Wednesday, July 29, 2009

"SERAPHINE" LOUIS DE SENLIS: Angels & Demons & the Reflection of the Artist in the Work of Her Admirers

Above, the film, sdirected by Martin Prevost, starring Yolande Moreau, 2009.

Above, the artist, Seraphine Louis.

Above, more visionary paintings by Seraphine Louis de Senlis: Sacred art from private places.

I am not sure which is more remarkable, the extraordinary and tragic life of this remarkable artist, or the recent film starring Yolande Moreau as Séraphine by director Martin Provost. (The film won a César--the French Oscar--in 2009 for Best Actress for her performance. The film won a total of seven Césars, including Best Film.)

Séraphine Louis (Séraphine de Senlis) (1864–1942) was a French painter in the naïve style. Self-taught, she was inspired by her religious faith and by stained-glass church windows and other religious art. The intensity of her images, both in color and in replicative design, is sometimes interpreted as a reflection of her own psyche, walking a tightrope between ecstasy and mental illness.

Alongside her arduous day jobs, Séraphine painted by candlelight and largely in secret isolation, until her considerable body of work was discovered in 1912 by art collector Wilhelm Uhde. While in Senlis, Uhde saw a still-life of apples at his neighbor's house and was astonished to learn that Séraphine, his housecleaner, was the artist. His support had barely begun to lift her horizons when he was obliged to leave France in August, 1914, with war between France and Germany making him an unwelcomed outsider in Senlis, much as Séraphine was, given her eccentric persona. They only reestablished contact in 1927 when Uhde – back in France and living in Chantilly - came to an exhibition of local artistry in Senlis and, seeing Séraphine's work, realized that she had survived and her art had flourished. Under Uhde's patronage, Séraphine expanded her canvas, literally (with an apparent preference for canvases two meters high), and she came to prominence as a naïve painter of her day. In 1929, Uhde organized an exhibition "Painters of the Sacred Heart" that featured Séraphine's art and launched her into a period of financial success she had never known - and was ill prepared to manage. Then, in 1930, the effects of the Great Depression undercut her patronage, as Uhde was obliged to stop buying her paintings. In 1932, she was admitted for "chronic psychosis" to the psychiatric ward of a geriatric hospital at Clermont, where her artistry found no outlet. Although Uhde reported that she had died in 1934, Louis actually survived until 1942, friendless and alone in a hospital annex at Villers-sous-Erquery. (Some exhibitions still suggest she died in 1934.) She was buried in a common grave.

Mr. Prevost's film, and the wonderful performances by Ms. Moreau and Mr. Turkus. echo and embody the gorgeous French countryside, the simple lives, the religious devotion, and the changing world of Europe in the early 20th century that seems to have had such a profound impact on the life and work of this artist. Today, the common appelation is the "Outsider" artist, suggesting the unschooled and untrained creatives who exist outside of the social structures of the art world - art school, museums, galleries, Williamsburg, etc. Often this term is a delicate way of also referring to the psychological and emotional problems that keep these artists on the periphery. I prefer "Visionary" artists, which is represented well in Baltimore's American Museum of Visionary Art.

The real story of Seraphine is a powerful and remarkable tale. This film passionately and generously explores her work and story, and is a must-see, both as a refleciton of her art, and how the artist's own life and challenges have affected their own art-making. Now at the Brooklyn Heights Cinema on Henry Street and Pineapple Street.

More at Wikipedia on artist Seraphine Louis:

More on the painter's imagery:

So much of art and creativity today are inextricably tangled with commerce, the drive for career, or celebrity, fame, identity and social status as an "Artist." The story about this artist, in reality and as portrayed in the film, reinforces the truth of the angels and demons that drive many artists to work in solitude, without concern for showing, much less selling, their work. Artists who create because they have no other choice, despite their humble and unglamorous day jobs. Artists who create simply, because their lives depend on it.

--Brooklyn Beat


  1. Rosie Leventon. - Installations artist.December 18, 2009 at 9:02 AM

    Have seen the film twice. Thought it was absolutely marvellous, one of the best! So great to learn about this amazing artist who ,
    I dont think is well known in this country. I love her intense imagery, wish I could see her work properly. Many of the images on the websites of her work look quite poor quality to me. I expect they look a lot better in real life.

  2. Julie Aragon BlanchardMay 22, 2010 at 11:32 PM

    I just saw the movie. I was touched by her
    hunger for painting...Her humility and genious
    gift are inspiring. Her amazing art say's it all! Serephing was moved by angles and appreciated the gift of nature that was so deeply revered by it. Now we can marvel at the
    magic of her art!

  3. I just saw this film last night, and what a magnificent story that is heartbreaking and exhuberant at the same time. I, too, would like to see her paintings live somewhere and wonder if they are in the US in a gallery or museum somewhere? If anyone locates any, will you let me know?
    Thank you.

  4. I believe in both Angels and Demons because I have encountered both in manifestations outside of just dreams. The angel I saw flying over my home city while standing on my friends' porch after dinner - they were the first to see it...

  5. Where can we find her current exhibition? I would really like to go see them. from Atlanta

  6. Amazing..... Both the film and allso the artwork of Serafina Louis.....Amazing

  7. I loved this movie it actally inspired me to start painting again.I loved her and felt all her emotions.


Current Reading

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