Saturday, May 5, 2012

Seraphine of Senlis

L'arbre de Vie : Seraphine de Senlis 1928
Seraphine of Senlis, with the name of an angel from those closest to divinity, guardian of God’s throne, leads us from the monochrome of her menial existence to a spiritual plane of heightened colour and senses. Seraphine's creativity was an act of worship that enabled her to find a guiding light in order to reach a level of ecstasy hidden to the world around her. Grounded in its own indefinable form of spirituality and unique aesthetic, the art of Seraphine flourished like some exotic bloom, growing up and away from the all-pervasive grey surroundings in a frenetic burst of colour and vigour. 
Streets of  Senlis

 Escaping the platitudes of a colourless existence, the paintings illuminate life itself in vivid colours and a vitality that overwhelm observers. Like the vast Gothic cathedral that dominates the town, guiding our eyes away from the pedestrian level of the winding streets and alleys, the work of Seraphine captivates us. It leads our gaze upwards to the heights, to reflection, just as the stained glass and intricate stonework that adorn the spires. 
One of the many churches - not the cathedral which is under restoration and huge netting....
 Wilhelm Uhde, the art collector of German nationality and future patron of Seraphine, said that he liked to view Senlis from the cathedral from where one could see all the hidden gardens, secreted away from view on ground level by imposing walls and gates, yet from the heights visible to those ready to see. It was he who discovered Seraphine, herself hidden away in this labyrinth of grey cobbled streets, the richest, most intriguing garden of all, masked by the impenetrable façade of her mundane life and plain unassuming physique. 

Seraphine, whose name would seem both apt and grossly inappropriate at the same time, was indeed an angel with feet of clay. Like some unfortunate character from a Zola novel, she was born to a lowly existence in a humble milieu that offered but few chances. Yet Seraphine, flawed by her splintering sanity and destined to a life or deprivation and drudgery, did indeed fly up to the heights of creative ecstasy. 

Born in late 1864, Seraphine Louis tragically lost her mother on the day of her first birthday and was orphaned by the age of seven, left to be brought up by her older sister. Perhaps idealized by the child she had never really known, the missing mother was sought and prayed to in church, associating the maternal link with that of the spiritual, Mary, Mother of God. Whatever the ultimate association at the heart of Seraphine’s faith, she was to remain devote all her life, she who appeared to have been handed over or abandoned by all those with whom she had any link. 
 Seraphine's life was marked by solitude and a nomadic quality. She moved from town to town, from one household to another without ever establishing roots anywhere or entering into any real intimacy with anybody. Without any family bonds, or concrete status to ground her Seraphine would always be an outsider.

Initially working as a farm hand, caring for animals around her home town of Arsy Seraphine eventually became a domestic help in Compiègne, carrying out dull, dirty, physically-demanding tasks that others would shun. After working at a girls’ institution and various bourgeois homes in Senlis, at eighteen, she entered the convent Saint Joseph de Cluny where she continued to perform her menial tasks for the nuns. 

Wherever she found herself, the observance of her faith, her appreciation of the natural world with its own unique spirituality were central to her life – her ‘real’ life.

 During the twenty years she spent in the convent Seraphine’s existence was measured out by the ecclesiastical  routine with its rituals; services, prayers, hymns, contemplative silences, candle-light and incense. A little like Madame Bovary, Seraphine surrounded herself with images, hymns and art that romantically heightened her senses and receptivity. 

Below her placid exterior a frenetic vitality was taking form, as yet unsure to the way in which it would manifest itself and burst to the surface. There was no apparent artistic inclination at this stage, although it is said that Seraphine had liked to watch the drawing lessons carried out in the girls’ school. She discreetly observed and absorbed yet let nothing show on her impassive exterior for the moment.

Although the reason remains unclear, Seraphine decided to leave the convent at the age of 38. Perhaps this was a late act of rebellion or expression of independence. In spite of her placid façade Seraphine had a determined, decided streak like that displayed by animals, following some inborn vital instinct. 

