Published: Aug. 1, 2002 By

The lesbian is the heroine of modernism.
– Walter Benjamin (90)

[1]   In scholarly examinations of the period prior to the First World War, Marie Laurencin’s work has been viewed almost exclusively as a footnote to early twentieth-century French modernism, important primarily for its recording of the youthful visages of avant-garde great Pablo Picasso and poet Guillaume Apollinaire on the eve of their ascension to fame. Apollinaire, Laurencin’s romantic partner during some of these early years, published the first reviews of her work as early as 1912 and was the source of both of the two dominant framing devices for Laurencin’s œuvre in the period prior to the Great War. She is discussed either under the qualified terms of feminine cubist — even, in Apollinaire’s words, as “Our Lady of Cubism” — a paradigm in which her gender is taken to have dictated her artistic technique; or, perhaps even more frequently, Laurencin is remembered as Apollinaire’s muse. As such, she is considered one who inspired passively but who was not capable of greatness herself, an idea that Apollinaire encouraged with such gleeful statements as “she is happy, she is good, she is spiritual and she has so much talent! She is a little sun; she is me in feminine form!” (quoted in Faure-Favier, 51). In the years since these first reviews most discussions of Laurencin’s work have left unquestioned the assumptions that her only merit was as witness to the truly avant-garde cubist artists such as Picasso and Georges Braque and that she only gained access to this group through the favors of Apollinaire (Steegmuller, 144; Couturier, 96). While Laurencin began painting in 1902, five years before she met Picasso and Apollinaire, cubist scholarship has generally remembered her as having only begun to paint because of and subsequent to her time as the poet’s muse (Coquiot, 112). Examination of innovations or iconography in Laurencin’s work that fall outside of the cubist project, or attempts to contextualize her œuvre in relation to movements other than cubism have been hobbled by the fixation on Laurencin as Apollinaire’s inspiration and Picasso’s acquaintance. Inquiries formed by such questions as “Marie Laurencin: Cubist Muse or More?” (Sandell) have made for a body of scholarship that, with only a few notable exceptions (Elliott and Wallace, Perry, Fagan-King), has failed to engage Laurencin’s varied and complex œuvre on anything but a superficial level.

[2]   These conventions in the scholarship on Laurencin become apparent in discussion of such works as her 1908 paintingApollinaire and His Friends (figure 1). Marie Laurencin, Appolinaire and His Friends/Group of Artists (Appolinaire et ses amis, première version), 1908. Oil on canvas, 64.8 x 81 cm. The Baltimore Museum of Art: the Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etta Cone of Baltimore, Maryland (BMA 1950.215). © 2002 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP ParisThe painting, arguably Laurencin’s best known, is usually taken to be most important for its memorializing of the friendship between Apollinaire, seated at the center, and the young Picasso, shown in profile at the lower left. Though innovative with its bold use of flat fields of color and its sense of humor — note, for example, the way in which the curving bouquet at the right creates an elaborately silly headdress for Picasso’s girlfriend of the time, Fernande Olivier — Apollinaire and His Friends is also, at its heart, a rather traditional portrait of a great man. Here the writer of genius is regally ensconced with his friends around him, his lover behind him and a faithful dog at his feet. However, while a portrait provides the painting’s focus, other facets of this work merit exploration: its position as a particular moment in the development of Laurencin’s early œuvre, for example, or its status as one of a complex series of experiments in the representation of a changing self. Instead of probing beneath the surface, most studies only mentionApollinaire and His Friendsas a record of these two famous men in their youth and treat the painting less as an avant-garde work than as a documentary snapshot.

[3]   Given Laurencin’s twin reputations as more muse than artist and as cubist hanger-on who was important first and foremost for recording images of great men, what are we to make of her 1904 aquatinted and etched print Song of Bilitis (figure 2)? Marie Laurencin, Songs of Bilitis (Chansons de Bilitis), 1904. Etching and aquatint, 23.9 x 14.9 cm. Bibliothèque Nationale, Cabinet des Estampes, Paris © 2002 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP ParisIn contrast toApollinaire and His Friends, this print is rarely reproduced in the scholarship on Laurencin, possibly because it raises serious questions about standard interpretations of her early work. TheSong of Bilitis etching seems to have deeply preoccupied Laurencin. She printed it at least twenty times over the course of 1904 and 1905, using different methods to color the print and playing with light and shading but not altering the actual state of the metal plate from which the images were pressed. The extremely sparse composition of this print consists of two female figures, clad in translucent gray and ocher garments, who seem almost to float in a setting that is hardly defined. Laurencin indicates the ethereal bodies of the women mostly through outlining, rendering them almost transparent, both present and absent. Their ghostly appearances heighten the stylized nature of the poses that the figures strike; they stand apart, but lean sharply towards one another, focusing all of their attention — and ours — on their spectacular, all-consuming kiss. The two faces mirror each other in a moment of passion and concentration, and their hair flows together in a suggestion of mental convergence. For both its subject matter and technique this little-known Song of Bilitis print is an important moment in Laurencin’s artistic development.

