Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Séraphine Louis: When Artistic Religious Zeal becomes Psychosis

Here is an interesting and very different story of how an artist came to her craft... Séraphine Louis (1864-1924)
was born to a family of  manual laborers in Arsy, France. The life was poor and difficult. When she was one year old, Louis'  mother died. Six years later, her father passed. Louis, orphaned at 7, was taken in by her older sister.

By the time Louis was 17, she had worked as a shepherdess and then a domestic worker at a convent. When she was 27, she found employment in a middle-class family as a house cleaner. Nothing in her background would have explained her compulsion to make art, but yet she did.

At night, by candlelight and in secret, Louis painted. Her inspirations were the paintings and stained-glass windows in church. Her paintings were Louis' way of expressing the mystical ecstasies and visions she felt in the religious environment. Those sensations and the beauty of nature were her sources. This is how she lived- toiling very hard all day and painting at night. That is, until Wilhelm Uhde (1874-1947) came into her life.

Uhde was a very well-known art critic and collector. He needed a rest and rented a place in the town where Louis was working. As it happened, Uhde was invited to the home of Louis' employer. He asked about an unusual apple painting on the host's wall. Imagine his surprise to find out it had been done by their house cleaner!

Immediately Uhde took Louis under his wing. He found a market for her art and soon she was able to spend all her time making art. However, sad to report this story does not end with "happily ever after."

After World War I and the shortages of the subsequent Depression meant that Uhde could no longer support Louis. Missing the outlet of painting for her visions and mysticism, Louis descended into psychosis. Her last years were spent in a mental hospital. 

Louis left a legacy of the celebration of nature for all of us to enjoy. I like to imagine that during the process of painting, she found the happiness that eluded her in her daily world.

Below are some examples of her works. She painted in what the French refer to as the "naive" style. It is known as folk art in the United States. (Very little is known how Louis made her own paints It was her secret.)

There was a French movie made about her life. The lead actress was so good in the role of Louis that she won the French equivalent of the Academy Award (César Awards). The entire film won no less than 7 Césars!