“… but if the genius of man intimidates me, I feel perfectly at ease with all that is feminine.” — Marie Laurencin, Le carnet des nuits (1942)
PHILADELPHIA — In 1907, when painter Marie Laurencin (1883–1956) met and took poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire as a lover, he decreed, “We can place Laurencin between Picasso and Rousseau.” In other words, her work displayed a soupçon of the Cubist and a dash of the naïve. From 1908 to 1913 Laurencin exhibited with the Cubists and Orphists and painted two striking group portraits of Picasso and his circle, both including herself. Yet as a new exhibition suggests, Laurencin’s brief brush with Cubism is considerably less significant than her creation of a transgressive movement all her own, one dedicated to the feminine, the female form, and female pleasure.
Marie Laurencin: Sapphic Paris, on view at the Barnes Foundation, reframes the work of the painter, poet, illustrator, and designer. Laurencin’s stylized Sapphic figures, unapologetically girly, seem to float upon the surfaces of her pastel canvases like characters in a Sofia Coppola movie. These curvilinear women appear to be weightless and diaphanous, as though made of chiffon or painted on porcelain. Laurencin’s mature work, in hues of genital pink, overcast-sky gray, creamy whites, forest greens, and Tricolor blues, would emerge in the ‘teens and ’20s.
Laurencin came to painting through the applied arts. As a teenager, she drew decorative designs for her unwed mother, a seamstress, to use as templates for embroidery. In 1901, then 18, the budding artist studied porcelain painting at the Ecole de Sevres. Three times she took, and failed, the entrance exam to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. In 1904 she enrolled at Académie Humbert, where she befriended future Cubist Georges Braque. In turn, he introduced her to future Dadaist Francis Picabia.
One of the pleasures of a retrospective is watching an artist evolve from early experiments into a mature style. In this period, her work progressed from Cubist-adjacent representational with vivid color and outline to gauzy pastel images of females that, like Futurist works of the period, implied movement. They also implied same-sex love.
In 1913, Laurencin left Apollinaire. Perhaps she no longer wanted to be a poet’s muse, preferring to be her own woman. She waved goodbye to Cubism with the epigram, “Why should I paint dead fish, onions, and beer glasses? Girls are so much prettier.”
Just prior to World War I, the artist found her motif: The innate grace of, and intimacies between, women. Consider “Le Bal Elegant” (1910), with two ballerinas en pointe and apparently attached at the hip as a female guitarist provides musical accompaniment for their pas de deux. While the canvas boasts Cezanne-esque green foliage and a sylvan setting, the elongated and ethereal figures, clad in sheer togas and caressing each other’s hands, is pure Laurencin. Evocative, not provocative.
The following year Laurencin wed German aristocrat Otto van Watjen. During their honeymoon in the south of France, World War I broke out — meaning that Watjen and his bride, who through marriage was obliged to take her husband’s name and nationality, had to leave her native country. They emigrated to Madrid. As he slowly drank himself into dissipation, Laurencin spent time at the Prado and received a welcome visit from Nicole Groult, the fashion-designer sister of couturier Paul Poiret. Before decamping Paris for Madrid, Laurencin had painted a portrait of Nicole, a vision in a gray frock and flowing pink scarf, riding sidesaddle atop a black horse. In Spain, they became intimates.
Laurencin became godmother to Groult’s daughter. The painter collaborated with the designer’s husband, Andre, on a model bedroom for the Exposition International des Arts Decoratifs in 1925. During the 1920s and 1930s Laurencin’s paintings were on the cover of American Vogue and the magazine endorsed Mme. Groult’s “garçonne” — boyish or androgynous — designs, for women. Laurencin figures may be jonquil-thin, but their colors are voluptuous.
In 1923 ballet impresario Sergei Diaghilev commissioned Laurencin to design costumes and backdrops for the Ballets Russes production of Les Biches (The Does.) (In French, “doe” is also slang for lesbian.) The ballet features a dancer called The Garçonne, clad in a form-fitting tunic of teal velvet, who excites the attention of the females in the corps de ballet. The women of the corps are old school, and wear floaty white dresses. A replica of the tunic, a hybrid of a military jacket and a minidress, is on view at the Barnes, accompanied by photos of the corps de ballet outfits. If the garçonne was the new woman, implied Laurencin, this was her uniform.
A contemporary observer remarked of Laurencin that “She can paint a girl with eyes like a doe, and a doe with eyes like a girl.” But isn’t it also possible that for the painter, women and does were hybrid creatures in a sylvan fairy tale that takes place in a world without males?
The exhibition has the pleasure and lightness of an idyll. Brava to curators Simonetta Fraquelli and Cindy Kang for this survey celebrating a woman who celebrated, collaborated with, and enjoyed the company of women. The galleries aren’t scented, but the paintings emanate the bouquet of Chanel No. 5.
Marie Laurencin: Sapphic Paris continues at the Barnes Foundation (2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) through January 21. The exhibition was curated by Simonetta Fraquelli, consultant curator, and Cindy Kang, curator at the Barnes.