Outside the museum - Senlis
She refused to attend the early Mass provided for the humble folk such as herself and insisted on going to the 11 o’clock service reserved for the bourgeois; it was her right. 
Senlis streets - often used as backclothes for films
 Freed from the rigid confines imposed by a life isolated from the active world beyond grey walls Seraphine would nevertheless follow a similar cloistered path for the rest of her days. Her existence was indeed dominated by degrees of seclusion, isolation, exclusion, withdrawal and finally internment in a mental asylum where she was kept behind walls till the end of her life. However Seraphine’s life went far beyond any confines, or restrictions set upon it and was about to enter a wholly new plane as she reached middle age. 
More cobbled streets that have attracted film directors.
 Whilst Zola’s characters are portrayed in urban and rural scenes of unremitting poverty, squalor, promiscuity and violence, the hardships endured by Seraphine are rendered insignificant by the beauty and richness of her burgeoning private world. She was not just another beast of burden like the others of her lowly cast; her spiritually-inspired art propelled her into a higher realm, inaccessible to lesser mortals. 
Chartres cathedral
Inspired like Picassiette before her, Seraphine was mesmerized by the stained-glass of the cathedral and churches . The imposing sculptures and paintings awoke in her the nascent spiritual drive to artistic creativity. 
Mural decoration from the House of Picassiette
Claiming that an angel had addressed her in church, Seraphine declared that she had been given the holy mission of creating art devoted to Our Lady. While she felt uncomfortable drawing or working with watercolour, Seraphine found her medium in paint. From around 1906 she devoted her nights to her nocturnal ecstasy of creation. Behind closed doors, using nature as her altar (Françoise Cloarec) and her creation as a gesture of worship Seraphine painted. 

With no formal training whatsoever or any concrete knowledge of art Seraphine asked for advice from the local artist, a certain Charles Hallo. He must have recognized a vitality in her art since he claimed she did not need help, but probably saw too that she was not adapted to any conventional painting class. Again, like Picassiette, she lived her art. She created instinctively and surrounding herself with her creations. 
Seraphine's tin of paints.
 Yet it would have been difficult to imagine that this peasant woman could feel such an impulse, let alone possess the skill to realize her art. While Picassiette lived in his artistic construction, this giant patchwork castle of porcelain, pottery and pieces of glass, visible to all, Seraphine’s art was largely hidden away. Her room was a secret shrine, materially impoverished since Seraphine possessed the strict minimum, yet aesthetically rich. Every surface was overcome with a wealth of flowers, real or painted whilst religious images decorated the walls of this very private personal space.
From the museum at Senlis.
 To the outside world, Seraphine struck an odd figure, eccentric yet unremarkable. Dressed in black, with her painted straw hat and wicker basket, she would scurry from one arduous task to another, seemingly content to follow unquestioningly the life fate had served her. Little revealed the rich internal life inside her, the vividness of her vision, the spirituality that was the base of her life. The wealth and fecundity of Seraphine’s art, in theme and production, would not find a parallel in her actual life. Her existence was sterile of any emotional and physical intimacy, and left her without children; barren. More tragic still, the end of this artist’s life was devoid of any artistic creation, Seraphine had been abandoned by her spiritual muse, deserted by all.

