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Marie Laurencin’s Feminine Mystique - Features - Independent Art Fair

Marie Laurencin in the studio, 1948, © Michel Sima / Bridgeman Images

By now, the story of the rediscovered female artist has become a well-worn trope. The beats are familiar. She works in relative obscurity during her lifetime. Usually, she is married to a better-known, but not necessarily more skilled, male artist. Her work might appear in a few niche group exhibitions, where it sells for ludicrously low sums of money (if it sells at all). Upon her death, relatives or friends discover stacks of unseen canvases in closets and spare bedrooms and set out on a quest to spread the gospel of her genius to the world. 

This is not the story of Marie Laurencin (1883-1956). While Laurencin may not be a household name today, she was at the very center of the Parisian avant-garde in the early 20th century. She exhibited at the Salon des Indépendants in Paris and at the landmark 1913 Armory Show in New York, which brought European modernism to America. She was represented by the leading art dealer Paul Rosenberg and her work was acquired by such heavyweight collectors as Albert C. Barnes and John Quinn. Pablo Picasso was a friend and a fan, too. She received commissions to design sets for the Ballets Russes and to paint the portrait of Coco Chanel.  

Yet in more recent decades, Laurencin’s profile has dwindled. Critics have dismissed her as a second-rate Cubist or emphasized her personal relationships with the French poet Guillaume Apollinaire and others at the expense of her own work. Now, with a presentation of her 1920s and 30s paintings by Nahmad Contemporary at Independent 20th Century this September and a major retrospective at the Barnes Foundation in Philadelphia in October, viewers will have the opportunity to reconsider Laurencin’s legacy anew. 

Marie Laurencin’s Feminine Mystique - Features - Independent Art Fair

Marie Laurencin, Buste de femme (Bust of a Woman), 1927, oil on canvas, 18.4 x 15 inches, © Fondation Foujita / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris 2023, courtesy of Nahmad Contemporary

In fact, the artist’s association with the Cubist movement represents just one part of her distinctive, protean career. The rest—including her poetry, her book illustrations, her decorative artworks, and her role in Paris’s vibrant queer community—is only now coming into sharper focus. 

“She was not actually trying to be a Cubist,” explained Cindy Kang, the co-curator of the Barnes Foundation’s forthcoming exhibition Marie Laurencin: Sapphic Paris. Although Laurencin is most often remembered for her part in Apollinaire’s circle alongside Georges Braque and Picasso, her relatively brief dalliance with Cubism gave way to her own unmistakable style in the 1920s. In 1923, Laurencin told an interviewer: “Cubism has poisoned three years of my life, preventing me from doing any work… As long as I was influenced by the great men who surrounded me I could do nothing.”

Living in exile in Spain during the First World War, far from the clubby Parisian scene, Laurencin began to find her own voice as a painter. By the time she returned to her native city in 1921, she had traded sharp noses, geometric planes, and a muddy color scheme for a distinctly feminine, fantastical aesthetic. Her palette was pared back to pinks, light grays, and blues. Her paintings almost exclusively depicted women and girls: sitting in thought, dancing, playing music, cavorting in parks with animals and with one another. 

Marie Laurencin’s Feminine Mystique - Features - Independent Art Fair

Left: Marie Laurencin, Mélancolie (Melancholy), 1921, oil on canvas, 18.75 x 14.88 inches. Right: Marie Laurencin, Marguerite ou fillette au noeud rose (Marguerite or Young Girl with Pink Bow), 1923-24, oil on canvas, 16.25 x 13.125 inches, © Fondation Foujita / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris 2023, courtesy of Nahmad Contemporary

That year, Rosenberg went all out for her solo show, papering Paris’s wealthiest arrondissements with 200 promotional posters, according to the catalog for the Barnes exhibition. Laurencin’s embrace of the feminine quickly earned accolades from contemporary (male) tastemakers, albeit with some gendered qualifications. Barnes called her one of “the best French women painters.” Quinn, who bought seven of her works in the span of six months in 1920, said: “One of the things that I like about Marie Laurencin is that she paints like a woman, whereas most seem to want to paint like men and they only succeed in painting like hell.” 

Laurencin’s lithe, elegant compositions also appealed to the lesbian literary and artistic avant-garde. Known to have relationships with both men and women (her primary companion was Suzanne Moreau), Laurencin was a regular at American expatriate writer Natalie Clifford Barney’s legendary Paris salons. This community of women “wasn’t secondary to the male world,” said Simonetta Fraquelli, co-curator of the Barnes exhibition, but instead held a strong, albeit separate, position in the culture. 

Marie Laurencin’s Feminine Mystique - Features - Independent Art Fair

Marie Laurencin, 1954, photo by Ida Kar © National Portrait Gallery, London / Art Resource, New York

Viewers from Barney’s circle would have recognized elements of Laurencin’s work that the male-dominated mainstream art world likely missed. Her traditionally feminine aesthetic sometimes obscured, for example, the range of gender expressions she captured through the inclusion of more androgynous figures. Other motifs were even more coded: the bird in the double portrait Women with a Dove (1919), now in the collection of the Centre Pompidou, was a symbol of love frequently invoked in poems Laurencin exchanged with a lover, fashion designer Nicole Groult. 

“I don’t think Dr. Barnes was attuned to that, or John Quinn,” observed Kang. “She painted in a way where she could appeal to many audiences. That was part of her commercial savvy and success.”

Marie Laurencin’s Feminine Mystique - Features - Independent Art Fair

Left: Marie Laurencin, Jeunes danseuses (Young Dancers), circa 1925, oil on canvas, 28 x 19.5 inches. Right: Marie Laurencin, Deux femmes au rideau (Two Women at the Curtain), 1924, oil on canvas, 28.88 x 21.38 inches, © Fondation Foujita / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris 2023, courtesy of Nahmad Contemporary

At Independent 20th Century, Nahmad Contemporary will present ten works by Laurencin dating from 1921 to 1933, the peak of her renown. Some paintings share the kind of dual symbolism Kang described. Take Jeunes danseuses (Young Dancers, circa 1925), in which five women pose in a verdant landscape. The central figure, in white, stands en pointe with one arm draped around the neck of the taller woman behind her, whose arm clutches her waist. To some viewers, the composition might look like a dreamy dance performance; to others, it suggests an amorous embrace. Another painting, Deux femmes au rideau (Two Women at the Curtain, 1924), shows two women in chic hats framed by a parted curtain. They could be poised to perform on stage—or allowing the viewer a peek into their private world. 

For Nahmad Contemporary’s director Michelle Molokotos, Laurencin’s solo presentation is a fitting follow-up to the gallery’s 2022 booth at the fair, which focused on Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico’s lesser-known series of Gladiators paintings. Like Laurencin, de Chirico partly defined himself in opposition to the Cubist avant-garde, and his images of semi-nude male fighters pushed up against gender conventions. (Notably, de Chirico showed with Léonce Rosenberg, the brother of Laurencin’s dealer, Paul.) 

“So many artists from that period have been forgotten,” Molokotos said. But, to paraphrase Tolstoy, all remembered artists are alike; each forgotten artist is forgotten—and, sometimes, recovered—in their own way. 


Julia Halperin is an arts and culture journalist, editor, and cofounder of the Burns Halperin Report, the largest report of its kind tracking equity and representation in the art world. Her writing has appeared in T: The New York Times Style Magazine, the New Yorker, and the Financial Times. From 2017 to 2022, she was executive editor of Artnet News. Before that, she served as museums editor of The Art Newspaper and news editor of Art + Auction magazine. 

Learn more about Nahmad Contemporary’s presentation of Marie Laurencin at Independent 20th Century.