Painting of the Day

14 Jun

Portrait of Mademoiselle Chanel. by Marie Laurencin (1883-1956). Oil on canvas, 1923. Musee de l’Orangerie, Paris, France.

Notes from 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die:

In 1923, the French artist Marie Laurencin was working on the costumes and sets for Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. When she met the fashion designer and perfumer Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, they were both designing costumes for the same company’s Le Train Bleu. Laurencin was already a well-known set designer when Chanel asked the artist to paint her portrait. The woman who would come to epitomize “chic” for the next century was only just establishing herself at the time of the sitting. The Chanel suit, which would forever alter the way women dress, was introduced to the public in 1923, the year Laurencin painted this portrait. Laurencin was to become a popular society portraitist of contemporary women, including Helena Rubenstein and Lady Cunard. In this painting the headstrong couturier sits in a sensual, dreamy daze with her Pomeranian puppy in her lap. The puppy brings forth images of lap-dogs sitting in courtesans’ and dowagerss arms in portraits of previous eras. Chanel is depicted in an erotic state of undress, with one shoulder of her draped gown falling off her arm and exposing her chest. The soft, curving, fluid lines, smoky colors, and languid mood are typical of Laurencin’s work, but when Chanel viewed the result, she decided that it did not look sufficiently like her and rejected the portrait. Laurencin was friends with Apollinaire (with whom she lived for several years), Picasso, and Braque, and, although she exhibited with the Cubists, her work does not reflect that movement.

My comments:

It’s interesting that Chanel rejected this portrait because it did not look enough like her. If she is judging the portrait based on how realistic it looks and that’s what she meant by it “looking like her” rather than something a little more esoteric like capturing her personality, then it surprises me how someone who was so forward-looking in the fashion world could be so bound to the past in the art world. It just goes to show how conventions die hard. I really like this portrait personally, and if someone had made a portrait of me and it looked like this, I would have certainly taken it. I really didn’t see it as an erotic portrait, however, like the person who wrote the description above sees it. Yes, the woman is half nude, but nude women appear so often in art that it doesn’t surprise me anymore and I don’t automatically assume it’s erotic. I don’t see the woman’s expression as particularly sexual either; it looks more forlorn than sexual. I’m kind of jumping around here, but I was also wondering the reason for the bird that’s just above the figure’s right shoulder. Trying to imagine the painting without the bird reveals that it does somewhat add a nice balance to the composition, but I wonder if it has any symbolic significance. Anyway, I chose to post this painting because I really loved the colors, which are blended beautifully. Taking a studio art course this semester taught me how difficult it is to blend colors. The artists make it look so much easier than it really is. Even if you aren’t trying to blend paint to give a realistic or naturalistic effect, it is extremely difficult to blend paint in a way that is simply aesthetically pleasing. I hope that when I take Oil Painting next semester I will improve at this skill.

I’m surprised I haven’t heard of Marie Laurencin before. I really like her style of painting; it is infinitely better than that of Berthe Morisot or Mary Cassatt in my opinion, yet they are much more well-known than she is. Why that is, I have no idea.

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