Marie Laurencin (1883-1956) was a contemporary of Picasso and Delaunay and friends with both. Despite the significant role she played in the Paris avant-garde movement, her artwork remained largely uninfluenced by the Cubism being developed by her close associates, and is frequently forgotten today.
Marie, illegitimately born to Pauline Laurencin, cited her date of birth as 1885, claiming that ‘the age of a natural child is always mysterious – it is found neither in reality nor in dreams, it is not determined by a date.’ Her father, a tax collector who refused to officially recognise his daughter, visited her rarely.
Marie’s career began officially when she went to Sèvres to study porcelain painting at the age of 18. She soon returned to Paris to study at the Académie Humbert, where she turned her focus to oil painting, one of the mediums she would use most often in her recognisable works. It was there, too, that she first met George Braque and Georges Lepape, fellow students who were impressed equally by the fantastic, whimsical canvases she executed with such apparent ease, and her engrossing personality – ‘my name’s Marie Laurencin,’ she told the curious Lepape, ‘but call me Coco.’
At the age of 24, Marie exhibited at the famous Salon des Indépendants for the first time. She met Picasso, who in turn introduced her to Guillaume Apollinaire, and soon became ensconced in the circle of artists and writers that made up the avant-garde movement and particularly the Section d’Or, which focused on Cubism and Orphism. She began a long-term romantic relationship with Apollinaire, being generally recognised as his muse and particularly as the Tristouse Ballerinette from his 1916 work, ‘Le Poète assassiné’.
Marie married a German artist, Otto von Wätjen, in 1913, causing her to flee to exile in Spain when war broke out a year later, as she had lost her French citizenship upon marriage. She remained there until 1919, finding solace and inspiration in the works of Vélasquez and Goya, and beginning friendships with various new artists, including Gleizes, Delaunay and Picabia, the latter two with which she would later exhibit. She divorced her husband in 1921, and would go on to have various affairs, often with well-known figures such as diplomat Philippe Berthelot and lesbian literary expatriate, Natalie Clifford Barney.
In this period, Marie made a name for herself as a portraitist, with the famous faces gracing her canvases ranging from ladies of nobility to Coco Chanel. In 1923, Serge de Dhiagelev asked her to undertake the décor and costuming for his ballet, ‘Les Biches’. Her work was received successfully, and ballet costuming and décor became a new facet of her creative expression.
Though criticised for her repetitive subjects and relatively unvaried style, Marie’s work remains highly recognisable for those very reasons. She preferred to depict young girls with dreamy, mask-like features, accompanied by various animals, from unicorns to swans to faithful hounds. Both human and beast frequently have a strong sense of unreality, with figures appearing to undergo transfigurative processes within the image. She focused on themes of femininity, relying heavily on pastel shades of blue, pink and grey which she felt helped to express these themes.
Upon her death in 1956, caused by cardiac arrest, Marie was buried in the famous Père Lachaise cemetery according to her wishes: dressed in, with a rose clutched in one hand and the love letters written to her by Guillaume Apollinaire laid across her heart.