I stumbled into a secret the other day. Or at least I think I did. I cannot be absolutely sure. I had gone to the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts, to look at “Giovanni Boldini in Impressionist Paris,” the first American retrospective in 20 years of an artist who was almost 90 when he died in 1931. I’ve always been mildly curious about Boldini, a specialist in chic portraiture with a sideline in avant-gardist attitudinizing, but the show was mostly sugarcoated bombast. Only one painting really held my attention: a small, early composition, The Lascaraky Sisters, with three girls seated on a couch in a comfortably overstuffed mid–nineteenth-century interior. It revealed, or so I suspect, a secret—not about Boldini but about another painter, Balthus, who died in 2001 at the age of 92, and for whom the nineteenth century was phantasmagorical, paradisiacal, a parallel universe. For Balthus the nineteenth century was modernity’s doppelganger. In the early '40s, Balthus was working on a couple of paintings in which a girl sleeps on a nineteenth-century rococo revival couch. And in front of that couch, exactly as in Boldini’s The Lascaraky Sisters, there is a nineteenth-century pedestal table, the top of which partly obscures the girl’s figure. This dark, thrusting tabletop, which was nothing but a compositional gambit in Boldini’s amusing conversation piece, becomes a phallic fantasy in Balthus’s exquisitely carpentered dream.
Was Balthus winking at Boldini? I think Balthus might have been amused by the idea of improving on this artist who was, like Balthus himself, a painter with a fashionable Parisian reputation. Balthus might even have been amused by the echo in their names. Am I making all this up? Am I weaving a Borgesian fantasy? Couldn’t it be that the similarity is accidental, albeit fortuitous, even uncanny? We know that, when Balthus painted two versions of The Living Room in the early '40s, he was representing an actual sofa and table in the parlor of a house at Champrovent in the French Savoy. Maybe he just happened to paint a couch and a table that closely resembled the couch and the table in Boldini’s painting. I cannot say when Balthus would have seen The Lascaraky Sisters or a reproduction of the painting, although it was exhibited in the 1930s and became part of the collection of the Museo Boldini in Ferrara in 1934. But I find it hard to believe that Boldini’s little composition did not in some way precipitate the eroticized tabletops not only in The Living Room but also in later paintings by Balthus such as The Game of Patience and The Dream II. And there is more. The motif of three sisters in a room with a couch became a central theme in Balthus’s work of the 1960s. And couldn’t these paintings—which were based on studies of three sisters Balthus knew, the daughters of the dealer Pierre Colle--also have been, simultaneously, a meditation on The Lascaraky Sisters?
I doubt we will ever know, at least not for sure. Balthus wanted his thoughts to remain as elusive as the dreams of the young women in his paintings. Freedom, for Balthus, had everything to do with the slipperiness—the evanescence--of his meanings. So allow me the freedom to enrich my impressions of Balthus by regarding him, at least for a moment, from the vantage point of Boldini’s little painting. It would have been like Balthus to want to uncover the conceptual grandeur of what for Boldini was mere quotidian observation, making a modern metaphysics out of an earlier era’s novelistic chiaroscuro. Although Balthus would probably be as repelled as Nabokov was by any association with the man the Russian writer called the “Viennese quack,” there is a sense in which Balthus saw the artists of the past not in terms of formal associations but of psychological patterns. And so the dark tabletop, a striking spatial complication in Boldini, becomes a hard-on for Balthus. Certainly there are painters for whom a table is just a table. Balthus would probably have made just such a claim for his own tables. But when we look back to Boldini, we realize that his was the table that was merely a table, an object with a certain quotidian charm. When Balthus paints a table, it turns out to be the emblem of a table, the dream of a table, even the ideal of a table. What for Boldini was the thrust of the composition becomes for Balthus the thrust of the girl’s dream, an erotic revelation.
Jed Perl is The New Republic's art critic.