Using the industrial paint Ripolin as her base medium, Seraphine had taught herself to mix in other ‘secret’ ingredients to produce the vibrant colours, rich textures and enamelled finishes that still stun observers today and continue to baffle art experts as to their exact composition. One such ingredient was holy oil taken from the churches to give the painting a special force, thus continuing this spiritual bond in the actual creative process. While the theme of Seraphine’s art defies simple narrative, its visual impact is no less powerful. There are no human portraits – or representations of any living sentient creature – except for a bursting, rustling abundance of flowers, fruit, plants and trees that defy categorization. Flowers that look like feathers, flourish alongside buds like ambling caterpillars, fruit that resembles mystic eyes and leaves that rise upwards like ceremonial candles. This communion with the natural world did not however give rise to organic, or cyclical work. Indeed, piece was unique; self-contained, closed in on itself yet open to the spiritual. The paintings appear to have been conceived and realized in a spontaneous manner, carried out directly onto the canvas without preliminary work. 
 Guided by the Virgin, Seraphine claimed that she was a mere instrument, to whom spiritual forces would dictate. She herself would immerse herself in an atmosphere of other-worldlinesss. As she painted, Seraphine continually sang hymns, leaving the window to her modest room open to maintain this communication with the ‘above’. As her vibrant painted prayers counterbalanced the dismal nature of her day-time work (“les travaux noirs”) Seraphine devoted increasing amounts of time to her luminous nocturnal activities. Neighbours would be disturbed by a singing voice that was far from angelic, children would laugh at the gruff, hunched figure passing in the streets, scavenging for old wood and board on which to paint, sharp-tongued women would mock this “slattern”. Nothing, however, distracted Seraphine from her mission. With her frugal means she had just enough money to live her modest life – her only luxury being the purchase of her painting materials and the wine which she claimed ‘fortified’ her. Many of her basic needs were met by offering her artwork in exchange, to the point that the town must have had a considerable number of paintings, all dismissed, at best, as the strange dabblings of the poor village singleton/simpleton. It was one such painting that caught the eye of Wilhelm Uhde in a chance meeting of artistic genius in 1912.

 Coming across a painting that Seraphine had given her employers, Uhde no doubt found it inconceivable that the plain, simple woman who cleaned his private rooms could produce such intense work. The piece in question, a painting of apples, left Uhde physically affected, such was the effect it had on him. He said that he was literally dumbfounded by the powerful representation of the fruit. He immediately recognized in Seraphine, by her own description “unparalled” (“sans rivale”), a unique artist. Her work recalled the visceral drive – the vital force “élan vital” of Gothic art bursting upwards in a vertical movement of spiritual spontaneity, unlike the classical work of the Renaissance with its studied, horizontal growth (Françoise Cloarec). Seraphine herself admitted that she liked to experience the unleashed energy and force of the natural world through the violence of stormy weather, with its lashing rain and driving winds. Demanding to see other work, Seraphine began to present Uhde with other paintings that she had produced. So commenced a strange relationship that was based on a mutual need of art; on the one side the driven artist, on the other the connoisseur who became patron and ‘enabler’ to this singular woman . 

Although from two different worlds in almost every respect, not least in affluence, privilege and education, the lives of Uhde and Seraphine shared certain elements. Uhde’s refusal to follow through his parent’s professional ambitions for him in the legal field, his determination to forge a career in art appreciation, his unshakeable faith in his artistic protégés, his rejection of Nazi ideology and finally even his homosexuality at this time in history made of this German a unique figure. To a degree, his determined drive found a parallel in the dogged, blunt direction of Seraphine – both her art and personality – refusing to compromise or deviate. 

After an intense period spent in Paris, organizing exhibitions for Le Douannier Rousseau, Uhde had wanted to lose himself in calmer environment. Senlis represented a retreat from the hectic professional and city life of Paris, situated at one hour’s distance from the capital. Like Seraphine, he appreciated the secluded atmosphere of the Medieval town. Initially founded on an important crossroad by the Romans, Senlis later housed the Kings of France over ten centuries. This then was a town of royalty and religion; it was in Senlis that Clovis decided to embrace the Christian faith. Here Uhde felt that the myriad of streets afforded him a certain anonymity and he appreciated the calm, reflective atmosphere offered by this town of twenty churches. He found the quality of the light unique in this grey town, where the skies overhead offered a strange, pure luminosity. The townsfolk of Senlis may have muttered about this foreigner, yet they largely left him to get on with his personal business. This again mirrored the attitude of the inhabitants towards Seraphine; people left her to her odd behaviour. Her initial displays of oddness, such as painting a church statue of the Virgin Mary pink, were “des caprices” to be tolerated, albeit grudgingly. Uhde, like the unsophisticated “paysanne” Seraphine, was to be perceived as an outsider, a German in post-1871 France. The art that he managed to collect in the years prior to the First World War was confiscated by the French state once war was declared. When later returning to France after the Great War he was treated with suspicion. Not surprisingly, he was also later vilified by the Nazis for his interest in “perverse” art forms such as Cubism and Fauvism, and for daring to associate a landmark figure in German history with a representative of such foreign perversion; Picasso (cf Uhde’s biography.De Bismarck à Picasso). 

