Marie Laurencin’s Paris at Barnes Foundation

The Barnes Foundation (Philadelphia) presents Marie Laurencin: Sapphic Paris, the first major US exhibition dedicated to French artist Marie Laurencin in over 30 years. Co-curated by Simonetta Fraquelli, consulting curator for the Barnes; and Cindy Kang, curator at the Barnes, this exhibition explores Laurencin’s career, from her self-portraits to her collaborative decorative projects; from her early cubist paintings to her signature works—feminine and discreetly queer—that defined 1920s Paris.

Marie Laurencin: Sapphic Paris is on view in the Roberts Gallery from October 22, 2023, through January 21, 2024.

Beginning in the early 20th century, French artist Marie Laurencin (1883–1956) created a unique pictorial world that placed women at the center of modern art. Working in Paris, in an environment dominated by male artists, Laurencin had a highly original painting style that defied categorization. She moved seamlessly between the male-dominated cubist avant-garde, lesbian literary and artistic circles, and the realms of fashion, ballet, and decorative arts.

Laurencin became a fixture of the contemporary art scene in prewar Paris and had a passionate and tumultuous relationship with the poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire. Pablo Picasso had introduced them in 1907, and she immediately became part of the cubist inner circle. Their breakup in 1913, combined with the death of her mother, likely prompted a hasty marriage to the German baron and artist Otto von Wätjen in 1914.

The couple fled to Spain during World War I and circulated among other self-exiled artists, including Francis Picabia. In 1921, the couple divorced and Laurencin returned definitively to Paris, having developed her signature style of diaphanous female figures in a blue-rose-gray palette.

Laurencin’s feminine yet sexually fluid aesthetic defined 1920s Paris. She was commissioned by Serge Diaghilev to design the ballet Les Biches and by society figures like Coco Chanel and Helena Rubinstein to paint their portraits. Laurencin’s romantic relationships with women, particularly with the married fashion designer Nicole Groult, inspired intimate paintings that visualized the modern Sapphism – sexual attraction or activity between women – of contemporary lesbian writers like Natalie Clifford Barney.

One of Laurencin’s final projects was to illustrate the Poems of Sappho in 1950.

“Shining new light on a remarkable artist deserving of a major reexamination, this exhibition is the Barnes’s fourth in an ongoing series exploring the achievements of significant, but underrecognized women working in the European modernist vanguard of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including Suzanne Valadon, Marie Cuttoli, and Berthe Morisot,” Thom Collins, Neubauer Family Executive Director and President of the Barnes, said.

This exhibition holds a special significance at the Barnes; in 1923, Dr. Albert Barnes named Laurencin one of “the best French women painters” after having acquired several of her works, including Still Life with Bowl and Fruit (1907) on view in Room 10; Woman with Muff (1914) on view in Room 16; and Head (before 1921), on view in Room 11.

“Through this exhibition, we aim to reassess Marie Laurencin’s career, emphasizing the female relationships and networks—the Sapphic Paris—that Laurencin cultivated, which was just as significant to her assertion of modernity as her association with the male cubist avant-garde,” co-curators Fraquelli and Kang said. “We examine how Laurencin’s visualization of a ‘Sapphic modernity’ subtly but radically challenges existing narratives of modern European art. Presenting new scholarship on her life and influence, this exhibition and catalogue tell Laurencin’s story through her art and bring new attention to her significant body of work.”

Featuring over 50 works by Laurencin from public and private collections around the world, Marie Laurencin: Sapphic Paris showcases paintings, works on paper, illustrated books, decorative objects, and ballet costumes, as well as works by Laurencin’s contemporaries and collaborators such as Max Ernst, André Mare, Jean Metzinger, and Francis Picabia.

Arranged thematically and in roughly chronological order, the exhibition examines Laurencin’s interest in self-portraiture; her cubist milieu in prewar Paris; her difficult though productive period of exile in Spain; her designs for interiors and ballets; her fashionable portraits of women; and her inimitable vision of Sapphic modernism.

Select exhibition highlights include:

  •  The Elegant Ball, Dance in the Country (Le bal élégant, La danse à la campagne) (1913), one of Laurencin’s major cubist pictures, exhibited at the 1913 Salon des Indépendants in Paris (Musée Marie Laurencin, Tokyo)
     
  • The Woman-Horse (La femme-cheval) (1918), an enigmatic self-portrait of a woman painter in exile that shows Laurencin developing her signature style (Musée Marie Laurencin, Tokyo)
     
  • Women with a Dove (Femmes à la colombe) (1918), an intimate double portrait of Laurencin and her lover Nicole Groult (Centre Pompidou, Paris)
     
  • Women in the Forest (Femmes dans la forêt) (1920), which reinterprets 18th-century French pictures of romantic intrigue as a Sapphic world devoid of men (private collection)
     
  • Spanish Dancers (Danseuses espagnoles) (1920), one of Laurencin’s largest works that depicts her unique aesthetic world intertwining women and animals (Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris)
     
  • Portrait of Miss Chanel (Portrait de Mademoiselle Chanel) (1923), a significant portrait of the famed fashion designer Coco Chanel when she was working with the Ballets Russes concurrently with Laurencin (Musée de l’Orangerie, Paris)

RELATED PROGRAMMING:

Education Initiatives:

Marie Laurencin: Sapphic Paris (on-site)
Instructor: Cindy Kang
Tuesdays, November 7–December 5, 2023
1–3 pm ET
$220; members $198
(4 classes; no class November 21)
Dive deeper into our fall exhibition with Barnes curator Cindy Kang.

Online Class: Art and the First “Homosexuals”
Instructor: Jonathan D. Katz
Wednesdays, November 8–December 6, 2023
6–8 pm ET
$220; members $198
(4 classes; no class November 22)
This course surveys artistic representations of the emerging “homosexual” identity, from the early 1900s through the first decades of the 20th century.

ABOUT THE CURATORS

Simonetta Fraquelli, an independent curator specializing in early 20th-century European art, is consultant curator for the Barnes Foundation. Fraquelli began her career at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, where she worked for over 20 years on a range of exhibitions.

Since 2006, she has collaborated with several leading European and American museums. In 2017, she co-curated one of the largest exhibitions of Modigliani’s work, Modigliani at Tate, London (with Nancy Ireson); at the Barnes, she co-curated Soutine / de Kooning: Conversations in Paint (2021) and Modigliani Up Close (2022).

Fraquelli has published on many additional artists including Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, and Gino Severini. She holds advanced degrees from the Courtauld Institute, London.

Cindy Kang is curator at the Barnes Foundation. Her research and publications have focused on the relationship between painting and decorative arts in late 19th- and early 20th-century France. She curated Marie Cuttoli: The Modern Thread from Miró to Man Ray (2020) at the Barnes and served as managing curator for the Barnes presentations of Berthe Morisot: Woman Impressionist (2018–19) and Renoir: Father and Son/Painting and Cinema (2018). Kang commissioned the 2022 Barnes exhibition Water, Wind, Breath: Southwest Native Art in Community and co-led the institution’s land acknowledgment process.

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