Balthus, whose real name was Count Balthazar Klossowski de Rola, was a Polish-French painter and graphic artist who was born into an artist family on February 29, 1908; his mother was known as the painter Baladine (1886–1969), his father was active as an art historian, stage designer and also as a painter. Influenced by this environment, Balthus began to paint already as a child. His mentor was Rainer Maria Rilke, who gave him the nickname "Balthusz", from which came the later artist name.
The autodidact Balthus learned his skills from copying old masters in the Louvre, such as Poussin und Courbet, as well as Italian Renaissance artists, above all Piero della Francesca; his involvement with the masterpieces of the past influenced his entire work. However, Balthus had at the same time contact with contemporary artist colleagues such as André Derain and Alberto Giacometti or André Malraux and Albert Camus.
Although completely and utterly a painter, Balthus also created book illustrations, stage scenery and, above all in his later years, a considerable oeuvre of drawings.
Balthus’s themes are portraits, interiors and still lifes, landscapes and above all the eroticizing representation of adolescent girls, which makes an evaluation of his very personal work problematic. Balthus’s figurative painting has echoes of New Objectivity and surrealism, but nevertheless cannot be categorized into any movement of the 20th century.
His bodies emit a particular light, the source of which cannot be determined. His color palettes remained in muted, dark tones and developed in the course of the years a fresco-like quality. His pictures are often loaded with enigma and mystery, for example the motif of the cat that is seen throughout his oeuvre and which many interpreters see as the alter ego of the artist, who once made a portrait of himself as "King of the Cats" (1935). Balthus lived a secluded life and was considered an eccentric who concealed his biography.
In 1934 he had his first solo exhibit in Paris, which because of the permissiveness of its motifs became a scandal. In 1961, Balthus was appointed director of the Académie de France at the Villa Medici in Rome, a position he held until 1977. During this time, his drawings develop independent status, whereas before they had simply been his drafts and thus were often destroyed – from an art historical perspective, a regrettable loss of not only interesting works, but also of information about the development of a painter’s creative process in his early years. Balthus treated his drawings in a painterly way because he worked with tonal values, not just with lines and contours.
In the 1960’s, he took several trips to Japan; one can observe his involvement with Asian art over and over in his creative work.
From 1977 on, Balthus retreated into a chalet in Rossinière, Switzerland, where he died on February 18, 2001, at the age of 93.