Above all, it was Uhde’s skill at recognizing, actually feeling great art, that brought he and Seraphine together. While this simple, comparatively inexpressive woman found it hard to reveal herself adequately in conversation with Uhde, she struck a chord with him aesthetically. In art Uhde and Seraphine met on an essential, visceral primitive level that preceeded words. The feeling that Uhde experienced in front of one of Seraphine’s works recalled those that he was subject to when faced with other great innovative art. The work of such artists as that of Le Douannier Rousseau, Cézanne, Braque, Gauguin, Bonnard and of course Picasso, all affected him. Seraphine, however, was different from his other artists. These artists, whatever their milieu, had some notion of the creative process; they exchanged ideas in the artistic circle and studied the work of others. Seraphine meanwhile was a virgin, an innocent who painted instinctively out of some primitive need. Uhde had fallen upon Seraphine’s strange meandering path in a chance encounter in this slumbering fairy-tale town whereas his meeting with the other artists had been less serendipitous. Some had been presented to him - his wife from his lavender mariage (the future Sonia Delauney) had introduced him to Le Dounnier Rousseau - or they had presented themselves to him in the heady city of Paris which favoured such creative contact. 

In Uhde, Seraphine was finally given the recognition and récompense for all her labour of love. Here indeed was a person of discerning taste, able to see beyond, or rather below the surface of her paintings, someone who could feel the pulsating vitality of her work. With his enthusiasm and encouragement Seraphine created prodigiously, eager to present Uhde with her latest works on his frequent visits to Senlis. Albeit a devoted, faithful servant Seraphine remained ever-resistant to any outside suggestion that she modify her style. She would execute her art but essentially it was her spiritual inspiration, her devotion to Mary that guided her hand, not a terrestrial lead or influence. Little by little the menial chores that earned her but a pittance were of increasing insignificance in the life of Seraphine. The execution of her painting took up more and more of Seraphine’s time and thoughts, an activity verging on the obsessional. The resulting art was flamboyant, ever-more vital and vivid and started to take on imposing proportions. 
Detail of L'arbre de la Vie
It was around this early period of creative fruition that historical events took precedence in the harmonious world of Senlis. These events would finally put a halt on the symbiotic relationship between Uhde and Seraphine, and tear apart the peace and tranquility that had reigned in Northern France. Even before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, Uhde had been warned to leave France for his own safety. Thus obliged to abandon all his artistic missions, he left behind his rich collections and turn his back on his protégés; Seraphine was now alone.

Fully immersed in her art, Seraphine tried to buffer herself against the outside reality – the war-torn town beyond her own room, her inner sanctum. Yet despite being used to solitude and the life of a loner, Seraphine was to be changed irremediably. The four years of hostilites spent in the town she refused to leave made of Seraphine a scarred recluse. Senlis had witnessed the mass exodus of inhabitants fearful of the bombings, the trench warfare and the marauding troups of German soldiers who had taken over Northern France. Seraphine, however, chose to stay on resolutely, occupying her familiar territory. Besieged in her room in a deserted town she incorporated into her art such patriotic elements as the tricolour flag as a mark of resistance against the occupying forces. The town was ransacked and partly ravaged by fire, but Seraphine remained in place with just sufficient means for physical survival. And survive she did, but the psychological scars of her war experience could not be removed. 

