Barbara Chase-Riboud has lived an extraordinary life. Born in Philadelphia in 1939 and based in Europe since the 1960s, the celebrated artist, poet, and novelist is a long-time pathbreaker. Her remarkable accomplishments include selling her first artwork to the Museum of Modern Art at age 15, being the first woman of color to graduate with an MFA from Yale, being the first female American artist to have a solo show at MoMA Paris, writing best-selling, prize-winning books that have sold millions of copies, and much more. Today, Chase-Riboud continues to achieve: Her monumental bronze sculptures are currently featured in major exhibitions at both the Serpentine Galleries in London and the Pulitzer Arts Foundation in St. Louis.
Chase-Riboud is also a prolific traveler and networker. From Paris to Beijing to Dakar, she has witnessed some of the most notable events of our age up close, and has moved in prominent literary, artistic, and political circles including friends and associates like James Baldwin, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alexander Calder, Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis, and Toni Morrison. In a 2018 article for Hyperallergic, Seph Rodney observed that Chase-Riboud’s life would make for a fantastic memoir. Now, that memoir has arrived.
I Always Knew: A Memoir (Princeton University Press, 2022) presents more than three decades of Chase-Riboud’s extraordinary life through the letters that she wrote to her mother. The artist discovered these letters saved in a box after her mother passed away, but didn’t read them until 2008. “It was somehow like finding the gravestone of a very young woman,” the author writes in her preface, though the voice that rings out in the letters is very much alive. Chase-Riboud didn’t save any of her mother’s replies, so what emerges is a private tale of becoming, told from the artist’s first life-changing trip to Europe in 1957 until her mother’s death in 1991.
Letters home rarely resemble artist statements, and the book doesn’t give readers much of a sense of Chase-Riboud’s creative endeavors. But it does offer a fascinating portrait of the artist’s experience as a Black American woman living abroad at a time of marked racism, violence, and political tension, but also great cultural exchange and opportunity. Some of the most engaging parts of the book come from the artist’s comments on polemical current events — many of which feel familiar to our own troubled moment — which are sharply made, but also delivered through the intimate filter of a daughter to her mother. Mostly, though, this is a book about daily life. And of course, Chase-Riboud’s daily life is much more exciting than most.
Already in her earliest letters, Chase-Riboud seems to get on fabulously in Europe. Almost immediately, she meets and dates intriguing people, is photographed and featured on the front cover of Ebony and other newspapers and magazines, and — after three months traveling solo in Egypt — starts working as an actress on the set of Ben Hur in Rome. It’s a heady time, but the gifted and gorgeous Chase-Riboud seems to navigate it all with ease.
Later, she marries the French Magnum photographer Marc Riboud, attends glitzy parties and fashion shows, gives birth to two sons, cultivates massive success as both an artist and writer, manages Paris apartments and studios, a French country home, and even a Roman palace staffed with maids, nannies, and chauffeurs, and jet sets around the world for work and play. All the while, her breezy, upbeat letters home brim with the dazzling details of her thrilling, fast-paced life without much hint of doubt or overwhelm.
One wonders about the person Chase-Riboud was before these letters, and outside of them. How did she tackle and conquer things with such courage and confidence? The missives in the book don’t dwell much on the artist’s more difficult moments: the unraveling of her first marriage or the time away from her children are barely alluded to. Perhaps Chase-Riboud, like many daughters, presents a more buoyant version of herself to make her mother proud and keep her from worrying. Or perhaps the darker moments of her life are recorded in the 300 letters not included in the book, or in phone calls and in-person meetings between the two women.
Or perhaps, as the book’s title suggests, Chase-Riboud was simply always this way. The artist’s unassailable poise and perseverance echo in her grandmother’s words, which she quotes at several points throughout the book: “Making things look easy is a matter of politeness. Letting people know you are carrying a heavy burden is a third-world attitude toward life.” This book shows that Chase-Riboud’s attitude toward life has long been one of openness, enthusiasm, and joy.
I Always Knew: A Memoir by Barbara Chase-Riboud (2022) is co-published by The Pulitzer Arts Foundation and Princeton University Press and is available online and at independent booksellers.