In this oil painting, which measures over one metre in length, a naked female figure, wearing only knee-length white socks and red slippers, lies awkwardly on a chaise longue in a starkly furnished room. Her head, with eyes closed, lolls over the right arm of the chair, allowing her dark hair to hang loosely. The girl’s stiffened right arm stretches towards the floor and, with her left arm raised, her body creates a cruciform shape. Painted in muted and earthy colours, the room is lit from the right, as if from an unseen window. Her elongated torso and thighs are bathed in light but her face and the depths of the room remain in semi-darkness. The figure’s closed eyes and revealing and vulnerable pose cast the viewer as a voyeur.
Nude on a Chaise Longue is one of a group of paintings depicting the private worlds of day-time reverie and sleep that were amongst Balthus’s preferred themes, especially during the 1940s and early 1950s. In these works, a female figure, who is lit from the right, reclines on a chair or couch positioned on the left of the composition. For example, in the slightly earlier work The Week of Four Thursdays (La Semaine des quatre jeudis) 1949 (The Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center, Poughkeepsie), a young girl dressed in a robe or nightdress lies back in a chair and leans her head over its arm so that her hair is loose. With her raised left arm she strokes the cheek of a cat. The title refers to school holidays and suggests relaxation, and the room, which is painted in predominantly yellow tones, is suffused with a bright light from a window on the right. A later work, The Room (La Chambre) 1952–4 (private collection), which measures 2.7 metres by over 3 metres, is a significantly larger work than The Week of Four Thursdays and Nude on a Chaise Longue. In this painting, the dramatic contrast of light and dark and the inclusion of a menacing second figure on the right, who pulls back the curtain at the window, create a sinister mood akin to that produced in T12614.
T12614 and The Room are related to a drawing Balthus made in 1949 (reproduced in Clair, p.307), in which he experimented with the position of the reclining nude. Whilst the drawing includes the window and second figure that would appear in The Room, the final position of the nude corresponds with the figure in Nude on a Chaise Longue (Clair, p.306). However, in T12614, Balthus exchanged the upholstered day bed of the drawing into a stiff, wooden chaise longue, heightening the contrast between the girl’s body and the surface it touches.
The chiaroscuro lighting effects in this work are reminiscent of the art of some seventeenth-century painters, such as Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571–1610) and Rembrandt van Rijn (1606–69). Its erotic and haunting atmosphere suggest the Gothic qualities of images including The Nightmare 1781 (Detroit Institute of Arts) by Henry Fuseli (1741–1845) in which the sleeping female figure’s distorted and helpless posture help to indicate the oppressiveness of her dream.
The model for Nude on a Chaise Longue may have been Laurence Bataille (1930–86), the artist’s companion in the late 1940s to early 1950s, whom Balthus met when she was seventeen. It is likely that Balthus painted the work in Paris and kept it there in his studio at the cour de Rohan, close to boulevard Saint-Germain. In January 1951 he sold it to his dealer Pierre Matisse (1900–89).
Jean Clair (ed.), Balthus, London 2001, reproduced p.306.
Sabine Rewald, ‘In the Mood of the Old Masters’, Tate ETC, no.13, Summer 2008, pp.60–1, reproduced p.61.
Andrew Wilson (ed.), The Simon Sainsbury Bequest to Tate and the National Gallery, London 2008, reproduced p.89.