The pulsions and imaginings that had always run current to Seraphine’s artistic drive started to assume a strange, unstoppable force. Her appearance and behaviour were changed, her bizarre gait and layered clothing gave her a strange aspect that alarmed the townsfolk. Perhaps a little like the Mad Meg of Brueghel’s painting, Seraphine no longer faded into the background; she was visibly odd. During the war years Seraphine had patiently waited for Uhde to return. She expected him to reappear, unannounced, to deliver her from her isolation, liberate her from her total state of deprivation. The scarcity of food and sleep, the constant emotional stress and the lack of the basics essential to rudimentary comfort were perhaps of little consequence compared to the absence of Seraphine’s creative confident, Uhde. Possibly convinced that she had abandoned the town for good, or had perhaps been killed during the occupation, Uhde did not return to Senlis after the war to recover Seraphine. Indeed, he and his sister settled in the nearby town of Chantilly. Seraphine was left to wait for an increasingly improbable return, left to perform her menial tasks and accomplish her art. Yet Uhde and Seraphine’s paths had not separated definitively, but would not cross for some thirteen years.

Hearing of an exhibition of the work of local artists in the town hall of Senlis in October 1927 Uhde was taken aback to find several large paintings by Seraphine. These dominated the walls, shadowing the insignificant Sunday creations of ‘worthier’ townsfolk. Although Seraphine’s art was belittled by the narrow-minded people of Senlis, the interest it generated in Paris was electrifying. An article in the press concerning these works sparked a growing curiosity in this peasant woman’s art so that Seraphine’s art became the object of much attention and subsequent praise. Avant-garde in his taste, Uhde had correctly recognised Seraphine to be an artist like few others.

 Other art critics now sensed that same primal force which Uhde had initially identified. Even the local newspaper, both obsequious and mocking in tone, was obliged to acknowledge  ‘their’ Seraphine, referred to as the local Le Douanier Rousseau. Nevertheless the acknowledgment of Seraphine’s art was finally set in motion. Fearing that some other critic would snatch up these unique pieces, Uhde bought the exhibition paintings and later presented himself again to their creator, after all the years of silence.

Recognizing an artistic phenomenon rarely encountered, even in the modern art he so favoured, Uhde became Seraphine’s patron, actively encouraging her to devote herself solely to her art. How strange it was to find such an “immense and complex world” born from a woman whose life could be resumed in a few basic sentences. He compared her trajectory to that of Joan of Arc’s; both women led by a calling from God, ready to burn for their mission. From that moment Seraphine would hand over her work to her new master and mentor, Uhde. He prepared the paintings for exhibit and sale not just in Paris, but in Germany too. 

With new means, and an overwhelming urge to paint, Seraphine’s art entered a period of great productivity and aesthetic wonder. L’Arbre Rouge, L’Arbre de Vie and Les Lilas Blancs date from this period and expose the mastery of Seraphine’s vision and technique. Largely rejecting the expensive paints brought in from Paris, in preference of her secret concoctions, Seraphine would nevertheless devore the ever-bigger canvases that were now delivered to Senlis for her benefit. Her paintings grew significantly in size, ever larger and taller in order to be closer to her source of inspiration, the Virgin. The application of paint became increasingly elaborate as touches of colour added a jewel-like quality to the finish, flowers, adorned with beads and feathers, would assume other forms and the whole would glow and vibrate with an inner light and vitality. Seraphine claimed that she did not need much light with which to work since the paintings themselves provided their own luminosity. Uhde’s sister Anne-Marie remarked that the life bursting out from one painting of flowers would prevent her from sleeping, such was the force exuded from the efflorescence of the blooms. 