[4]   Taking Laurencin’s Song of Bilitis print as a starting point, this article explores the ways in which representations of a classical past were deployed in order to create a visual language of female creativity and lesbian desire in early twentieth-century Paris. In so doing, I focus on one particular historical figure, the ancient Greek poet Bilitis. Powerful ideas were gathered around what was known of the work and life of this ancient poet; she was an important influence on several key turn-of-the century French writers and on artists such Laurencin herself. The texts of Bilitis lead us to the rich ground of French neoclassicism, which, prior to the turn-of-the-century, had already been nationalized by artists such as Nicolas Poussin and Jacques-Louis David (Leoussi, Halperin). Imagery that invoked a classical past also came to provide a vocabulary for same sex love and relationships, an aspect of Laurencin’s work that has been seriously understudied. While a few scholars and biographers have mentioned Laurencin’s later love relationships with women (Cooper; Groult, 84; Marks, 354), it has gone completely unremarked that she began to create images of lesbian love as early as 1904 or that she had declared her own “preference for women” in a letter of 1906.

[5]   In the process of tracing neoclassical and Sapphic influences on Laurencin’s work in this article, I also problematize modernist histories of art. By now there is a significant body of scholarship on modernism and several important critiques of the ways that modernist histories have been written (Harrison, 142-155; Elliott and Wallace, 3-30). For the purposes of this study I am using the term modernism broadly in order to discuss the scholarly reception of artists associated with cubism, probably the most influential modernist movement of the period before the war. The fact that the study of Laurencin’s early work has been extremely limited by an insistence on viewing her only in relation to cubism becomes clear when her connections to other groups of artists and writers are explored; here I investigate the lesbian neoclassical circles of early twentieth-century Paris. As the present study will show, Laurencin’s connections to female-dominated groups were just as important and influential for the early development of her work as her ties to Apollinaire and the cubists were. And, although they have seldom been acknowledged as such, closer examination of Laurencin’s entire oeuvre reveals its most central motifs to be images of Sapphic paradises, communities exclusive of men and landscapes peopled with archetypes of female independence.

[6]   I have begun this article with a quotation from Walter Benjamin in which he refers to the figure of the lesbian as the heroine of modernism. Here Benjamin is talking about Baudelaire’sThe Flowers of Evil, a work that, as we will see, provided a key antecedent for Laurencin and her contemporaries’ lesbian neoclassical imaginings. Benjamin is pointing to the hidden history of an element of modernism, a historical moment that not only made room for women and for female creativity, but which upheld lesbianism as an ideal that intertwined female sexuality and greatness. Benjamin writes that “in [the lesbian] an erotic ideal of Baudelaire — the woman who bespeaks hardness and mannishness — has combined with a historical ideal, that of greatness in the ancient world” (90). These two texts, Baudelaire’s from the French Second Empire and Benjamin’s from the period between the two World Wars, provide brackets around Laurencin’s early years as an artist and help to resituate her in relationship to other artists who have always been considered the true heroes of modernism, above all Picasso. In recognizing Laurencin’s insistent repetition of lesbian iconography, we are able to examine her work in the context of other strains of early twentieth-century modernism, and perhaps even to challenge more fundamentally accepted ideas about the history of modernism itself. My study identifies the manner in which Laurencin’s early work participated in a broader project of lesbian neoclassicism; in explaining this participation I trace the outlines of a modernism that held the lesbian as its heroine. From the starting point of the strange history of the valences of The Songs of Bilitis and of the reception of this ancient text in turn-of-the-century Paris, I reopen possibilities for interpreting Laurencin’s work.



