Queer context for the early 20th century

The Barnes Foundation presents Marie Laurencin: Sapphic Paris

4 minute read
Woman in green with lavish feather accessories leans intimately on the shoulder of another in gray & black, holding a book

Marie Laurencin: Sapphic Paris, now on view at the Barnes, is a historical first for a prominent Philadelphia museum, highlighting the work of a queer artist in 1920s Paris. Curators Simonetta Fraquelli and Cindy Kang shaped this exhibition with emphasis on Marie Laurencin’s aesthetic contributions to modernism by deploying recent scholarship on the early 20th-century subculture of avant-garde queer women. This is an illuminating show, particularly for the LGBTQIA community, as part of a her-storic narrative that offers a deeper understanding of how our ancestors constructed their worlds within their sexual preferences and identities.

Born in 1883 in Paris, Laurencin studied painting at the Académie Humbert, where she struck up a friendship with Georges Braque and Francis Picabia. This situated her as the sole and highly regarded woman in Picasso’s coterie. Originally influenced by Cubism, she developed her own figurative style with a delicate touch and limited palette. Her artworks hold a “female aesthetic” whereby the figures that populate her canvases are women. Laurencin’s paintings may at first seem deceptively sweet and feminine, but they hold radical and subversive coded expressions for desires outside the hetero world.

Picturing Laurencin

Sorted thematically in this show, Laurencin’s artworks offer a remarkable range of subject matter that includes portraits, dance, allegory, and fantasy. The first gallery here, “Picturing Herself,” hosts 10 self-defining images between ages 21 to 41. These studies establish a sense of familiarity with and connection to Laurencin as you move through the remaining galleries. An early self-portrait at age 25 exudes the confidence she possessed as she gazes directly out at the viewer in a calm, centered fashion.

In the gallery titled “In the Thick of It: Paris Before the War,” viewers see Laurencin’s emerging work between 1908 and 1914 featuring women as primary subject matter. This was inspired by her involvement with sapphic literary salons, most notably one led by American lesbian writer Natalie Clifford Barney. (“Sapphic” refers to the ancient Greek poet Sappho, whose writing became a symbol of love and desire between women in the late 19th century.)

Collaborations and affairs

In addition to painting, Laurencin was a published poet and book illustrator and collaborated on design projects. The Barnes devotes two “Decoration and Collaboration” galleries to these aspects of her career. One (“Interiors”) is a domestic room with a handsome maple chest set off by Laurencin-composed wallpaper, decorative paintings, and a folding screen. The other (“Ballet”) displays Laurencin’s studies for designed sets along with reconstructed costumes for the 1924 Ballet Russes production of Les biches (The Does).

After her mother died and her long-term affair with poet Apollinaire ended, Laurencin briefly (perhaps impulsively) married a German painter. As a result, Laurencin was exiled in Spain and Germany during World War I where she struggled with isolation and existential feelings. The Prisoner II (1917) in the “Life in Exile” gallery reflects her loneliness and strain. Yet, expatriation proved to be a pivotal relief from her Cubist collégues; she made new friends, saw other examples of influential art (especially Goya), and began an affair with Parisian friend Nicole Groult.

Thriving in otherness

Upon returning to Paris, Laurencin’s signature style was in full bloom. While many women artists have been written out of the art-history canon, this is not the case for Laurencin, a rare example of a female painter in the Barnes permanent collection. Her name is still not as well-known today as her male peers, but she was quite a rockstar in her time, with many exhibitions and patrons. A “Women Supporting Women” gallery displays five portrait commissions: Laurencin was in demand to formally portray Paris’s prominent women, including American businesswoman Helena Rubinstein and clothing designer Coco Chanel. The latter (completed in 1923) is painted in Laurencin’s distinctive blue tones with touches of pink executed with loose painterly strokes. A relaxed Chanel seems lost in thought with a dog in her lap. Another pup frolicking behind the chair chases a pale bird in flight that aims its beak for a peck on the lips.

In the final gallery (“Sapphic Modernity”), we see Laurencin thriving in her otherness by constructing a painterly world of female friendship, camaraderie, and low-key erotic sensuality. Women were not objects, but her priority for being, her answer to the question of how to live one’s life. My favorite work is Women with a Dove (1919). It portrays Laurencin holding a book with lover Groult affectionately resting her chin on the painter’s shoulder. A white bird perches on the text. Using tender grays, pinks, and green pigment, Laurencin evokes a romantic moment that feels like a love letter.

Today, we still live in a world where men dominate almost everything: gun laws (or the lack thereof), the military-industrial complex, and even women’s medical decisions. If you need an aesthetic hiatus, go see Marie Laurencin: Sapphic Paris. The exhibition offers a necessary estrogenic comfort.

At top: Marie Laurencin. Women with a Dove (Femmes à la colombe), 1919. Centre Pompidou – Musée National d’Art Modern / Centre de Création Industrielle, Paris. Gift of Lord Joseph Duveen, 1931, on deposit to Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris. Artwork © Fondation Foujita / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / ADAGP, Paris 2023.

What, When, Where

Marie Laurencin: Sapphic Paris. Through January 21, 2024, at the Barnes Foundation, 2025 Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia. $5-$25 (free for those aged 12 and under). (215) 278-7000 or


The Barnes is accessible to standard-size wheelchairs with designated parking for visitors with disabilities. Assistive listening devices are available and trained service animals are welcome; complimentary admission for paid personal care assistants and ACCESS/EBT cardholders, including those receiving medical assistance only.

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