Seraphine herself had no doubts as to the significance of her art. She shrugged off any comparison to the paintings of Uhde’s other, naturally lesser, Modern Primitive discoveries. Camille Bombois and Louis Vivin were for Seraphine mere dabblers since their work bore no spiritual essence; her painting was Art in the most sacred sense of the term. For Seraphine art was not a leisure, it was the result of a calling; creation was a duty. From a tone that was initially exhilarating yet increasingly disquietening, Seraphine’s art was to enter a new phase. 

Manic in her drive to paint, Seraphine would lose herself in her work, literally depriving herself of food and sleep through her labour of love, using only her fervent devotion and special wine to sustain her. The whispering spiritual voices that had always accompanied her now became more insistent and Seraphine’s conversations with them louder and louder. No longer acts and visual representations of devotion to God, Seraphine’s art seemed to assume a worrying, mutating aspect There was now a sense of latent threat and approaching apocalypse. The harmony and beatitude of Seraphine’s art now gave way to a hint of discord and unease. Parallel to this, Seraphine herself changed from a relatively docile, unassuming figure to one that was capricious, demanding, over-proud and given to the extravagant purchase of frivolous articles. Sadly these were not the simple caprices of the artist discovering the heady effect of fame and success; these excessive acts would mark the beginning of an irremediable decline.

Following the 1929 exhibition, Les peintres du Cœur sacré, that Uhde organized Seraphine gained more renown and received a significant sum of money for her work. Relative fame fed distortions in her self-perception whilst the spending of the ‘serious’ money that her painting could now generate distracted Seraphine. Indulging in a new-found materialism, Seraphine took no heed of Uhde’s warnings of the dangers of such excess at this time. On the contrary she felt hostile when admonished for her spending and became secretive and reclusive. She would add to the numerous paddocks and chains that already ‘protected’ her room from intruders, taunters and the Evil Eye, refusing to receive visitors, even Uhde or his sister. 

The artistic climate was indeed beginning to feel the repercussions of the post-war Great Depression, whilst the clouds of political unrest in Europe cast a shadow over Parisian art markets. The demand for art was diminishing and consequently Seraphine’s painting was selling less. Unable to keep up with the exorbitant bills that Seraphine’s expenses were producing, feeling frustrated and perhaps a little frightened by the behaviour of his protégée, Uhde started to distance himself from his protégée. This may not have been wholly intentional on Uhde’s part, but Seraphine certainly felt the full impact of this ‘abandon’. Fearing that her art would fall into oblivion, her means of a living cut off, her source of recognition and encouragement denied her Seraphine slipped into unsafe territory.