[7]   In 1895, the twenty-four year old author Pierre Louÿs made his mark on the Parisian literary scene by publishing the first French translation of the ancient Greek text The Songs of Bilitis(figure 3). 
 Frontispiece of The Songs of Bilitis (Les chansons de Bilitis), 1895. (Reproduced in Pierre Louÿs, Les Chansons de Bilitis, ed. Jean-Paul Goujon. Poésie/Gallimard. 1990. 28.) Courtesy of Gallimard, ParisLouÿs’s volume included translations of ninety-three of Bilitis’s poems, or “songs,” as each poem of the cycle was called, as well as Louÿs’s own scholarly essay, “The Life of Bilitis,” in which he recounted the recent discovery of the Songs by the German archeologist Prof. G. Heim on the island of Cyprus (252-53). Heim had found the poet’s underground tomb pristinely preserved since her burial two and a half millennia ago. He broke through the sealed doors to the inner-most chamber of the grave and found the poet’s body undisturbed in a room lined with walls of black stone upon which Bilitis’s songs had been engraved. These miraculously preserved texts were first translated into German by Heim and published in 1894, one year prior to Louÿs’s translation. For Louÿs’s French version, Heim contributed a brief introductory essay in which he criticized recent trends in the study of ancient Greek literature that had, until that point, been too focused on Athenian texts and styles. Heim explained that this important find of Bilitis’s works, songs produced by a poet originally from Pamphylia, now in Turkey, would help to correct this scholarly imbalance and thus to greatly expand knowledge of the ancient world (208-09).


[8]   Although Heim’s introduction cast a few aspersions on the young Louÿs’s skills as a translator, the French text proved an instant hit. It was compelling both as a new window into the ancient past and as a surprisingly accessible narrative for the modern reader. The Songs follow Bilitis through a life of romantic escapades, beginning with her pastoral youth and early passion for a local shepherd and concluding with her later days as an honored temple prostitute on the island of Cyprus. The most influential series of poems lies in the center of the text, beginning with Bilitis’s arrival on the island of Lesbos and her acceptance in the circle of Sappho, called “Psappha” in the songs (88). It was Sappho who initiated Bilitis into same-sex love and, as Louÿs’s research had shown, Sappho was also the mentor who taught Bilitis “to sing in rhythmic phrases and to preserve the remembrance of her loves for posterity” (33). In the community of Lesbos, Bilitis found the love of her life and the woman she would marry, the beautiful Mnasidika, whose name was already known to scholars of classical Greek literature through Sappho’s verses (DeJean, 277). Bilitis poetically recounts the fiery passion of this relationship in songs such as “Desire,” in which she exclaims: “never in my life had there been a kiss like that one” (94). It is this frank depiction of love and passion between women of the ancient past that seems to have made The Songs of Bilitis so popular with its modern public.

[9]   But while Louÿs was always named as the translator for The Songs of Bilitis (in the first edition by his initials and in all subsequent editions with his full name), Louÿs’s involvement with the text was, in fact, rather more active than the title of translator let on. Our Professor G. Heim, that supposed model of Teutonic erudition, never actually existed and neither did Bilitis or her tomb. The whole book was written by Louÿs himself, including the passages of Heim’s introduction in which he criticized Louÿs’s own “translation.” Read aloud, G. Heim or Geheim, means “secret” in German, an appropriate fictive scholarly name included to legitimate Louÿs’s hoax.

[10]   The Songs of Bilitis may not have been the translation of an ancient text that it purported to be, but it was a tremendous success. The book went through four editions in its first five years alone and has been in almost continuous publication since that time (Goujon, 251-52). The playful recreation of the Songs inspired artists, writers and even composers; Claude Debussy set three of the songs to music in 1898. Friends of Louÿs knew the book to be entirely his own work and many of the contemporary reviews also treated it with an awareness that its connections to the past were imaginary rather than actual (Louÿs, 324-27). But while Louÿs’s play on the past was all in good fun, the fake was good enough that — to Loüys’s delight — a few scholars were taken in by it. In one case, Louÿs sent a well-known professor of Greek archeology a copy ofThe Songs of Bilitis along with his real translation of the truly ancient text, Méléagre; the professor replied that he not only knew of both Méléagre and Bilitis, but that he was familiar enough with both texts to think of their ancient authors as close friends (Louÿs, 320). A year after the initial publication of the Songs, poet Laureate Mme. Jean Bertheroy claimed to have gone back to the original ancient Greek for the new translation of six of the songs that she published. Whether other readers were just playing along with Louÿs’s joke or were genuinely duped by him, Bilitis quickly became an accepted member of the pantheon of ancient literary poets through this mischievous neoclassical recreation. Bilitis thus lived on in an undefined state, embodying at once ancient poet, erudite gag and neoclassical fantasy. With the help of Louÿs’s fake, the idea of a creative community of women on ancient Lesbos became better known and more accessible to Parisian readers of his day.

