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17.6.09

Visionary Art: Séraphine de Senlis


Séraphine Louis with one of her paintings (photo taken by Anne-Marie Uhde)
Séraphine Louis (1864–1942, dite Séraphine de Senlis), the subject of Martin Provost’s recent film Séraphine (the release date in Washington has been pushed back until next month, when my review will be published [see review here -- Ed.]), is not exactly an unknown painter. Although her work is found in only a few museums now, in her native Senlis and a few other small cities in France, the Museum of Modern Art in New York ended up with a couple of her paintings, Les Pommes and Tree of Paradise. She was a naive painter, an ultimately unsatisfactory but unavoidable term indicating that although she was never trained in painting, she painted as a way to act out a sort of compulsion, what now is sometimes called visionary art.

available at Amazon
Françoise Cloarec, Séraphine: La vie rêvée de Séraphine de Senlis
The paintings of Séraphine de Senlis were first championed by Wilhelm Uhde, a collector prominent enough to have been painted by Picasso in a 1910 portrait (Uhde was also an early Picasso collector). Uhde organized two famous exhibits of the primitif painters he favored, Les Peintres du Coeur sacré (1929) and Les Primitifs modernes (1932), including Henri Rousseau and Séraphine de Senlis.
Feuilles
Séraphine Louis, Feuilles, 1928-29, Collection Dina Vierny
Director and screenwriter Martin Provost drew most of the material for his film from the work of Françoise Cloarec, who has also just published a version of her thesis on the painter with Editions Phébus.

For most of her life, Séraphine painted in total obscurity, scrimping together enough money from the various types of menial labor on which she subsisted to buy a few art supplies. She mixed these with pigments of her own devising, colors distilled from plant and animal sources familiar to Séraphine from years of tending flocks and other outdoor work. These vibrant colors, which struck Uhde's eye as so unusual, are one of the hallmarks of her work. The subject of almost all of her paintings is the fauna flora of the region where she lived, generally viewed from close up and refracted through the bizarre lens of Séraphine's inner vision. She claimed that heavenly voices directed her to paint, visions that later became delusions strong enough to land her in a mental asylum in Clermont, where she died after a long incarceration. These plants, often dotted and striped like caterpillars or other insects, seem to quiver with life, making them seem more like the fauna of a psychotic landscape.

38 comments:

Anonymous said...

I think you mean "flora," rather than fauna...

Charles T. Downey said...

Indeed. Correction noted.

Annie said...

Just saw the film last night in San Rafael, CA. Remarkable artist portrayed brilliantly... ultimately it is the art itself though that hypnotizes. I'm grateful to have found your blog as I am now eager for more information about Seraphine.

Merci!

Jon said...

I saw Seraphine on a day when it could not have been more restorative -- after a full day meeting about our station's web site. I assure you, there was precious little that was visionary about that. I hope others who have seen this film appreciate the lovely use of natural sound.

slick said...

Wonderful film. And the eyes of Yolande Moreau are unforgettable.

Anonymous said...

just saw the film and found it superficial and predatory. marginalised artist who is presented merely as a victim - uhde and his sister - one-dimensional. why? is it enough to show such suffering and expose so little of what this artist was?

L.F. said...

I saw the movie.
A real twist of the knife. Her devotion to her faith,...the looney bin,...made me wonder about the circumstamces of others wrestling with the challenges of what having faith produces,and what the price is.
I hope her soul is cared for by her bridegroom,and angels surround her.

Anonymous said...

Indeed, re what happened to her after her inspired 'bride' actions. In the European Middle Ages, in India even today and in traditional societies worldwide, this would have been some proof of her holiness, not proof of madness. Holiness and insanity are separated by a fine line, too often judged harshly by modern Western society. Ah well, what a wonderful film that we just saw on DVD last night. Inspiration? from come thou? Iain (NZ)

seetha said...

i had just watched the movie ...
HAVE BEEN ASKIGN MYSELF AND MY ARTY FRIENDS AS TO WHATis art?

My knowledge of art is almost zero. So for me serafina's art makes lot of sense. COz it is original and done as a result of compulsion rather than trying to be part of a club or ones own idea of self such as an artist etc. SO infact i liked her paintings very much.She is not too complicated in her psychology to do very complicated human emotions drawings. However being a psychiatrist i was not sure if her situation was a case of misdaignosis and at a time when mental illness was considered witchery of sorts.She is not imitation i mean.

