Artworks owned by the ballet-dancing couple reflect their years of international stardom from Paris and London, to Broadway and Hollywood
Roland Petit and Zizi Jeanmaire were one of the most famous and celebrated couples in Paris in the decades after the Second World War. From humble beginnings as corps de ballet dancers they rose to become one of the most remarkable artistic duos of the 20th century.
They first met in 1933 at the École de danse de l’Opéra de Paris, and became dancers at the Paris Opéra Ballet in 1940. After a few years Petit left to pursue his dream of being a choreographer, while Jeanmaire, unhappy with the roles she was being offered in Paris, joined the Nouveau Ballets de Monte-Carlo in 1946.
In 1948 they joined forces again when Petit founded his own company, Les Ballets de Paris. His 1949 ballet Carmen, adapted from Bizet’s opera, featured Jeanmaire in the title role. It made stars of both of them, and they would go on to work in many more ballets, as well as films, cabaret and the theatre. They married in 1954 and Valentine, their daughter and only child, was born a year later.
Petit and Jeanmaire were both born in 1924. He was the son of Edmond Petit, a restaurateur, and Rose Repetto, an Italian woman who in 1947 started the famous ballet shoe company after Roland complained that those he had to dance in hurt his feet.
Renée Marcell ‘Zizi’ Jeanmaire was the longed-for child of Olga Renée and Marcel Jeanmaire. She says in her autobiography that ‘mon Jésus’, her mother’s pet name for her, gradually became ‘Zizi’.
Christie’s Paris is devoting an online auction, Collection Roland Petit & Zizi Jeanmaire: un patrimoine pour la danse (25 March–6 April), to this charismatic pair, featuring about 120 lots. ‘This is the continuation of the sale of Zizi’s Yves Saint Laurent wardrobe, which took place last year,’ says Christie’s specialist Camille de Foresta.
Jeanmaire was one the fashion designer’s muses, and the latest auction includes drawings by him with personal messages on them. One of his sketches of her from 1977 has the words ‘Pour Zizi que j’aime’ written across the picture.
The auction will be followed by another in spring 2023. The first of the three was planned to coincide with the 10th anniversary of Roland’s death — he died aged 87 in 2011, and Zizi died in 2020 aged 96 — but it was delayed by the pandemic.
Jeanmaire and Petit were not collectors in the typical sense, says de Foresta. Rather, the sale gives an overview of the couple’s life and work together and the artistic milieu of which they were a central part. It includes unusual items, such as a bustier made for Jeanmaire to wear in one of their shows designed by the Russian-born artist Erté (Romain de Tirtoff).
A well-known short cut
For his 1949 Carmen Petit wanted his principal ballerina to have an androgynous look, and suggested that Jeanmaire cut her hair into a pixie bob. It was a style she kept for the rest of her career, and was widely imitated.
After her success with ballet, Jeanmaire secured acting roles in films, including Hans Christian Andersen (1952), with Danny Kaye, and Anything Goes (1956) with Bing Crosby. From 1950 she also started to perform as a singer.
Petit also worked in Hollywood, choreographing the 1955 musical comedy Daddy Long Legs, starring Fred Astaire and Leslie Caron. Back in France, in 1961 he staged La Revue, in which Zizi sang Mon truc en plumes, her most famous song.
Jeanmaire and Petit’s professional and social circles were a who’s who of 20th-century artists, designers, musicians and writers. ‘There was nothing on their walls that was not by one of their friends,’ says de Foresta. Among others, they owned works by Serge Poliakoff, Niki de Saint Phalle, Max Ernst, Leonor Fini, Paul Delvaux and Jean Cocteau.
Many of these can be seen in the sale, as well as René Gruau and André Beaurepaire’s 1953 designs for costumes for the ballet Ciné Bijou, and Jean Tinguely’s sketch of an entirely sculpted curtain for the 1966 production L’éloge de la folie. Another highlight is a gouache on paper by Erté for a show that never saw the light of day.
Their collection also includes several tributes to the couple, such as a drawing by Keith Haring reading ‘For Roland’. Petit was portrayed by Russian artists Mikhail Larionov in 1942 and Constantin Népo a year later, as well as by French painters Marie Laurencin in 1943, Bernard Buffet in 1955 and Jean Cocteau in 1946 and 1962.
As for Jeanmaire, her features inspired Jean Cocteau and Martial Raysse and the couple were featured together in a double-portrait by Tom Keogh in 1955.
Few people knew the extent of their collection until a 2007 exhibition at Geneva’s Musée d’Art et d’Histoire made it more well-known. Now, this latest auction will give everyone the chance to appreciate the wide-ranging taste and cultural perspective of one of France’s most glamorous post-war couples.