[11]   The way for the creation and success of the Songs had been paved by an earlier resurgence of neoclassicism in art and literature aligned with what literary historian Joan DeJean has called a “fascination with female homosexuality” that had already gained strength by the mid-nineteenth century. DeJean finds that key works such as Baudelaire’s The Flowers of Evil were largely responsible for the name Sappho becoming identified with lesbian sexuality and independent female poetic production (DeJean 266, 267; Baudelaire 110a, 110b, 111). Following in the footsteps of Baudelaire and others, Louÿs’s Songs of Bilitistook the project of lesbian neoclassical representation one step further, as he himself was well aware. In 1897 Louÿs triumphantly wrote to his brother that one of the most major achievements of the Songs was its unique representation of a lesbian character who was not, as in Balzac or Zola, a vicious femme fatale, but the subject of an idyll (317). Louÿs’s work presented readers with a harmonious and pastoral classical lesbian past that he linked to female creativity. Such positive representations invited other neoclassical imaginings along these lines and expanded the terms of women’s poetic and artistic production at the turn-of-the century by presenting the classical past as a space of fantasy.

[12]   The continued success of Louÿs’s Songs of Bilitis was also indebted to the happy circumstance of a well-timed discovery of highly relevant texts that were authentically ancient. In 1897, two years after the publication of the Songs, a new cache of approximately one hundred poetry fragments attributed to Sappho were found on papyrus strips in Egypt, performing the noble task of wrapping mummified crocodiles (Powel, 36). These new fragments further heightened the reemerging interest in Sappho and in lesbian classicism; and, because of this coincidence of timing, Bilitis became even more strongly associated with Sappho, who was already present in the Songs of Bilitis text. Thus Louÿs’s verses became part of the mythological origins of modern lesbianism and served as a point of reference for numerous artists and writers of his day.

[13]   Perhaps the most influential of the devotees of Bilitis was American heiress and expatriate Natalie Barney, who was a well known writer, a major influence in the literary and artistic milieus of Paris and a leader in the group of writers that would later be known as “Sapho 1900” (Wickes, 7; DeJean, 285; Billy, 227). Louÿs’s writings were a major source of inspiration for Barney and other members of this group who felt themselves directly addressed in his dedication of the Songs “to the young women of the future society.” In return, Barney dedicated her first book, Cinq petits dialogues grecs, to Pierre Louÿs from “a young woman of the future society” and began hosting women-only pagan rituals at her home in Paris soon after this first publication. A period photograph of one of these spectacles still exists, complete with all participants in togas, an open fire, and a flautist and harp player providing music for the dance (figure 4). Neoclassical dance held in Natalie Barney's garden, Paris, n.d. Photograph. Courtesy of Bibliothèque Littéraire Jacques Doucet, ParisA few years later, in 1909, Barney founded another, related circle, her weekly literary Salon de l’Amazone, the Salon of the Amazon, held in the neoclassical Temple of Friendship on her property in Paris. The salon was based on Barney’s interest in bringing together poetesses in imitation of the group that Sappho had gathered around her on Lesbos, but she broadened the idea and invited both men and women (Wickes, 58; Barney,Adventures, frontispiece). Not only was Pierre Louÿs among the regular guests at Barney’s salon, so was Marie Laurencin.

[14]   Both Laurencin and Barney took Louÿs’s Bilitis poems as a starting point for their own work; and both were creating their own responses to this text as early as the first years of the last century. Both of them relied upon the Songs to inspire their own imaginings of desire between women set in a classical past that was linked to the model of the ancient poet Sappho and to sapphic love. For Barney, neo-Sapphism enabled her to create a cult experience in which participants would leave behind conventional life, as well as the lives they had shared with their nuclear families, in order to participate in a new, familial circle of poets and lovers (DeJean, 280). Texts like the Songs as well as those produced by members of the Sapphic-influenced group around Barney relied upon a vision of ancient Greece as a template upon which to imagine female desire as linked to literary and artistic production. Thus by ventriloquizing a fictional woman from antiquity named Bilitis, Louÿs enabled the voices of writes such as Barney or Renée Vivien to express female-female desire. Laurencin became a part of this extended family; she was one of the many artists drawn to Barney’s orbit, just as, according to Louÿs’s version of the story, Bilitis had become part of the circle of Sappho.



