NEW YORK — "I used to want to shock, but now it bores me," wrote the painter Balthus in 1955. He was referring to the work presented in his first gallery show in 1934, in Paris — a highly charged street scene in which a man appears to be assaulting a young girl and the portrayal of a strangely cruel, sexualized music lesson fashioned compositionally after a Pietà.
Nothing sold from that show and critics called Balthus morbid, a fiend and worse. For a time, he turned away from painting but eventually took portrait commissions to earn a living, a compromise that he resented, deriding the pictures as "monsters."
Then he met Thérèse, a young girl who lived near his studio. She started to model for him. The series of paintings he made of her form the heart of "Balthus: Cats and Girls — Paintings and Provocations" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (through Jan. 12), and became the foundation for all that came later.
"Thérèse must have been a ray of sunshine," says Sabine Rewald, curator of the exhibition. "She was between childhood and puberty. The paintings are an homage to what we all go through at this age."
Balthus painted a succession of young models for the remainder of his life, and these images have come to define him. According to Rewald, "They are all descendants. [Thérèse] is the muse who is the ancestor to all of them."
Thérèse may have been a bright reprieve to Balthus, but he portrays her more as a complex shadow — pensive, sullen, self-contained. His paintings of her and of other adolescent girls are psychologically dense, set in interiors of muted russet, gray and eggshell, with select jolts of deep red and green. Whether alone or in the company of another, the girls occupy private worlds. Their eyes are often closed, their heads tilted back, their poses suggesting languor or a reverie that many characterize as erotic.
"Thérèse Dreaming" (1938) epitomizes this rich, charged stillness. The model sits with hands clasped atop her turned head, elbows pointing outward and neatly framing her intently inward expression. Her raised knee forms a triangle that telescopes attention toward an exposed strip of white underwear, the area loosely encircled by her blood-red skirt. Beneath the chair, a dun-colored cat licks at a saucer of milk.
Though Balthus hasn't been seen in a U.S. museum since 1984, when the Met staged a retrospective, his influence has been seminal for a broad swath of contemporary artists. They find inspiration in his embrace of the art of the past (Piero della Francesca and Poussin in particular), which put him out of sync with the dynamic, abstract movements that arose — and prevailed — during his lifetime.
Born in Paris in 1908, Balthasar Klossowski described himself as self-taught but grew up in a home steeped in arts and letters. His parents were painters, and his father was also an art historian. Within their social circle were the painters André Derain and Pierre Bonnard, the playwright Antonin Artaud and the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who played an especially formative role in the artist's life.
In 1921, Rilke arranged for the publication of a book of postcard-sized ink drawings that Balthus had made at 11, chronicling his adoption, adoration and eventual loss of a stray cat named Mitsou. At Rilke's suggestion, the artist began to go by his nickname, Balthus.
Cats factored into many of his paintings over the decades, perhaps as stand-ins for the artist, Rewald proposes.
"He had something feline about him. Cats are aloof, they are affectionate, unreliable. They have some elegance. Balthus had something himself of these characteristics."
Balthus lived in France and Switzerland and spent 16 years in Rome as director of the Académie de France, painting landscapes, interiors and portraits until his death in 2001. The Met exhibition marks the first public showing of the Mitsou drawings and concentrates on figurative works from the '30s through the '50s.
"His best, most important works were painted in the 1930s," Rewald believes. "There is an undercurrent of tension, psychological tension that is not in the late work."
Balthus generated that tension through exquisite formal means, the Morandi-like nuance in his narrow palette, and the mathematical precision of his spare compositions. His predilection for working with young, female models in suggestive poses has also caused friction in the reception of his work as viewers wrestle with the definitions and boundaries among erotic, sensual and sexual, provocative and prurient.
"A little scandal never hurts a career," says L.A. painter F. Scott Hess, whose own work bears the imprint of Balthus and shares some of its edgier qualities. The disturbing aspects of Balthus' work "just add to the charisma of his persona."
In his later years, Balthus feigned surprise and innocence when asked about the erotic charge of his work, making him, says Hess, "either the most psychologically unaware person on the planet or a marvelous straight-faced liar."
His influence is pervasive. "Every representational painter that I know is aware of him and most find him to be important," Hess says. "He was one of the torchbearers for figurative art through the 20th century. He blazed brightly."
Commentators frequently point to the timelessness in Balthus' work, its sense of remove from events outside the studio, whether radical changes in the conception of art, social revolutions or the tumult and losses of a world war. That timelessness is what drew Japanese artist Hisaji Hara to Balthus, inspiring him to stage a series of photographs modeled directly after Balthus' paintings. "Tracing" the original images, using multiple exposures and a fog machine to conjure their potent atmosphere of suspension, helped further Hara's own development as an artist.
He first discovered the painter's work in the '80s, as a young student, then reencountered it in a dream in 2005. The image that came to him was the "strange but fiery brilliance" of "Thérèse Dreaming."
"It never lost its freshness and vividness, after 70 years," Hara wrote by email. "There was no question but that the image in front of my eyes showed the very 'universality' I had been looking for."