 Little by little Seraphine seemed to lose the sense of direction and security that her art afforded her. The more she was invaded by the material concerns of the ‘real’ world, the more she lost her grip on all sense of reality. Away from the safe confines of her own visionary universe, Seraphine could not cope with the multitude of demands that the concrete world seemed to make of her. Inborn eccentricities were no longer contained, stabilized and channeled by her painting but were given free rein. The artist was overwhelmed, finally rendered powerless and unproductive as she entered a grey void.
Winding, anonymous streets of the town of Senlis.
 The voices that now filled Seraphine’s head gave her headaches, drowning out the peaceful words of the Virgin. Seraphine no longer heard the gentle poetry of her inspiration; now she was simply subject to the discordant cries of hysterical messages. She was ‘told’ to buy her wedding trousseau for her approaching marriage to a certain Cyrille – possibly a pure figment of her imagination and wishful thinking – and later given orders to act as a messenger to herald oncoming doom. Increasingly vocal in her missions, Seraphine strayed from her room, dismissing her painting as she started to haunt the streets of Senlis. Preaching and muttering to fleeing passers-by Seraphine became an image of insanity like Dulle Driet. 
Dulle Griet - Pieter Bruegel - 1562
Feeling shunned by Uhde, forgotten by the art world, abandoned by her creative inspiration, no longer able to converse with the Virgin Mary, Seraphine felt herself to be insignificant and believed that her art was now redundant. While she felt herself to be invisible to the world, she nevertheless drew the attention of the townsfolk around her. Disapproval grew as Seraphine’s eccentricities took on an increasingly anti-social, manic form. Seraphine was convinced that she was being persecuted by certain members of the town, targeted by a campaign to poison her, and yet also believed herself witness to several criminal acts of sex abuse and murder on the part of members of the clergy.
Asile psychiatrique Clermont (men's block).
Perhaps in an attempt to redeem her extravagant material sins, or to prepare for her ‘imminent’ departure to Spain to marry her fictive fiancé Cyrille, Seraphine began to lighten herself of her worldly possessions. Desperate to accomplish this new mission Seraphine was finally apprehended by the police as she was found depositing strange bundles of her belongings around the town. The doctors who examined her soon declared that Seraphine was victim to serious psychosis and represented a danger to herself and the community. Once sectioned, Seraphine was physically removed from the ‘real’ world which she had ceased to inhabit for some time. At first sent to a local hospital, Seraphine was then transferred to the large mental asylum in Clermont-de-l’Oise where she would spend the next ten years, until her death in 1942.
Witches' Sabbath - Goya 1821
Uhde attempted to visit Seraphine in the institution but was warned that this could destabilize her condition further, as would any pursuit of her artistic activities. Nevertheless he did manage to fund her care in a private wing so that she finally escaped the Bedlam-like scenes that had become her daily lot. From the calm and spiritual reflection that had made up her life alongside the nuns, Seraphine discovered herself to be in a nightmare community of the insane, surrounded by mad sisters like herself, worthy of a Goya painting. Although she perhaps found a certain comfort in the private room Uhde financed, Seraphine never expressed any desire to paint again, stating that “everything opposes it here”. Like her peer, the similarly-interned sculptress Camille Claudel (1864-1943), Seraphine turned her back on her art definitively. Indeed both women plunged into the darkness and sterility of insanity as they failed to regain either mental equilibrium or artistic inspiration. 
Camille Claudel

The voices that had invaded Seraphine’s head and led to her downfall were never silenced; on the contrary. She demanded paper on which to compose the voluminous, rambling letters she felt compelled to write. Such letters were addressed to figures of authority in the institution, the police or clergy – never to Uhde. The missives generally aimed to warn those concerned of imminent danger, to throw light on some heinous crime that she was privy to, or simply to indicate that she was the victim of vile plots. The writings were never the direct, conscious expression of a woman trying to give voice to the demons inside her. Their voices were all too apparent, her madness all too visible but Seraphine seemed to be unaware of their hold on her. Her letters never offered her a therapeutic release, they simply remained the sprawling transcripts of the play being acted out in Seraphine’s head. 

While Seraphine’s creative life had ended in barrenness, she herself became obsessed with the notion of procreation and pregnancy. She believed herself to be pregnant with twins and spent large amounts of time fretting over their well-being. Severe deprivation began to make itself felt on every level in the mental institution during the war years. The task of feeding her imaginary infants and protecting them from the imminent dangers was Seraphine’s principal concern. Her condition further deteriorated as her mental health spiralled downwards when her fears shackled her and psychosis gripped her in its vice. The breast that had never fed any child was now the source of much suffering as a cancerous tumour was discovered. In pain, yet racked by worry for her starving infants Seraphine would try to find food in any form possible in an institution that had nothing more to offer. At night, like the beasts of burden she had once cared for, she would graze on the grass in the gardens like a cow, on all fours, cowering in pain and hunger.
Celle qui fut la belle heaulmière : Rodin 1887