Anonymous said...

All art is an interpretation. To describe the lens of the artist's inner vision as "bizarre", the visions as "delusions" and the images as a "psychotic landscape" is unnecessarily insulting to the artist. No-one is in a position to judge her "visions" nor to legitimatize or not her incarceration in an asylum. As for the images, they are mesmerizing and beautiful to the totally sane, so isn't that enough? Picasso's images could easily be described as psychotic or bizarre, as could those of many other artists, should one wish to use the same negative connotation.

Julie said...

Anyone know if any prints exist of Seraphine's work? I've contacted the Museum of Modern Art in New York and a few on-line poster companies to no avail. I really would like to have some of her work in my home.
Thank you. I can be contacted at turtlerebellion@att.net

marco badot said...

actually, the initial "fauna" is much better than "flora", since the author implies that the flowers and leaves are "alive," in the sense that look more like animals than they do plants (even though both fauna and flora are alive). I completely understand what the author meant by "fauna," and, in context, it is much better than "flora."

Kevin Simmonds said...

i just finished watching the film. brilliantly paced. reminds me of Dickinson's "madness is man's divinest sense." i never knew of this woman before now.

Karen Brimhall said...

I, too would like to know if any of her work has been reproduced, or if it is available anywhere in print? I would LOVE to have something of hers in my home as well. You can reach me at brimhall.karen @ gmail.com

Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed the pace of the movie and agree with prior comment about who's to judge? I work with folks that could be considered insane or gurus depends which side of the looking glass you on. I too would like a print or two. If anyone has movie suggestions I am open to good films worth seeing so if you liked the movie.
buselt@gmail.com

Anonymous said...

are prints available?

seraphime said...

i enjoyed the film immensely and got swept up in the emotional purity of the character and honesty of her journey. i had no idea she was a real painter until the end of the film. there i was, weeping at the tragedy of this character's life, only to learn this actually happened to real life innocent - so simple and earnest she seemed - why did it have to go so unsuccessfully for her? well, i *really* began crying then. i couldn't help but think of the antics of fellow artists of the day like dali and picasso and how differently her bizarre behavior might have been tolerated had she been a man of means living in a less provincial area. what a wonderful discovery! both the film and artist.

@kevin, i agree - the pacing was choice and integral to making the film so effective.

however, i thought it interesting that one anonymous person found the film predatory by portraying her as nothing more than a victim, while side-stepping deeper speculation into her artistic process. i would not have thought of that. perhaps someone in the future will do seraphine further justice by doing just that. i can say for myself, i am now curious to devour everything i can on her.

blessed be,

celeste said...

I would be thrilled to have her work hanging in my house as well. I am curious if anyone has found any prints available? I have been on an endless search and have not found anything yet.

I can be reached at fishinjunelakeloop@yahoo.com

Bruce said...

Just seen the film, and came straight to this site, thanks to Google. Wonderful images.

Brenda said...

I saw this film on DVD just last night, and I too felt like crying at the end. I believe that had Seraphine been a man (or had she had a male protector) her ultimate incarceration in an asylum would have been less likely. And the larger issue, it seems to me, is why people cannot leave someone like Seraphine alone to do what she loves. So she's a little strange. So she buys and wears an expensive satin and taffeta wedding gown. So she wanted to give her possessions away. What harm in all that? Why call the police? Why can't we learn to accept the way others want to live even if they do things that seem crazy to us? She was hurting no one, not even herself. She should have been left alone to do what she loved.

Jon Greenberg said...

Brenda - Your thought about institutionalization brought to mind the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. There is great work there from the times when certain artists were under treatment.

Charles T. Downey said...

A link to AVAM already in the post, by the way!

kg said...

Just finished watching the film. I was captivated from beginning to end. I cried on a few occasions: when Seraphine first showed her paintings to Uhde, when he attempted to stop her from mopping his floor, when Uhde was standing outside her apartment door waiting and asking her to open it, only for her to tell him she'll bring the painting tomorrow. I believe Seraphine was simply labeled insane by people who didn't have such passion as hers. But if she was indeed crazy, then I guess all the great artists are.

Anita said...

Just saw the film on DVD. So bad we almost didn't have the patience to see it through. But glad to be introduced to an artist I knew nothing of. Would very much like to see the works in person though. Her use of color is so limited that it is hard to appreciate them without being able to see the special quality of the paint as referred to by many.

anitanyc

Anonymous said...

