The game of cards and its symbolism strongly appealed to Balthus, who painted this subject eight times in a period spanning three decades. In the quiet calm of the room, which serves as a stage, the players enact a mysterious drama of chance and fate, with ritualistic overtones. While nothing is actually at stake except for the idle pleasure of winning, more ominous motives nevertheless intrude and manifest themselves in the spirit of the game.
Balthus painted La Patience, his initial depiction of this theme (fig. 1), in 1943 during his sojourn in Fribourg, Switzerland. This painting shows a adolescent girl playing solitaire, and incorporates many of the motifs that reappear in subsequent versions. The girl leans forward over the card table with a leg resting on the seat of a stool. A candle, emblematic of Christian faith, stands atop the table, albeit unlit. The figure of the girl is back-lighted, so that her face and most of her body are in shadow. The contrast between her figure and other tenebrous forms in the foreground against the brightly lit background create a symbolic universe in which light contends with darkness.
Balthus reworked parts of a Patience between 1946 and 1948, following his return to Paris at the end of the war. During this period he painted the present work, in which he has retained the card table, now obscured under a black veil, and the unlit candle. The figure of the girl again leans over the table, although she now twists her back to the viewer, who sees the shadowy outline of the card she holds behind her. Most significantly, Balthus introduced a second figure, the fair, light-haired girl dressed in white, inspired by the women of Piero della Francesca and other quattrocento masters. Seated in a throne-like chair at left, this angelic creature proffers her winning card, completing the opposition of elements in the composition: fair vs dark, open hand vs hidden hand, victor vs vanquished. The emblematic candle stands nearer to her than to her dark companion. Balthus wrote: "I believe in the profound duality of people; my requirement of work as the byword of a painter's task has something religious, ascetic and even Jansenist about it... The adolescent agitation of my young girls' bodies reflects an ambiguous nocturnal light along with a light from heaven" (Vanished Splendors, a Memoir, New York, 2001, p. 204).
Following a drawing related to the present painting (Monnier and Clair, no. CC 1472/2), Balthus made two sketches in which he considered adding a small child in the center foreground (nos. D 549 and CC1471/1). He dispensed with her, but more importantly introduced the figure of a young man in the place of the kneeling girl at right, and he appears in the final version of the painting, La Partie de cartes (fig. 2). In its definitive form, then, the contest between light and dark in the card game takes on a sexual dimension, which Balthus further explored in subsequent versions of this subject.
(fig. 1) Balthus, La Patience, 1943, The Art Institute of Chicago, The Joseph Winterbotham Collection.
(fig. 2). Balthus, La Partie de cartes, 1948-1950, Fondation Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.