[15]   The complex intertextual origins of Laurencin’s 1904 Song of Bilitis print place her œuvre in a very different light than that in which it has been viewed up to this point. Cubism, Picasso and Apollinaire, the key referents for all discussions of Laurencin in the period prior to the First World War, now take their places next to Bilitis, Barney and a host of other archetypes of female independence and lesbian sexuality that are, as we shall see, the constant focus of Laurencin’s work. Referring to Bilitis in 1904 meant tapping into a complex discourse of lesbian eroticism that was specifically linked to female creativity, the writing of poems and, as is clear in Laurencin’s work, the creating of images as a part of recording one’s loves for posterity. Having explored the unusual story of Bilitis’s birth and the meanings that she had taken on by the early years of the twentieth century, we can now return for a more in-depth examination of Laurencin’s Song of Bilitis and of her œuvre more generally.


[16]   Laurencin’s Song of Bilitis print draws on Louÿs’s collection of poems and, like the text versions of theSongs, it plays on references to the past. The etching is titled as a Song of Bilitis in general rather than as any of the specific songs. But the image itself points to one particular moment in the text: the show-stopping kiss that consumed Bilitis and Mnasidika in “Desire,” one of the songs that I discussed earlier in this article. In Laurencin’s image the two young women concentrate intensely on one another, and their figures, in mirroring parenthetical poses, suggest the all-consuming passion described in this particular passage of Louÿs. But Laurencin does not give details — for example Louÿs specifically mentions a bed — that might signal this as an illustration of “Desire.” Instead, she images only the two kissing women as signifiers of desire, their pose echoed in the only other element of the image, the oil lamp in the lower left corner. This sole ornament with its gray aquatint and ocher watercolor echoes the colors of the women’s gowns; and like the pair of kissing women, the two legs of the lamp’s stand join together in a smoldering flame at the top. The utter lack of information about the setting in which these two women find themselves makes them appear to float in the space of their embrace, the outside world forgotten.

[17]   While there are no markers of location, time is suggested in the vertical scratches on the plate, which evoke the crackling of an old document printed on papyrus. A further evocation of ancient art is evident in Laurencin’s rendering of the two figures — particularly the one on the right — in black and ocher with heavy, dark outlining in a style reminiscent of Greek vase painting. Laurencin has thus located this scene in the past, mimicking ancient authenticity in a playful manner similar to that of Louÿs. But clearly the Bilitis print does not function merely as an illustration for Louÿs’s book; instead we can better understand it as Laurencin’s own translation of Louÿs. And like Louÿs’s, Laurencin’s Song of Bilitis is a modern, reproducible document that presents itself with the trappings of ancient authenticity. As Sappho was supposed to have taught Bilitis to sing songs in order to preserve the memory of her loves, so Louÿs’s Bilitis seems to have taught Laurencin to image her own desire.

[18]   From the moment of the Bilitis etching on, images of women — together or alone, embracing, dancing, posing or Marie Laurencin, The Young Women (Les jeunes filles), c 1910-11. Oil on canvas, 115 x 146 cm. Courtesy of Moderna Museet, Stockholm. © 2002 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP Parisgazing — were by far the most central preoccupation of Laurencin’s œuvre. The Young Women of 1910-11 (figure 5) is a painting with a strong play of light and dark showing four women in a semi-pastoral landscape. On the left a violinist provides music for two dancing women; the dancer on the right joyfully kicks back a leg and strokes the head of a biche, or doe, an animal that frequently appeared in Laurencin’s work as a reference to naturalized femininity. A fourth figure is seated in front of the others and seems to have just turned from watching the dance to address the viewer who approaches the canvas.

