Wednesday, September 22, 2010


The film, “Seraphine,” chronicles the life of French painter Seraphine who grew up in the town of Senlis, about forty kilometers from Paris. Seraphine, who is brilliantly portrayed by the actress Yolande Moreau, was orphaned at seven, received no formal education, and spent most of her life working as a domestic servant or housemaid.

As a mother – (i.e. one to whom the term domestic servant may be just as easily applied) – I was immediately drawn into the life of this woman whose time is chiefly consumed with menial tasks: mopping floors, washing linens, scrubbing dishes, heating and preparing baths, and cleaning up after meals she did not have the privilege to enjoy.

In the afternoons, after her work is through, and particularly whenever she is sad or depressed, Seraphine takes long walks through the neighboring countryside. She limps down hillsides dappled with wild thistles, fingering the grass, and absorbing the sound of insect and bird. On warm days, she sometimes refreshes herself by bathing in the creek and listening to the wind as it rustles through the tingling branches of trees. Occasionally, she even climbs them, and one of the film’s most resounding images is of the forty-year-old woman perched on a limb, looking down on the rolling, wind-swept hills with an expression of childlike wonder.

But Seraphine can only absorb nature's glories for so long... at a certain point, she must find some way of expressing the beauty she has imbibed. In later years, Seraphine claimed that, as a young girl working in a French monastery, she had been visited by her guardian angel who commissioned her to paint.

Drawing from the ordinary venues of her common life, Seraphine teaches herself how to mix paint. The film depicts her quite literally filching supplies for this purpose: she bottles melted wax from the candles in the cathedral, and fills an old vial with bloody water when the butcher is busy helping other customers. In reality, Seraphine never revealed what ingredients she used to make her paint – but whatever they were, they stood the test of time.

During most of her “career,” she painted by candlelight, and in secret, singing hymns to God while using her fingertips to achieve effects which most artists can afford to accomplish with a brush.

It was not until 1914, when a famous German art collector and critic, Wilhelm Uhde, rented an apartment in the small town of Senlis, that Seraphine’s work was “discovered.” When his landlady invited him into her rooms, Uhde inquired about a still-life he saw leaning against a wall and was amazed to learn that it was painted by his housecleaner, Seraphine, a seemingly coarse woman who was frequently laughed at by others.

Uhde believed in Seraphine and it is largely due to his advocacy and patronage that she ultimately came to be recognized as a “legitimate” artist, classed among the “Modern Primitives,” or “Masters of Naïve Painting,” whose work is characterized by a childlike simplicity, or, naïve depiction of nature, which often belies the actual skill of the artist.

In externals, Seraphine was the kind of person any society would deem underprivileged or unfortunate. Like so many who are "afflicted" with an artistic temperament, she walked a fine line between visionary creation and mental illness thus she often acted in strangely unexpected and bizarre ways.

Yet history shows her to have been a great visionary artist with a rare ability to transcribe, in her paintings, the mystical beauty of the created world. "I have to raise my eyes," she said when posing for a photograph, "because my inspiration comes from above."

1 comment:

e said...

I watched this movie at the loft with Brenae during my short stint in Tucson. I loved it. The ending is so devastating. I don't know how accurate the portrayal of Seraphine is, but it raises some troubling/inspiring implications about consciousness... that is, given her 'simpleness' and eventual 'break down,' alongside her artistic insights and ability. It was beautiful... but also tragic.