At the age of 78 Seraphine finally died, just like thousands of other inmates of psychiatric institutions under the Vichy regime during the war years and like Camille Claudel herself; ill and starved to death. While Seraphine had always dreamt of a grand funeral for a “happy resurrection” she became an anonymous figure, buried in a mass grave. She who had envisioned the flowers and angels of the world above became a living version of Claudel’s Clotho, or Rodin’s Celle qui fut la belle Heaulmière
 Uhde never saw his protégée after her internment and believed that she had died years before her actual death. He himself died five years after her in 1947, having spent years fleeing the Gestapo due to his support of degenerates such as Seraphine. Uhde lost his German nationality and was never to obtain that of the French nation yet he was finally buried on French soil – in the cemetery Montparnasse in Paris. An exhibition room was named in Uhde’s honour in the Musée National d’Art Moderne of Paris in 1948 in recognition of the German who had contributed so much to French art. Two paintings by Seraphine of Senlis were exhibited there.

Louis Wain's cats portraying his decline in mental health
The biggest injust suffered by Seraphine the artist was the lack of acknowledgement of her art for many years after her death. Her very real talent was perceived as some kind of freak, chance occurrence from the moment that she was labelled insane. Nevertheless the nature of her work still defies today any concrete categorization or wholly satisfying explanation. Although her mind inevitably unraveled, her art remained intact. Her work was halted abruptly in its prime and does not track the full descent into insanity or reflect any decline in artistic technique. The work of Louis Wain mirrored the deterioration of the artist’s mental health, as his beloved cats morphed into kaleidoscopic, psychedelic cats; Seraphine’s art remained whole.

 A beautiful French film was made in 2008, Séraphine de Senlis. Directed by Martin Provost, the film was awarded seven Cesars from the French Academy, including best film and best actress for for Yolande Moreau’s incredible interpretation of the artist. However it somehow failed to do justice to the full luminosity and vibrancy of Seraphine’s work, as the breath-taking colours of the paintings were rather submerged and subdued by the dark scenes of the sets. Seraphine’s vivid art seems somewhat toned down and trapped in the grisaille and discretion of the town of Senlis. 

Several books have been written (in French) which have truly brought Seraphine to life – the two that I read (Alain Vircondelet: Séraphine: de la Peinture à la Folie. Albin Michel 2008 and Séraphine by Françoise Cloarec. Libretto 2011) gave form to the art and artist. More importantly still, there was a large exhibition of Seraphine’s work in the Musée Maillol, Paris in 2008, which I missed since I’d never heard of this artist! 
The poster that I bought during my recent visit to the Musée d’Art et d’Archéologie at Senlis is now on the wall at the foot of my bed; I look at it every day and wonder about the enigmatic process of artistic creation

Should you be interested, I wrote another post on Seraphine after this one: 
Seraphine of Senlis at the Maillol.


  1. An artist myself, I just happened upon the
    movie on Netflix.
    Now I can not find out enough about this
    wonderful artist. What a story and what a life.
    Art does consume us.

  2. Hello! I've just been to the Musée Maillol in Paris where I saw the collection of Seraphine paintings there... I might squeeze the photos that I took into the post above, or just do another one...This time I tried to get right up close to the works this time in order to see the crackling effects, the paint strokes, dabs and flecks etc. I hope the photos do justice!
    The life of many artists must have been so hard, but at least their art survives, leaving an indelible trace denied many other people who had an existence of relative comfort. Art does consume, but also drives us beyond our ordinary sphere - certainly in the case of Seraphine.

  3. I adored the movie of Seraphine (having never heard of her before) but agree that the art was not given its rightful prominence. I would have loved to have seen more long well lite scenes for I loved her art immeadiately. Thankyou so much for this wonderful blog I have appreciated reading about this unique creative force called Seraphine. She was certainly a facinating character and today of course she would have been put on medication so I wonder how much art she would have produced in that case and how many unique creative people are as I write are numbed by medication which inhibits that manic creative side.

    Karen Abrahamson

  4. Thanks! Yes, it certainly makes you wonder. I think it was the French writer Marcel Proust who said that artists had to choose between art and life. He didn't have mental health issues himself, but did have asthma, and the demands of his art led him to spend hours writing in a hermetically closed room.


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