[19]   The influence of Picasso and Braque is clearly evident in several elements of The Young Women. Pablo Picasso, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Paris (June-July 1907). Oil on canvas, 243.9 x 233.7 cm. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Request. Photograph © 2001 The Museum of Modern Art. © 2002 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New YorkThe cramped space and heavy outlining of the figures, the stylized poses of the exclusively female group and the women’s mask-like faces bear strong similarities to, for example, Picasso’sDemoiselles d’Avignonof 1907 (figure 6). An even more direct quotation is evident in the cube-shaped houses in the background of Laurencin’s painting. In 1908 Laurencin’s good friend Braque had painted his revolutionary Houses at L’Estaque, in which he rendered layers of buildings as a series of abstract planes (figure 7). Laurencin would most certainly have seen paintings from the series made at L’Estaque, which caused a minor scandal when critic Louis Vauxcelles criticized the works as merely reducing everything to cubes. While he intended to dismiss Braque’s paintings, it was through this statement that Vauxcelles actually originated the term cubism (Golding, 62-65). Similarly flattened, trapezoidal forms appear in the background of Laurencin’s painting in order to evoke the buildings of the surrounding town, and perhaps even to pay homage to Braque’s bold gesture. Georges Braque, Houses at l'Estaque (Maisons á l'Estaque), 1908. Oil on canvas, 73 x 60 cm. Courtesy of Kunstmuseum, Berne. © 2002 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP ParisBecause of these links to Picasso and Braque, it would be possible to interpret Laurencin’s painting as merely a derivative work that borrows aspects of her betters. But I would assert that such a reading completely misunderstands the nature of Laurencin’s appropriations. Her figures pose in an extremely narrow space, their movements confined to a plane with very little depth. The manner in which they appear before us highlights the performative nature of this scene and renders the shaded cubes of the houses in the background as merely a stage set for their dance. Thus Picasso’s Demoiselles and Braque’s Houses at L’Estaque appear to have served respectively as a model for Laurencin’s overall composition in The Young Women and as a backdrop for what is actually the work’s central motif: the dance shared by these female figures. Laurencin cites elements of pre-cubist and cubist idioms, but the substance of her work consists in the play of limbs, flowing drapery and pale faces of the dancing women.

[20]   Evocation of a world of female creativity and intimacy is the central project of The Young Women. The painting shows an all-female performance in an outdoor setting, a garden with the city buildings shut out in the background, and a group of dance participants wearing long flowing robes for the measured steps that they perform together. All of these characteristics — the flowing robes, the garden in an urban setting and the exclusively female participants — are, in fact, very much like the neoclassical dances held at Barney’s luxurious house in Paris, a photograph of which I discussed earlier in this article. The women’s ivory arms and legs create a flow over Laurencin’s canvas that evokes the harmony of this all-female gathering. While the figures are not in direct contact with one another, a sense of intimacy exists in their dance and in the caresses that they give to objects around them: a violin on the left, a draped garment in the center and a doe on the right. As in the photograph of the neoclassical dance in Barney’s garden, the movements of the figures in The Young Womenproceed in a dignified and measured manner. The Young Womenexperiments with samples from early cubism but the work is much more preoccupied with evoking the pleasures of an exclusively female utopia.

[21]   Marie Laurencin, Artemis, c 1908. Oil on canvas, 35.5 x 27 cm. Courtesy of the State Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. © 2002 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP ParisIn numerous other works Laurencin continued to image groups of women making music, dancing together, and embracing one another. Throughout her life Laurencin continuously created paintings, drawings and prints that thematized exclusively female pairs and groups, images of women seeming to exist in a world not so different from the one described in The Songs of Bilitis. Further, many of Laurencin’s early pieces explore iconographies of female independence, most often with reference to classical antiquity and to lesbian iconography. One such work is a painting from 1908 of the ancient Greek goddess Artemis, held in the collection of the Hermitage in St. Petersburg (figure 8).

[22]   This painting, completed the same year as Apollinaire and His Friends, presents a vision of a solitary and self-possessed woman that stands in contradiction to traditional histories of Laurencin as cubist muse. In this bust portrayal, Artemis is clad only in a swath of fabric and her flowing hair. While the effect is softened by the curving decorative flower that she holds in her hand, the regal goddess appears almost to glare back at a too-curious viewer. Artemis was the ancient Greek goddess of the hunt who spurned relations with men for the company of women. She was known in Roman mythology as Diana, and under this name she was also the subject of several of Laurencin’s works. Like Bilitis, images of Artemis/Diana are also associated not only with female independence, but with love between women in a classical context. In myth, Zeus was smitten with one of Artemis’s most devoted nymphs, Callisto, but she took no interest in him. Zeus was only able to seduce and impregnate the nymph by taking on the form of his daughter Artemis; it was thus Callisto’s passionate love of her mistress that was her only weakness. By calling on these stories through specifying this as a portrait of the proud, independent goddess, Laurencin has created a painting of a stylized beauty who addresses the desiring gaze of both male and female viewers, and yet retains her self-possessed nature. The fact that Laurencin painted this work during the same year asApollinaire and His Friends suggests that, even at the moment when she can be most securely situated in the roles of muse and peripheral cubist, she was visually experimenting with other modes of female existence and dreaming of independence in a world of men.

