Tuesday, 21 January 2014

Séraphine de Senlis

Perhaps Séraphine Louis' parents had a premonition when they named her after the first rank of angels in the Heavenly Choir, the Seraphim. The paintings of this remarkable artist were inspired by an almost medieval religious passion that wavered between between ecstasy and psychosis.

Her extraordinary and tragic life is movingly portrayed in the film Séraphine, which won seven Césars, (the French version of Oscar) in 2009, including Best Film, and Best Actress for Yolande Moreau who played Séraphine . It is available on DVD at your local library: see it!

Orphaned as a toddler, Séraphine  was brought up by her older sister Victorine, who did domestic work and field labour on a farm. She was a solitary child and preferred walking alone in the woods to playing with the other girls. She was fascinated by nature's beauty and spent a lot of time studying the plants, bird life and insects in the woods and fields.

At 13, Séraphine  started full-time domestic work. She worked for 20 years at the convent of the Sisters of Charity in Clermont, becoming more and more enraptured by the colours of the stained glass, the smell of wax and incense, the singing and the praying. She believed she saw an angel, commanding her in the name of the Virgin to paint pictures for the Glory of God.

She left the convent to work as a char in the village of Senlis. The townsfolk regaded her as the Village Eccentric: talking to herself, muttering prayers and fossicking about in the fields for the plants and natural substances which she mixed with Ripolin housepaint for her artwork. Her mystic "secret recipe" contained earth, moss, blood, holy oil, and who knew what else: she would never disclose what went into it or what prayers and incantations were involved.

At the end of her arduous day of drudge work, she would paint by candelight in her garret: minutely detailed compositions of fruit, plants and flowers, in glowing colours reminiscent of the illuminations  by medieval monks. From time to time she would give a painting to one of her employers, and this is how her work was discovered in 1912 by the German art collector, critic and dealer Wilhelm Uhde.

Uhde, who had rented a weekend apartment in Senlis for a bit of respite from the rat race in Paris, saw an exquisite small picture of apples in the dining room at a neighbour's house, and was amazed when told that his own charwoman had painted it.

Uhde helped Séraphine  with advice and money, and she was able to start using larger canvases instead of the small wooden boards she had been scrounging. His support had barely begun to expand her horizons, when the outbreak of WW1 in 1918 forced him to return to Germany, leaving Séraphine  rudderless.

She survived the war in wretched poverty. Her eccentricities became worse, nobody would employ her and she was reduced to begging, helped a bit by selling the occasional painting. Her mental deterioration was reflected in her work, tentacles and eyes sprouting from the fruit and flowers.

In 1927 Uhde, now back in France, saw three of her paintings in a local art exhibition in Senlis. He described them in his diary: "three large canvasses of startling power: a bouquet of lilacs in a black vase, a cherry tree, two laden vinestocks, of black grapes and white."

Uhde bought all of them and sent them to Paris, where she was recognised as the naïve painter of the day and her work much sought after. For the first time in her life she had money to spend on canvases, stretchers, paints and varnishes. Tragically, her paranoia became worse, she barricaded herself into her home and painted frantically.

In 1930, when the art market collapsed in the wake of the Great Depression. Uhde withdrew his support and Séraphine, unable to sell anything, descended once again into abject poverty. Tragically, her mystical visions and voices became an unbearable cacophony and her mental health deteriorated to a point where she had  to be committed to the Clermont Lunatic Asylum where she died, ravaged by breast cancer. 

There is no monument to this tragic and talented woman: Séraphine  de Senlis is buried in a common grave.


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