Marie Laurencin is one of the few women who succeeded in establishing themselves as painters in Montmartre. A portrait.

A hubbub of voices, the clicking of heels on cobblestones, female bodies, the judging gazes of male painters: girls and young women make themselves available as models every Monday at the Place Pigalle in the Parisian quarter of Montmartre. The man paints, the woman is the motif—this distribution of roles will be upheld in art until well into the 20th century. Women are denied access to the academies; they are frequently shunted to the arts and crafts, trivialized in artists’ circles. Yet there are also female painters in the bohemian world of Paris around 1900. Suzanne Valadon, Sonia Delaunay, and others take brush in hand and attend open painting classes. Marie Laurencin is initially trained as a porcelain painter. She then turns to oil painting, and in doing so treads male territory.

Works produced by female painters are looked on as “women’s art.” The poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire writes that what women carry into art are not technical innovations but taste, instinct, and a new vision of the universe filled with sheer delight, so to speak. Apollinaire thus availed himself of the clichés of his time. Marie Laurencin enters a love relationship with Apollinaire; she is identified as his muse—a classic role imposed on women in avant-garde circles.

At the same time, Laurencin’s early paintings can hardly be distinguished from those by her male contemporaries. Besides self-portraits, the artist, born in 1883, time and again painted women, individually and in groups. Acquaintances of hers introduce her to the bohemian scene in Paris; she meets painters such as Pablo Picasso, George Braque, and Henri Matisse; experiments with Cubism and Fauvism, breaks motifs up into fields, plays with perspective and subjective coloration. Early drawings testify to an extraordinary talent and a visionary gaze.

Pale Creatures with Melancholy Eyes 

A self-portrait that Laurencin drew in a notebook in 1906 seems surprisingly fresh and timeless. Her head is slightly tilted to the side; the young artist looks thoughtfully and self-confidently at the viewer. The details as well as plays of light and shadow bring a photograph or a close-up to mind; Laurencin preempts the aesthetics of film noir, which would not emerge until much later. An exciting dynamism develops among meticulously drawn and casually hatched elements. Laurencin introduces color in another drawing done that same year. She uses precise blue lines to highlight the contours of her face, and emphasizes shadows and surfaces with red-brownish coloring. This picture is reminiscent of a modern fashion illustration.

In 1900, being a female art dealer in Paris is equally as exotic as being a female painter. Yet there is one: Berthe Weill. She is the first female gallerist in Paris to include Pablo Picasso in her program. She supports the few female artists in Montmartre. Laurencin exhibits in her gallery in 1908; the year before the artist presented her works to the public for the first time in the Salon des Indépendants. Another woman controls the fate of numerous artists in Montmartre: the American art collector and writer Gertrude Stein. She purchases a version of Laurencin’s Apollinaire et ses amis painted in 1908 that features Apollinaire, friends such as Pablo Picasso and his lover, Fernande Olivier, and Laurencin herself. Seven works by Laurencin are included in the legendary 1913 Armory Show, which introduced the American public to the new experimental currents in the European avant-garde.

Laurencin soon discovers her very own style, which manifests, for example, in the painting Portraits (Marie Laurencin, Cecilia de Madrazo et le chien Coco) from 1915. She continues to paint primarily female figures, which now become pale creatures with dark, melancholy eyes. Flowers, birds, dogs, and guitars complement the motifs. The contours become soft; pastel shades of blue, pink, and green find their way into a mystical world. Laurencin also portrays Coco Chanel in these same pastel shades, yet the fashion designer rejects the finished picture; she does not see herself in this world.

Laurencin accepts various commissioned works in the course of her career, creating costumes and stage sets for plays and dance performances, for instance for the Ballets Russe, and illustrates books. She lives in Spanish exile during World War I, later in Düsseldorf as well during a brief marriage to the German Baron Otto von Waëtjen. She spends the major part of her life in Paris, the city to which she remains loyal until her death in 1956. However, the largest collection of her works is in Japan at the Musée Marie Laurencin. Museum director Masahiro Takano opened it in 1983. At the time his private collection included 100 works by Laurencin, a number that has grown to more than 500 in the meantime.