This oil painting is dominated by an arrangement of still life on a tabletop. To the far right of the table, an enigmatic, young female figure appears in profile. She is cut off sharply at the image’s right border so that only her head, with its wavy, reddish hair, her hands, and one yellow-green sleeve, are visible. The composition has an underlying structure of lines, which include the vertical stripes of the wallpaper in the background and the table’s horizontal and diagonal edges. These produce a sense of order and definition although the space that the table and the girl occupy is ambiguous and strangely compressed. The girl supports herself with one hand on the table while the other hand rests on, or, perhaps, draws back, a dark red and gold curtain to the right. She appears to lean into the scene, bending her head forward and locking her gaze on the table’s surface. On the far left, is an elaborate, stemmed fruit bowl, from which several green and red apples with leafy stalks seem about to tumble. A wine glass stands to the right, and next to it, still further to the right, is a hunk of bread, which has a knife placed suggestively into it. The handle of the knife is positioned so close to the hand of the female figure they almost seem to touch.
Balthus painted Still Life with a Figure while staying in the small village of Vernatel in the Savoie region of France where he moved from Paris in June 1940 following the German invasion of the country. Accompanied by his wife, Antoinette de Watteville, the artist stayed at a house called Champrovent, where he had spent holidays in the 1930s. Having served in the French army at the outset of the war and suffered a nervous breakdown, he felt the therapeutic effect of the move to the countryside intensely. In July 1940 the artist wrote: ‘In an almost miraculous way, the ability to work has been restored to me in the midst of these horrors’ (quoted in Wilson, p.84). For the domestic setting of Still Life with a Figure, Balthus probably used the interior of Champrovent, as in other paintings of this period. The silvery-red fruit bowl features in works of the period, including, The Greedy Child (L’Enfant gourmand) 1940, private collection, and The Living Room (Le Salon) 1941–3, Minneapolis Institute of Arts (reproduced in Jean Clair (ed.), Balthus, London 2001, fig.1 p.274, and in Rewald, 1984, p.103, respectively).
Balthus’s characteristic realism and his use of deep and rich tones recall a long-standing interest in Dutch still life and Old Master paintings, works he first encountered on visits to the Louvre as a young man. He painted Still Life with a Figure on paper mounted on board rather than on canvas, which might have been the result of economic constraints or because supplies were limited in rural, war-torn France. Balthus varied his level of paint application between thicker and thinner layers to increase the impression of three-dimensionality. Some over-painting indicates that he changed his mind about various small but significant compositional elements, such as the inclusion of a single apple on the table between the glass and the fruit bowl. The careful arrangement of still life and the ambiguous female figure together produce an uncanny and unsettling effect. Objects seem to be imbued with symbolic, perhaps sacred, significance: bread and a wine glass on a lace cloth suggest the Eucharistic sacrament, and the combination of apples and a curious young woman evoke the biblical story of Eve. The artist used the motif of a knife thrust into a piece of bread, which suggests an underlying violence, in the earlier Still Life (Nature Morte) 1937 (Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford), in which various domestic items – including one upright and stoppered carafe, another carafe with a broken opening, and a hammer – are arranged on a tabletop, and in the slightly later Girl in Green and Red [Girl with a Candlestick] (Jeune fille en vert et rouge [Jeune fille au chandelier]) 1944–5 (reproduced in Rewald, 1984, p.84, and in Clair, fig.2 p.254, respectively). Balthus often painted adolescent girls and the theme of a dawning feminine sexuality that seems to suggest both vulnerability and threat is a consistent one in his work. For Still Life with a Figure his model was Georgette Cozlin (born 1928), the twelve-year-old daughter of Champrovent’s farmer, whom he painted in a number of works from this period, including The Living Room (Le Salon) (Rewald, 2008, p.61).
This painting and Sleeping Girl (Dormeuse) 1943 (T00297), acquired by Tate in 1959, were exhibited in 1943 at the artist’s solo exhibition at the Galerie Georges Moos, Geneva, and were for a time in the collection of the French playwright Henri Bernstein (1876–1953). Still Life with a Figure was first titled Nature Morte (Still Life) when it was shown in Geneva. In the 1968 Arts Council exhibition, Balthus, at the Tate Gallery, it was called A Bite To Eat (Le goûter). Given the uncertainties in the history of the work’s title, it has been decided to use the simple descriptive title Still Life with a Figure, echoing that used in 1943.
Sabine Rewald, Balthus 1908–2001, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 1984, reproduced p.101.
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.85.