“All these little fairy-girls bear the same forehead as smooth as silk! They are solemn. Their wide pupils show an empty fixedness, bottomless wells in which maybe remains some inexpressive knowledge, in front of which we lower our eyes such as in the gaze of newborns”.
Robert Rey on the occasion of Foujita’s first exhibition at Paul Petrides gallery in 1950
From the beginning of his career in Japan, to his rise to fame as the quintessential image of a Roaring Twenties dandy in Paris, Foujita maintained his distinct artistic style. Despite the presence of avant-garde artists such as Picasso, Matisse and Modigliani who championed Cubism and Modernism, Foujita refrained from joining any distinct movement, and instead created his own unique style combining Japanese and Parisian culture. Foujita's modernity and originality resided in precisely this fusion of the formal training of his Japanese heritage, the finesse of his lines, and a reinterpreted iconography and luminous palette of his adoptive country.
Foujita was a shining presence among the bright stars of L’Ecole de Paris. He stood out for his Eastern face, and his trademark look—hair like a mushroom cap, round-rimmed glasses, a square patch of moustache above his upper lip. His vivacious personality, combined with a highly individual painting style, made him 'the darling of Paris' during the Belle Epoque period and resurrected himself as such in the 1950s, even after a 20 year absence.
In 1929, Foujita had returned to Japan for a period, before setting off in 1930 on a tour of South America. During WWII he returned to Japan as an official artist for the Imperial army. Feeling scarcely welcome in Europe in the immediate post-war period, he took up a teaching position in New York. But, despite an offer of a teaching position in Brooklyn, Montparnasse had a hold on the artist and in 1949 he decided to return. After several applications and a late appeal directly to the president of the republic on his behalf by his friend Georges Grosjean, he arrived at the Gare Saint-Lazare on the 14th February. He intended his return to be permanent and told the journalists awaiting his arrival ‘I am back to stay. I want to die in France and be buried in the Montparnasse cemetery close to Modigliani’ (Foujita quoted in S. Buisson and D. Buisson, La vie et l'œuvre de Léonard-Tsuguharu Foujita, Paris, 1987, p. 206).
Painted in 1957, the same year that Foujita was made an Officer of the Legion of Honor, Le deux sœurs is a rare example of a double portrait in oil from the artist's Paris Renaissance period. It exemplifies the artist's personal technical developments and his move towards gentler, fairy-tale subjects after the horrors of the War. During the second Paris period, Foujita drew inspiration from his everyday life, shifting his focus from the sensual nudes of the 20s and 30s to more light hearted subjects featuring doll-like children and young women, often inspired by La Fontaine’s fables: ‘This is the sad thing about the aftermath of war. The artist wants to live in peace, in tranquillity and maybe even in joy, in order to move away from the ugliness.[…] Foujita remains ever sensitive to feminine expressions, to the grace of maternity scenes, the and the purity of feminine attitudes.’ wrote the journalist Deuzaires at the time of the third Pétridès exhibition in 1954. ‘In reaction to the violent times, I chose gentle, even child-like subjects’, the artist explained when describing his first new Parisian paintings (Foujita quoted in S. Buisson, Foujita, Inédits, Paris 2007, p. 278).
These new light-hearted subjects, including some paintings brought with him from New York such as At the café (1949, Centre George Pompidou), were exhibited at the new Pétridès gallery as soon as March 1950, only weeks after his return. They were received with rapturous applause, catapulting the artist back into the centre of Montparnasse life.
Foujita pushed his preparatory technique further by glazing his canvases, producing a rigorously smooth, mirror-like surface. By eliminating all blemishes in the natural calico weave he could, with his tiny brushes, apply his sinuous outlines in black without breaks, before painting areas of chalky blues, yellows and ochres with his habitual detail and precision.
In the present work, the two youthful sisters pose, bare shouldered and pensive – the rounded outline of their breasts beneath their silk dresses identify them as visibly more mature than his caricature big-headed children. The swift lines of their delicate profiles and exaggeratedly long, feminine fingers have reached a level of virtuosity. The girls’ skin is a bright luster of ivory white and exhibits the artist's iconic style of the 1920s. Under Foujita's tender and gentle eye, they are depicted in all their charm and purity, drawing the viewer under their spell. The features of Le deux sœurs are often repeated in the imaginary females of the 1950s. In Baptême de fleurs (1959, Musee de art modern de a la ville de Paris), the resemblance is striking between the Le deux sœurs and the Botticelliesqe blonde, red and raven haired girls who appear to float in various states of dress from full renaissance gown to nude Venus. Le deux sœurs, like Bapteme de fleurs, is rich not only in its precise detail and otherworldly femininity, but also in its inclusion of all the artist's iconic techniques in one work making it a unique and important example from an iconic period of his career.