I am touched by this woman's life as I perceived it through the film. I Loved the sound of wind in the leaves, all the opening windows onto such beauty, the stream, and her singing, and embracing the trees. I've done these and thankfully have not been labeled crazy. My 13 year old saw part of the film and could not understand why she was taken away just for wearing a wedding gown in the street and giving things away. I'm glad that doesn't seem crazy to him.
I am wondering what her perception was, did she see auras or the essence of beauty in the leaves and flowers and trees, as it seems from the way she painted? I'm thankful that we can see some of her work. I'd like to know whether prints are available. susan@cradledinlove.com

Anonymous said...

I thought the film was cativating, and extremly humble. As far as it being a gender thing about her circumstance, is false. Seraphine experienced what most great artist do, ( male or female) rembrandt died a broke mess, alot of his work was found lining chicken coupes and such; it just comes with the territory, it's actually the poetic side of their story.

Anonymous said...

My wife and I found the film on Netflix and enjoyed every minute. We noted the reference to "those in Paris who paint like children" and assume that is reference to the "Impressionists" which is also a BBC series available on Netflix and highly recommended to those interested in French art.

Capra Quinn said...

Thank you for this post I just came across. I also loved the movie and was grateful to discover her beautiful art. I wrote a sort of fan letter to her and I hope you like it: http://alwayscapra.wordpress.com/2011/02/08/dear-seraphine-louis-de-senlis/

Anonymous said...

Incarceration in an asylum isn't exclusive to female artists - Van Gogh and the English Victorian artist Richard Dadd are 2 further examples - though admittedly Dadd did murder his father!

A lovely film, I thought, and the main character sensitively portrayed.

Anonymous said...

I object to the word "psychotic" in your final sentence. That word wraps it all up and dumps the work in the trash, just as happened to Seraphine. What a laugh: the innate belief of the ordinary mind in its own superiority.

Anonymous said...

Truly mesmerising movie or rather Seraphine's art! If it hadn't been for such visionaries would our so called "normal world" advanced much at all? Isn't the "stable mind" by its definition complacent with what is? But Seraphine was not, went beyond and that's what captures us. The possibilities are endless, not psychotic.

I also would like to know of any possibility of buying her prints in the US. please write: uliyanka13@gmail.com

jane said...

i know artist tend to be a little different than the normal. That is why they see differently, i would imagine. I know that many ingredients in paint are toxic. I would think that many times the constant exposure during a prolific period of painting could cause delusions due to high exposure to toxic materials.

Anonymous said...

We are also trying to find prints of her work. Please let us know if you find any! 5jacks@charter.net

Anonymous said...

My partner and I just watched the film depiction of a slice of her life. It is a shame that such brilliant expression is still marginalized.
She had a focus, concept and resolution without the aid of academic training - it was soulfully derived and produced an intense brilliance.
Could the movie have been more about her and less about the man who 'discovered' her.
that would have been nice.

nonartist said...

You are so correct. My first thought of the first print I saw of her work is"they look like insects,not leaves."

Ancy said...

The density of her paintings is mesmerizing. I had no idea she was a real person till the end, so when she was taken into the asylum, I made myself feel better by telling myself it was fiction! I too want prints of her work to live with. ancytempesta@hotmail.com

rosy said...

why can't this filme of her life as wellas the actual bona fide life of Serephine be seen - and used - for what it was:a genuine kick-up-the-arse to modern celebrity - and,yes!!this does include Saint Cheryl-of-the-Cole.She did what she did because she needed to do it;and not as apassport to fame,fortune,blah..blah..blah.You can't even say that of the truly,globally famous!So thank god for the Genuines...Seraphine,Vincent,me!!

Anonymous said...

I agree with you!!! I just saw the movie and it ripped my heart to pieces!!! Beautiful art yet such miserable ending!!!... Why can't we leave people alone-- alone to define ther journey and their path!!!.... Seraphine is a phenomenal artist!!! Who are we to venture into someone's mind and claim them to be sane or insane?? And yes, had she been a man or had she been born into means, she would have been recognized as a genius in her lifetime and spared the anguish of loneliness in a mental institution. I hope there is a foundation in her honor to encourage the art work of other painters!!! Her legacy deserves to be remembered similar to that of other giants like Picasso and Van Gogh. I will make sure to share her art with others and focus on the beauty of her mind and her creations!!!