes, using matte, muted hues such as the signature blue of the salon, which he scraped with the bottom of a glass bottle to add texture and to create an effect of age. The aesthetic ideals that guided Balthus’s restoration work at the Villa Medici are reflected in the delicacy of palette and subtly luminous surface of the present Trois soeurs.
Abandoning the frieze-like horizontality of the early versions of the composition, Balthus now arranged the figures pyramidally, emphasizing the psychological relationships among the three sisters. At the apex of the composition is Marie-Pierre, here seated proudly frontal rather than slouching languorously to one side. Bookish Sylvia, quiet and self-contained, has been moved from the left to the right; she is counter-balanced by spirited Béatrice, who has taken up and begun to leaf through a volume of her own, perched over a table in a dynamically canted pose that derives from Les enfants Blanchard (Monnier and Clair, no. P100; Musée Picasso, Paris). A network of perpendicular lines and planes defines the pictorial space that surrounds the three sisters, forming a grid-like underpinning for the contrasting diagonals of limbs and torsos. “What guided me, indeed, is my ‘personal mathematics’,” explained Balthus, “the admiration that Piero [della Francesca] with his ‘harmonies of angles’ has inspired in me” (quoted in J. Leymarie et al., op. cit., 2000, p. 16). Subsumed within an abstract geometry and imbued with the spirit of the Renaissance, the Colle sisters appear timeless and absolute. At the same time, Balthus evoked through his highly personal vision each sister’s powerful individuality—the fundamental quality of her own interior world. “With the passing of the years,” Marie-Pierre affirmed, “we more resembled those three adolescents captured by the painter, in the essence that he was able to express. We became more and more ourselves: we are ourselves” (quoted in ibid., p. 126).

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