Vanished Splendors by Balthus: a book review

"Painting means returning daily to the source, and drawing its water, its light."


"Girl at the Window"

"The gentle, secret, and intuitive relationship with the canvas is the best and fundamental part of my life.  The striving toward what is invisible.  A painter's required labor."

Earlier this year I read Vanished Splendors: a Memoir by Balthus, as told to Verlain Vircondelet, his admirer.  This book consists of biographical information and also fragments of conversations between Vircondelet and the old artist, who was near the end of his life.  (Balthus died at age 92, in 2001.)  

Vanished Splendors is filled with a kind of "painter's wisdom," almost in the form of poetry, and it is a pleasure to read, even though Balthus isn't exactly my favorite artist.  I find many of his paintings to be creepy, inappropriately erotic, and altogether unsettling.  I don't believe him for an instant when he insists, again and again throughout his memoir, that there aren't any sinister sexual undertones in his paintings.  Perhaps he believed that, in his old age, as his mind lost its edge, or maybe he wanted to believe that.  Who knows?  

"The Game of Patience"

On the other hand, I absolutely love some of his paintings, which I have put here in this blog post for your benefit.  And Balthus does have some meaningful things to say; the memoir is worth reading.  The most fascinating part, to me, was reading about his mother, Baladine Klossowska.  She had a relationship for many years with the poet Rilke, one of my favorite poets of all time.   She also knew and took painting classes from Bonnard, one of my very favorite painters.  

However, if you don't have time read this book, don't worry.  I have written down the very best parts, all quotations of Balthus, and here they are.  Enjoy!

"Girl at Window"


"Painting is a means of acceding to God's mystery, of extracting some radiance from His Kingdom, of making it possible to capture a shared light."  


"I often insist on the necessity of prayer.  To paint as one prays.  By doing so, to accede to silence and what is invisible in the world...To join with what is invisible in the world...To join with what is essential in this sacred world through a humble, modest availability that is also presented as an offering."  


"I always begin a painting with a prayer, a ritual act that gives me a means to get across, to transcend myself.  I firmly believe that painting is a way of prayer, a means of access to God." 

"The bouquet of roses on the window"

"It is better to seek solitude and silence, to be surrounded by past masters, to reinvent the world, not be cradled by false sirens, cash, galleries, fashionable games, etc."

"All these creative connections belong to the same earthly song, from the ancient source of the world that I know nothing about, but which sends me a few messages by lashes of sun--or starlight.  The artist constantly seeks to rediscover the illuminating fire, the hearth where sparks are made."

"To my mind, God made the world and couldn't have made it ugly or illegible, so He left us an immense field of beauties that must be available to every painter.  With such riches, why make ugliness?"

"Painter and his Model"

"I've always sought to understand something about light, to retain its energy, to inquire how it nourishes everything, and how we can keep it alive.  For one must paint invisible, vibrant air that structures everything; that's what must be grasped in order for a painting to exist.  Everywhere, light and air have their invisible weight...A painting consists of reverberations of light and air that becomes its main subjects."

"The Moth"


"Today's painters must be told that everything plays out 'in the studio, in the fullness of time.'"