Balthus’ Sexualized Children

Yvonne Owens, PhD
10 min readDec 10, 2017
“Thérèse Dreaming” (1938) by the painter known as Balthus. Jacques and Natasha Gelman Collection, 1998

There is a mini-tempest-in-a-teapot scuffle at the moment as there are those who have requested the removal of the piece by Balthus, above, from general display at the MET in NYC. It makes me question people’s ability to adapt to watershed moments and the shifting of the zeitgeist away from old, accepted abusive forms. For Balthus’ unthinking defenders, or those who defend certain images that SHOULD make young girls extremely uncomfortable, I say this:

I don’t think Balthus was ever “just going for a little gimmick or shock,” as some of his defenders aver. He was way too good an artist for that — too committed than to pursue that shabby motivation. I think he was living his truth and freely pursuing his fascinations — one that was always vouchsafed to wealthy, privileged males in a patriarchy, even if covertly. Sometimes his pieces were quite explicit, as in 1934’s ‘The Guitar Lesson.’ Balthus insisted these works were not erotic, but rather that they merely recognized the discomforting aspects of children’s sexuality. But one wonders why the children’s legs always need to be splayed quite so far apart, even when the skirt edge does manage to conceal what lies between them.

You have to be an artist and a madman, a creature of infinite melancholy, with bubble of hot poison in your loins and a super-voluptuous flame permanently aglow in your subtle spine (oh, how you have to cringe and hide!), in order to discern at once, by ineffable signs–the slightly feline outline of a cheekbone, the slenderness of a downy limb, and other indices which despair and shame and tears of tenderness forbid me to tabulate–the little deadly demon among the wholesome children; she stands unrecognized by them and un-conscious herself of her fantastic power. (Humbert Humbert, in Nabokov’s Lolita, p. 17)

This discussion is the new frontier in a post-Harvey Weinstein/Trump/Epstein universe — the frontier of child sexuality and its respectful, honouring, non-exploitative depiction — or not (…they’re kids! If they can be protected from some areas of the Internet, surely they can be protected from being portrayed as tiny nymphomaniacs and then having some idiot’s projections shoved down their throat in public institutions, without warning or proper contextualizing and labelling?) — that’s still shrouded in denial and guilt. It’s also still a major trigger — obviously. How not, when 1 in 3 girls have been invaded, and 1 in 4 boys — many more boys in countries like Afghanistan (with their tradition of Bacha Bazi, ‘Boy Love’) and Britain, where the otherwise unsympathetic Theresa May said in 2014, “Pederasty is woven, covertly, into the fabric of British society.”

Critical comment and deconstruction — ‘unpacking’ — is critical when it comes to sex, gender, and the rights of children with regard to their sexuality and it’s portrayal, exploitation, or twisting toward ranking males’ egoic self-indulgences. It’s past time to recognize the historical ranking hierarchies in art and the so-called canonical Western Canon on the part of the general gallery-going public, also. Even the woman bringing the complaint to the Met only wants some contextualizing and perhaps that it be exhibited in its own more accurately labelled gallery room, to protect young female viewers from suddenly finding themselves authoritatively sexually objectified in public settings like the cultural institution of the public-funded gallery.

Hopefully, the kind of discussion she’s advocating is exactly what will be prompted by proper, updated contextualizing critical discourse. Like Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda art is now contextualized for public consumption — like the brilliant films of Leni Reifenstahl — or Soviet propaganda art being contextualized in their own galleries, museums or showrooms, or racist turn-of-the-century depictions of ‘Red Indians’ in romanticized settings lionizing what was thought at the time to represent their imminent extinction. We’re too soon into the post-Harvey Weinstein watershed moment for the existential canonized tenets governing representations of women and/or children of patriarchal ideology to have been found obsolete or no longer applicable.

There is an ‘ideology of femininity,’ a clear discourse that runs through Western art history that positions women and girls as ‘daughters of Eve’ or specimens of Aristotelian medicine’s ‘feminine defect,’ which sees females of any age as inordinately seductive and sexualized and therefore responsible for all of men’s untoward sexual responses as ‘temptation.’ (Whitney Chadwick, Women in Art and Society, Oxford Press, 1996.) “I am going to tell you something strange: it was she who seduced me.” Thus does Humbert Humbert justify his actions to the ladies and gentlemen of the jury in Nabokov’s Lolita, and assert that it is NOT him who is to be blamed. (p. 132).

