Balthus Guitar Lesson
9 min

Pubescent Girls and Japanese Cats: The Art Of Balthus, Hannibal Lecters Uncle

9 min

We feel a bit ashamed, as this artist was not presented in our gallery until today. Anyway, better late than never, and we fill this gap right now. Balthasar Klossowski de Rola (1908-2001), also known as Balthus (his childhood nickname), was born in a family of Polish expatriates. From an early age until his death, he lived in an artistic environment and remained a prominent figure in Western art. Some of us would call Balthus a lucky one since André Gide and Jean Cocteau were frequent guests in the Kollosowski family. The artist's first book, which he created at 13, was published with the help of his stepfather, poet Rainer Maria Rilke.

Silence of the Lambs

Balthus himself liked to produce myths about his biography, and his marriage to Japanese woman Setsuko Ideta with 36 years age gap (she was younger than him) created an additional exotic vibe. It seems that Balthus would be thankful to Thomas Harris, who made him an uncle of Hannibal Lecter in his sequel to The Silence of the Lambs.

 Balthus, portrait by Oliver Mark

Fig. 1. Balthus, portrait by Oliver Mark, 2000 (

 balthus Thérèse Dreaming

Fig. 2. Thérèse Dreaming, 1938 (

  Balthus Girl and Cat

Fig. 3. Girl and Cat, 1937 (

Uncomfortable Sexuality

Balthus is famous for his images of teenage girls in provocative poses. Just like Irina Ionesco's photography, the art of Balthus makes people feel uncomfortable. In 2017, some purists signed a petition to remove his painting Thérèse Dreaming from the exposition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Interestingly, when the same painting was exposed at the Museum Ludwig in Germany in 2007, there weren't any complaints. Nevertheless, it's not the most scandalous work of Balthus, while Guitar Lesson (1934) quite surely is.

 Balthus Guitar Lesson

Fig. 4. Guitar Lesson, 1934 (

 Balthus Preparatory sketch

Fig. 5. Preparatory sketch (

 Man Ray Le Violon d'Ingres

Fig. 6. Le Violon d'Ingres, 1924 (

 Balthus Nude With a Guitar

Fig. 7. Nude With a Guitar, 1986 (

A Violent Violin And A Guitar Girl

The composition with an adult dominating over a kid slightly resembles the famous Young Virgin Spanking The Infant Jesus (1923) by Max Ernst. The scene can be interpreted as punishing a naughty pupil who doesn't want to do what she's told. At the same time, the attempt of the woman to play a girl like a guitar may be a metaphor for adults manipulating kids. The naked breast of the woman that may symbolize maternity, in our view, is a detail that partly legitimizes such "psychological" interpretation. The girl's exposed private parts and a small guitar on the floor together actualize a widespread analogy between a woman and a musical instrument, which can be seen, for instance, in Man Ray's Le Violon d'Ingres (1924), where model Kiki is compared to a violin. The fact that in 1986 Balthus refers to this analogy again in his painting Nude With a Guitar proves that we're dealing here rather with a well-known poetic comparison renewed by sado-erotic features than with an image of child abuse. All in all, if this picture seems to someone offensive, this is what Balthus aimed for. American poet Stephen Dobyns interprets the painting in his book The Balthus Poems (1982) in the following way:

 Stephen Dobyns, The Guitar Lesson

Fig. 8. Stephen Dobyns, The Guitar Lesson (Poetry Vol. 138, No. 4 (Jul., 1981), pp. 188-189)

Alice's Adventures

Where little girls appear, the name of Lewis Carroll appears as well. The photographs of Alice Liddell and other girls made by Carroll are one of the sources of Balthus' inspiration and the most obvious parallel to his works. Let's mention that not only Carroll's photographs but also illustrations of Alice's Adventures In Wonderland created by John Tenniel apparently influenced Balthus' works. The nude girl in his painting of 1950 looks like a more explicit version of giant Alice stuck in White Rabbit's house.

Balthus Girl On a Bed A;ice in Wonderland

Fig. 9. Left: Girl On a Bed, 1950 (; right: John Tenniel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, 1865

Della Francesca Visiting Kuniyoshi

Balthus' images of teenage girls stylistically exist between the characters of medieval paintings and the heroes of shunga pieces (The Cat In The Mirror). In the early years, Balthus visited Florence, where he copied frescos of Piero Della Francesca, so the medieval look of his maidens may derive from his Italian impressions. Cats, constant companions of these girls, evoke in mind shunga images by Kuniyoshi. By the way, the surreal Mediterranean Cat (1949, fig. 32) is probably one of the most "Japanese" depictions of cats produced by a Western artist.

 Balthus Girl On a Bed

Fig. 10. The Mediterranean Cat (

Balthus Fig. 11. The Cat In the Mirror

Fig. 11. The Cat In the Mirror, 1978 (

 balthus The Cat In the Mirror

Fig. 12. Nude With Mirror, 1982 (

  Nude With a Towel Balthus

Fig. 13. Nude With a Towel, 1982 (

 Balthus Getting Up

Fig. 14. Getting Up, 1977 (

 Balthus Nude

Fig. 15. Nude, 1973 (

 Balthus Figure In Front of a Mantel

Fig. 16. Figure In Front of a Mantel, 1955 (

  Balthus Great Composition With Corbel

Fig. 17. Great Composition With Corbel, 1985 (

  Balthus Getting Up

Fig. 18. Getting Up, 1955 (

 balthus Sleeping Nude

Fig. 19. Sleeping Nude, 1983 (

 balthus Resting Nude

Fig. 20. Resting Nude, 1977 (

 balthus Sleeping Nude

Fig. 21. Sleeping Nude, 1980 (

 balthus Nude With Her Arms Raised

Fig. 22. Nude With Her Arms Raised, 1951 (

 balthus Sleeping Girl

Fig. 23. Sleeping Girl, 1943 (

 balthus Sleeping Girl,

Fig. 24. Sleeping Girl, study (

 balthus The Moth

Fig. 25. The Moth, 1960 (

 balthus The Room

Fig. 26. The Room, 1948 (

 balthus The Toilet

Fig. 27. The Toilet, 1957 (

 balthus Young Girl With White Skirt

Fig. 28. Young Girl With White Skirt, 1955 (

 balthus Alice in the Mirror

Fig. 29. Alice in the Mirror, 1933 (

  balthus White Skirt

Fig. 30. White Skirt, 1937 (

 balthus Cathy’s Toilette (model - Antoinette de Watteville – the first wife of Balthus)

Fig. 31. Cathy’s Toilette (model - Antoinette de Watteville – the first wife of Balthus), 1933 (

balthus balthus Cathy’s Toilette (model - Antoinette de Watteville – the first wife of Balthus)

Fig. 32. Andre Derain, 1936 (

In Premium you can explore an extended version with additional text and images on the influence Balthus had on Japanese artists and vice versa. Also in the Premium section a closer look at Balthus's painting The Room which is considered one of the most compulsive works of erotic art of the 20th century...!!

Click HERE for our earlier controversial article on Irina and Eva Ionseco....!!


Let us know what you think about Balthus' daring paintings in the comment box below....!!