[23]   One last example of Laurencin’s work from her so-called cubist period helps to further support my argument. A 1912 woodcut shows one of the most well-known archetypes of strong and independent womanhood, The Amazon (figure 9).156/157 (April 1913). Courtesy of Sina Walden. © 2002 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP ParisAs with the female figures of The Young Women from two years earlier, Laurencin emphasizes the theatricality of The Amazon‘s presence by bracketing her between draped curtains to the upper left and right in order to evoke a small stage. This print of a stylishly dressed woman on horseback, her right hand resting gently on her flowing skirt, her left poised in a stylized gesture of strength, again links classical myth to turn-of-the-century Paris. As Debora Silverman has pointed out, it was as early as the 1890s that the amazon had become popularized as signifier of the femme nouvelle, or new woman, and was seen as linked to an inversion of traditional gender roles (150).

[24]   In addition to evoking the tradition of new womanhood, there is another highly significant aspect ofThe Amazon. Not only is this an image of archetypal female strength; the print is most likely a portrait, and one that again reveals Laurencin’s connections to the lesbian neoclassical circles of Paris. For “the Amazon” was Natalie Barney’s nickname, and, as we will recall, it was the name that she used for the salon that she had started in 1909 that both Laurencin and Louÿs attended. This nickname became even more widely known in 1911, the year of publication of the first of Rémy de Gourmant’s Letters to the Amazon, short pieces addressed to Barney but written for public consumption. Laurencin’s creation of this Amazon portrait in 1912 emphasizes the continued significance of her ties to this group. In addition to Laurencin’s periodic participation in the Salon de l’Amazone, she and Barney had many friends in common, and they continued to be acquainted throughout their lives. In 1920, shortly after her return to Paris from exile during the war, Laurencin appears again to have paid visual tribute to Barney by creating a second print entitled The Amazon. In this version Barney is also shown on horseback and in contemporary dress, but this time she is surrounded by other women, the band of amazons that she leads (Marcheseau, 126). Amazon, Diana, Artemis or Bilitis, clearly examination of the dominant themes of Laurencin’s iconography reveals the centrality of neoclassical images of independent women and lesbianism in her work.

[25]   When we take into account the dominance of themes of female collaboration, intimacy and independence, the overall character of Laurencin’s early œuvre begins to look quite different from the way in which it is usually interpreted. I wish now to return to the painting with which I first introduced the main problematic of this article in order to reexamine Laurencin’s self-portrait as muse in Apollinaire and His Friends. A closer investigation reveals that, even in a painting so clearly tied to the cubist circle, Laurencin’s early works tend to operate within a subtle web of irony, cubist citation and links to the lesbian communities of Paris. Apollinaire and His Friends is a painting completed not long after Laurencin had first made the acquaintance of members of Picasso’s circle, and it clearly bears the impression of these new styles that Laurencin was encountering. Looking again to the example of Picasso’s extremely influential Demoiselles d’Avignon — a work that Picasso had completed only one year previous to Laurencin’sApollinaire and His Friends — it becomes apparent that Laurencin utilized this particular moment in Picasso’s œuvre in order to create a portrait of him. Not only has she borrowed the black lines of his cloisonnisme technique in order to articulate the pale faces of her sitters, but Laurencin also turns the tables on Picasso by painting his own visage with the wide-opened and outlined eyes, the single line of an unsmiling mouth and the slightly orange-beige skin of his own demoiselles, traits particularly evident in the two figures at the center of his painting. Laurencin has created not only a portrait of Picasso, but one of Picasso’s technique, the radical innovations that he had so recently put to canvas.