Between the age limits of nine and fourteen there occur maidens who, to certain be- witched travelers, twice or many times older than they, reveal their true nature which is not human, but nymphic (that is, demoniac); and these chosen creatures I propose to designate as “nymphets.” …Between those age limits, are all girl-children nymphets? Of course not… [Nymphets have] certain mysterious characteristics, the fey grace, the elusive, shifty, soul-shattering, insidious charm that separates the nymphet from such coevals of hers as are incomparably more dependent on the spatial world of synchronous phenomena than on that intangible island of entranced time where Lolita plays with her likes. (Humbert Humbert, pp. 16–17)

Revulsion at child predation wasn’t Balthus’ message, as the artist’s oeuvre demonstrates. When Nazi Propaganda art was presented as self-evident ‘Truth,’ or as a naturalized, normalized ‘reality,’ it was toxic. When shown in the context of ‘Nazi Propaganda Art,’ as it is nowadays in all but Neo-Nazi contexts, it promotes discussion and critical thought without assumptions of any kind of self-evident ‘Truth.’ It is seen to exist within an intellectual history and an ideological construct — to be, itself, ‘constructed.’ Everything is constructed. Perception itself is constructed.

Childhood sexuality, like any other powerful, vulnerable estate, is not safe within the dominant ideology of male dominant ranking privilege and entitlement vouchsafed to ranking males within an aggressive patriarchy. Western (Platonic/Aristotelian) male-paradigmatic canons and the ‘purity and pollution discourses’ entailed within Mosaic Law militate against the rights of sovereignty and autonomy of perceived subjects and subordinates, as here, in Numbers 31:17: “Now therefore kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman that hath known man by lying with him. 31:18 But all the women children, that have not known a man by lying with him, keep alive for yourselves.” Access to ‘virgin girls’ (which, in that context, mostly means pre-pubescent sex slaves) is vouchsafed to every ranking male in Judaeo-Christian patriarchy by so-called ‘Holy Writ.’

‘Patience,’ 1943

There were never more high-class child brothels in London and Paris than during the Victoria era, a gentlemanly prerogative that Balthus’ bohemian, demi-monde, ancien regime, pre-war milieu continued to enjoy. He could afford it, he was protected, and he was of the genteel class who thought they were entitled to whatever they wanted. I don’t know who his defenders think this man was, but his character is more akin to Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, Woody Allen, or Trump’s old procurer Jeffrey Epstein than any kind of artistic rebel (except for his rebellion against Modernity in all its forms).

When Balthus was 38 he took the 16-year-old Laurence Bataille as his ‘mistress; at 48, he moved in with his 16-year-old step niece, Frederique Tison; at 59, he married the 25 year old Setsuko Ideta. Balthus is known to have seduced his sons’ teenage girlfriends and is renowned for “his crude contention that at 13, a girl was ‘an old camel,’ past her prime.” (Nicholas Fox Weber, Balthus: A Biography, Dalkey Archive Scholarly Press, 2014.)

Thérèse on a Bench Seat, 1939
‘Therese Awake,’ 1938
‘Girl and Cat/Thérèse, 1938
The Golden Days, 1944–46
The Salon I, 1941–43

As to whether Balthus’ body of works sexualizing prepubescent girls attain to the level of child pornography, there are those who distinctly received the work as such at the time, including the artist, according to his predilections and proclivities. I feel it belongs within an ancient, if not venerable, tradition of the same and, as such, is immediately recognizable.

There are those, even today, whose reception of Sally Mann’s controversial photographic portraits of her daughter is as if they represent pornography. I don’t think Mann’s works belong in that category by a mile; they were never created or perceived by the artist as such. For Mann, the works were simply what they purported to be — suggestive portraits of her precocious, provocative child. Lewis Carroll’s nude portraits of Alice Liddell might have been as innocent, had he not posed her on couches with ferns, in the pose of Manet’s famed Parisian prostitute, the ‘Odalisque’ or “The Nude Maja” by Eugene Delacroix.

