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a look back in time

History Lesson: Seraphine de Senlis

Seraphine Louis      

A few weeks ago I saw a movie called Seraphine. The film was about the eccen­tric French painter Seraphine Louis (1864–1942). Very lit­tle is actu­ally known about her life, how­ever one fact is known that before she had turned 8, both of her par­ents had died leav­ing her to become a house keeper and ser­vant, an occu­pa­tion she had for most of her life.

As an adult, Seraphine rented a small secluded room in the town of Sen­lis, France where she lived and painted by can­dle light at night ‘using col­ors that she made her­self from unusual and exotic ingre­di­ents she never revealed that have stood the test of time for durable vividness.

Seraphine_Art_4.jpg     Seraphine Louis

In 1912 Seraphine’s paint­ings were dis­cov­ered by the Ger­man art col­lec­tor Wil­helm Uhde. Uhde came to Sen­lis for a rest from his work as an art critic. He had rented a large apart­ment and hired Seraphine as his house­keeper. His neigh­bors upon find­ing out that they were liv­ing next to the promi­nent art dealer, critic, writer and col­lec­tor Wil­helm Uhde invited him to a din­ner party to dis­cuss art and cul­ture. Uhde accepted the invi­ta­tion and attended. Dur­ing din­ner Uhde saw a paint­ing of some Apples, strik­ing and unusual in color and form, he Mar­veled at the beauty, strange­ness and artistry of the piece. Uhde inquired about the artist learn­ing that it was in fact a paint­ing done by his house­keeper Seraphine.

Uhde smit­ten with this paint­ing buys it out­right from his neigh­bor and rushes home. Upon his dis­cov­ery he con­fronts Seraphine and slowly over a brief two years the two begin a friend­ship. Uhde begun to col­lect a num­ber Seraphine’s work pay­ing her cash in hopes it would sup­port her and encour­age her to paint more.

In 1914 the war broke out between France and Ger­many, Uhde feared for his life and fled France entirely in the mid­dle of the night with his sis­ter, tak­ing only what he could carry which included a paint­ing by Henri Rousseau. Other paint­ings he had col­lected were left behind. As the town of Sen­lis was pil­laged, Uhde’s col­lec­tion was con­fis­cated and sold at auc­tion or destroyed. Among these were the acquired paint­ings of  Seraphine Louis which have been lost forever.


It was not until years later in 1927 when Uhde redis­cov­ered Seraphine’s paint­ings. Liv­ing in Chan­tilly, France at the time, he attended an exhi­bi­tion of painted works done by ama­teur artists from Sen­lis. He saw a paint­ing that he rec­og­nized to be Seraphine’s and knew he had to see if his great painter had sur­vived the war. He trav­eled back to Sen­lis to find her still liv­ing in quiet iso­la­tion in her tiny room filled with more paint­ings and an alter of can­dles illu­mi­nat­ing a pic­ture of the Vir­gin Mary. The des­o­la­tion of WWI had left Seraphine even more poverty stricken and hun­gry than ever before. Uhde, speech­less and over­whelmed with joy to have reunited with her became her bene­fac­tor, sup­ply­ing her with deliv­er­ies of large can­vases, paints and sup­plies and a stipend. Seraphine’s paint­ings became larger and larger and more sat­u­rated with rich col­ors of fan­tas­ti­cal flo­ral arrange­ments. The larger her work became the more it began to sell.  Life for Seraphine Louis,  for only a short while was enjoy­able. Her friend­ship with Uhde had cat­a­pulted her into a period of finan­cial suc­cess she had never known before. She now could paint all day, all night at any hour in a stu­dio sep­a­rate from her liv­ing quar­ters. Such lux­ury she had never known before and was ill equipped to han­dle. This new finan­cial equa­nim­ity over­whelmed her, she squan­dered much of her new wealth on frivolities.

Seraphine Louis     Seraphine_Art_3.jpg

The onset of the Great Depres­sion dev­as­tated the world. In 1930 art buy­ers and col­lec­tors could no longer afford to buy the work that they loved and sup­ported. Uhde suf­fer­ing the effects as well, could no longer afford to sup­port Seraphine as an artist or her per­sonal expen­di­tures. Shortly there­after Seraphine’s men­tal state became erratic and unsta­ble she grew depressed, despon­dent and began to slip into lunacy. In 1932 she was admit­ted into a hos­pi­tal for the insane for chronic psy­chosis where she died in 1942 alone.

While hos­pi­tal­ized and after her death Uhde con­tin­ued to show her paint­ings. At the Mod­ern Prim­i­tives Exhi­bi­tion in Paris in 1932, as well as Pop­u­lar Mas­ters of Real­ity in Paris in 1937, in addi­tion to other shows includ­ing a solo show in Paris and in New York at The Museum of Mod­ern Art. Her paint­ings are now part of the col­lec­tions of the Musée d’art de Sen­lis, Musee Malliol in Paris, the Musée d’art naïf in Nice, and the Musée d’Art mod­erne Lille Métro­pole in Vil­leneuve d’Ascq.

SOURCE:  Dee Clements on Sunday, April 25th, 2010, on www.papercrane.com