[26]   Apollinaire and His Friends can also be considered as another in Laurencin’s series of experiments in the representation of particular femininities; here she appears as the woman behind a great man. Although the painting includes a self-portrait, it is titled Apollinaire and His friends; Laurencin is one of these, standing in the background. In contrast to the Bilitis etching, the two female figures of Apollinaire and His Friends, Olivier and Laurencin, have nothing to do with one another. They are distinctly separated by the self-possessed and corpulent figure of Apollinaire who dominates the image. While she tried out this supporting role both in art and life, it was one that Laurencin appears ultimately to have rejected. In 1912 she ended her five-year relationship with Apollinaire and rejected his subsequent attempts at reconciliation.

[27]   As an experiment in both modes of representation and in gender roles, Apollinaire and His Friends has one more story to tell. This was the first painting that Laurencin sold. It thus marks the beginning of her successful career as a painter and portraitist. And, as we have by now seen with the Song of Bilitis etching and so many other of Laurencin’s works, Apollinaire and His Friendslinks the artist to lesbian creativity in Paris of the period prior to the First World War as much as it does to cubism; for the purchaser of this painting in 1908 was Gertrude Stein.



[28]   For Laurencin, The Songs of Bilitis was a ground on which to image women’s mutual passion, one of the most consistent aspects of her work throughout her life. In 1950, over forty-five years after the creation of the Bilitis print and near the end of her career, Laurencin would create a series of twenty-three etchings entitled Sappho. These prints revisit themes that she had been working on since the beginning of the century: neoclassicism, love and intimacy between women, lesbian passion and even the imagery of the amazon. From her earliest works until her last, Laurencin visually pursued the possibilities of exclusively female utopias and desire between women. Despite the dominance of these themes, they have almost never been remarked upon in discussions of her art. Given the iconography of the Song of Bilitisprint and the other references to lesbian classicism that appear throughout Laurencin’s images, it is clear that an examination of her œuvre as that of a peripheral cubist is grossly insufficient. In fact, not only was Laurencin’s work highly influenced by neoclassical lesbian iconography, her life also exhibits much stronger similarities to Bilitis’s story than to that of a cubist muse. In both Louÿs’s imagined life for Bilitis and the life that Laurencin actually led, there were romantic connections to both men and women. But, in both cases, the most lasting mark was left by creative production: for Bilitis, it was poetry, and for Laurencin, painting, drawing and printmaking.


[29]   Not only does this reexamination have ramifications for the study of Laurencin’s work, it also calls into question standard modernist art histories of France in the years before the Great War. The influence of cubism is indisputable, but its long shadow has obscured other avant-gardes and other modernisms. Thus while Laurencin has been posited as peripheral to cubism, historical investigation shows that she was a central innovator of a movement linked to both Louÿs and Barney in which she explored the visual representation of love between woman and the imaging of exclusively female worlds. Many of Laurencin’s works can be seen as a series of experiments in models of female independence or of uniquely female interdependence, far different from cubist representations of female muses or even from the predatory sexuality of the women in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon(Leighten, 84-92). We must situate Laurencin’s visions of exclusively female utopias, strong female archetypes and Sapphic paradises along side the influence of and her friendships with the cubists.

[30]   Although she never existed, Louÿs’s Bilitis became a key historical example of female creativity that was inspired by same-sex desire; and she provided an important model for members of turn-of-the-century lesbian neoclassical groups — Laurencin among them. For an understanding of Laurencin’s work and of the experiments that she was engaged in, it is essential to investigate these persistent images of female intimacy and collaboration and the numerous themes of lesbian neoclassicism that she drew upon in her images. While she had only been invented by a male author a few years prior to the creation of Laurencin’s print, Bilitis served as a highly significant ancient Greek archetype who combined female sexuality and creativity as Sappho had before her. It was thus in part through the shared acts of remembering, recreating and imaging the past that Laurencin and other members of the lesbian neoclassical circles of early twentieth-century Paris became the lesbian heroines of modernism.


Thanks to Mark Antliff, Patricia Leighten and Matthew Biro for advice and inspiration at various stages of this project. Linda Henderson kindly shared information on Laurencin’s letters at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in Austin. My thanks also go to two institutions at the University of Michigan: the Rackham School of Graduate studies for funding research in Paris, and the Institute for Research on Women and Gender for providing a grant for image reproduction rights.

Unless otherwise noted, all translations are mine.

Reproduction, including the downloading of Picasso, Laurencin and Braque works is prohibited by copyright laws and international conventions without the express written permission of Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.



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