I think it’s in the portrayal — for instance, Gauguin’s eroticized portraits of 13–14-year old girls, several of them his ‘wives,’ existed in a society where the girls had a lot of autonomy, freedom and respect. His obsession, the young Teha’amana, only 13 when he negotiated with her family to marry her, actually rejected HIM. After he returned to her, their young child and Tahiti with money from painting sales in Paris, intending to live there permanently with her, she just plain said ‘no.’ (This was in part because he was covered in sores from the tertiary syphilis he was dying of.) I think that his 1897 painting, ‘Nevermore,’ created after his return — besides referring to the work of Gothic Horror ‘The Raven’ by Poe — expresses this rejection.

‘Nevermore,’ 1897.

So, in Gauguin’s case, the context gave the artist’s portrayals of this self-possessed, if sexualized, young girl the wildness he was in search of for his art, and the dignity she innately had, and kept, by her matrifocal cultural and social birthright. In other words, in her society — the sexualized subject’s social and cultural context — she had the power to say no — the power to choose. This represents a HUGE difference between her and Balthus’ later European child subjects, and comes through clearly in the portrayals.

The Guitar Lesson is Balthus’s most notorious yet least discussed work. No music is being played in the scene depicted, as the tutorial has turned instead into a sexual initiation rite. Most of Balthus’s writer and poet friends have passed over the work in silence. The composition is based on a Pieta, probably the Louvre’s mid-15th-century Pieta of Villeneuve-les-Avignons, to judge from the near identical height and comparable sizes of the figures. Balthus depicts a female music teacher holding a young girl across her thighs in lieu of the toylike musical instrument abandoned on the floor.

The child makes no attempt to struggle. Her body arches in anticipation of pleasure or, perhaps, pain, her posture evoking the rigor mortis of its celebrated prototype on the lap of the Virgin Mary. Her female teachers hands are positioned on the girl as for playing the guitar: one near her exposed crotch, another grasping her hair. Similar themes are of course a mainstay of popular pornography: in book illustrations devoted to sadomasochistic scenes, the stout school mistress who seduces her pliable pupil has long been a favorite, especially in Wilhelminian Germany of the late 19th century.

‘The Guitar Lesson,’ 1934.

The historiography of ‘The Guitar Lesson’ is as interesting as its subject matter.

During the two-week exhibition at the Galerie Pierre, The Guitar Lesson hung in the gallery’s back room, accessible only to a select few. It remained unsold at the time, and Soby had no competition in buying this work, shortly before the war, from Pierre Colle. To ensure its passage through U.S. customs the painting was covered by another canvas representing a religious subject with angels.

In 1977 Matisse showed The Guitar Lesson in a small retrospective exhibition of Balthus’s work at his gallery in New York. The catalogue reproduced the picture for the very first time. Forty-three years had passed since the work had last been seen in public. This image, shocking yet somewhat naive, erotic yet still oddly chaste, had lost little of its impact; the picture attracted a steady stream of gallery visitors. In 1978 Pierre Matisse donated the painting to the Museum of Modern Art in memory of his late wife Patricia. However, four years later, just before the opening at MOMA of a small installation devoted to the Balthus works owned by the museum, an important trustee happened upon The Guitar Lesson and was so shocked by it that in the end the painting had to be returned.(‘Balthus — Guitar Lesson,’ Blog Post by sgtr on February 23, 2012)

Balthus insisted these works were not erotic, but rather that they merely recognized the discomforting aspects of children’s sexuality. I think that’s hooey. While I would NEVER advocate to destroy ANY work of art, not even Nazi propaganda art, I would want it to be displayed and contextualized for what it is by current lights or zeitgeist — for this, a room, not general exhibition hall, with truth in advertising or labelling: “Balthus’ Eroticized Images of Children’ or some-such. Then, the viewer can choose instead of it being foisted upon their unwary eyes, and prepubescent girls can be spared what amounts to a sort of visual assault, normalizing display, or erotic nature type-casting.

Balthus was genuinely puzzled and despairing when a fully grown woman of the minor gentility he was ardently wooing rejected him in the wake of his painting ‘The Guitar Lesson,’ and told him not to contact her again. He was bewildered and terribly hurt, spiralled into a major depression, and entertained thoughts of suicide. To him, his works sexualizing children were titillating, fond fetishes, but not ‘abnormal.’ He lived with girls, as his ‘lovers,’ of the same general age group as his heavily eroticized subjects— one his step-niece. He didn’t ‘get’ it. He WAS it.



Yvonne Owens, PhD

I'm a writer/researcher/arts educator on Vancouver Island and all round global citizen who loves humans even though we're such a phenomenal pain-in-the-ass.