Born to a family of Polish aristocrats that had emigrated in the 19th century, Balthus spent part of his childhood in Switzerland, where the poet Rainer Maria Rilke encouraged his budding talent, writing the preface to Mitsou (1921), an album of forty drawings inspired by the young artist's cat. When he was sixteen, he began to paint, without a teacher, openly admiring Courbet and first influenced by Bonnard and Derain, who were friends of his parents. Despite the fact that his first exhibition in Paris (in 1934 at Galerie Pierre) was presented by Antonin Artaud, that his illustrations for Wuthering Heights were published in Minotaure in 1935, and that he was a friend of Miró—executing a handsome portrait of him in 1938—Balthus consistently denied being a surrealist. He also refused to acknowledge the slightest trace of eroticism in his oeuvre. Nevertheless, the dreamlike mood of his pictures is akin to surrealism, and their content alludes to a world of ambiguous desires. Notwithstanding his landscapes and street scenes, his favorite theme was the naked girl bathing or dressing, indulgently depicting her prepubescent sex and young animal grace; or the adolescent girl presented in a suggestive pose, abandoning herself to disturbing dreams stirred by her burgeoning femininity, or the fear of being violated by the gaze of others, or even the light of day (The Golden Days, 1944-46, John H. Hirshhorn Foundation, New York; The Room, 1952-54). An essay by his brother, Pierre Klossowski, titled "On the Tableau Vivant in Balthus' Painting," underscored his "pathos," "monumental stasis" and "monstrosity"; his sexual symbols, such as the mirror: "celestial and aquatic, the symbol of Woman and Mother"; or the fireplace: "infernal and terrestrial, the symbol of virile violence." After designing sets for the plays The State of Siege by Albert Camus (1948) and Crime on Goat Island by Ugo Betti (1952), Balthus gave up the seclusion of the Château de Chessy to become director of the Académie de France in Rome. He nevertheless agreed to participate in the historic 1964 exhibition Surrealism: Sources, Origins, Affinities, at Galerie Charpentier in Paris, with his large painting Passage du Commerce-Saint-André (1952-54), a reworking of his 1933 La Rue, as if acknowledging that the painting's deeper meaning lay therein. His 1966 retrospective at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris was followed by many others in his lifetime: the Centre Georges Pompidou, in 1983; the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in 1984; the Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts in Lausanne, in 1993; the Palace of Fine Arts in Beijing, in 1995; and the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid, in 1996. Considering his drawings as works unto themselves, as important as the paintings, he showed them separately in 1994, at the Kunstmuseum in Bern, and in 1996, at the Palazzo dei Papi in Viterbo, Italy.
Born 1908 in Paris; died 2001 in La Rossinière, Switzerland.