CR Muse: The Defiant Femininity of Marie Laurencin

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This is CR Muse, a series dedicated to the remembrance of important artists and idea-makers from our past who have shaped culture as we know it today. From traditional creators to those of conceptual thought, we celebrate these women known not only for their work but their confident, eccentric style as well.

“Why should I paint dead fish, onions, and beer glasses?” French painter Marie Laurencin once asked. “Girls are so much prettier.” While at face value the quote is evident of her preferred subject matter, it also speaks to her aesthetic. “Pretty” is the best way to describe Laurencin’s oeuvre. It was a defiant kind of pretty—one that refused to copy the style of her male counterparts in order to compete with them. It was a pretty that embraced femininity, rather than seeing it as a weakness.

Laurencin was born in Paris in 1883. Her first foray into art professionally came at age 18 when she began studying porcelain painting—the decorative painting of porcelain objects, such as plates and vases—at Ecole de Sèvres. However, when she began attending the Académie Humbert, she switched her studies to oil painting. In 1907, she had her first solo show, where she is said to have met Pablo Picasso. From then on, she was associated with the Parisian avant-garde, running in a social circle that included Robert and Sonia Delaunay and Gertrude Stein.

The first thing one notices about her work is how feminine it is. So much so, that in one obituary, her stylistic difference was credited as something that set her apart from her counterparts. Her figures were soft, with large, sleepy eyes, and colored in muted palates. Though she is often linked to Cubism, her early influence, Fauvism, is much more clear.

Laurencin briefly left France to wait out World War I in Spain with her then-husband, Baron Otto von Waëtjen. But after they divorced in 1920, she returned to her home country a single woman, ready to support herself independently through her art.

By the 1920s, Laurencin began pursuing portraiture, a lucrative avenue given her easily recognizable style favored by society women who would be happy to pay for her services. Among her most famous sitters was Coco Chanel. The pair met in 1923, when both were working on productions (Laurencin was doing the set design for the ballet „Les Biches,“ while Chanel was working on costumes for „Le Train Bleu“). The fashion icon commissioned a portrait from the painter. Unfortunately, Chanel was unhappy with the final result, and refused to pay for it. Laurencin, offended, refused to paint a second. In retrospect, it is clear their differing aesthetics would have lead to a clash. How could Chanel, who was known for minimalism, black, and borrowing from menswear, ever feel comfortable rendered in the gauzy femininity that made Laurencin’s work so unique?

In the 1930s, Laurencin expanded her repertoire to include still life and landscapes. She also turned to teaching, possibly as a result of the Great Depression. By the time she passed away in 1956, she had a vast body of work, spanning a 50 year career. Today, her legacy is remembered through the Musée Marie Laurencin in Tokyo, which houses more than 600 paintings, drawings, prints, and more. And in an amusing twist, Karl Lagerfeld used her work as inspiration for Chanel’s Spring/Summer 2011 Haute Couture collection. In the end, soft and pretty turned out to be a great look for Chanel.

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