Balthusz Klossowski de Rola, known as Balthus, was born 29 February 1908 in Paris. He is the second son of painter and art historian, Erich Klossowski (1875-1946), and Else Dorothea Spiro (1886-1969), called Baladine.
His older brother is the writer and artist Pierre Klossowski (1905-2001).

Complete biography

Prologue: Family and Social Background

Balthus’s parents-to-be met in the art world of Breslau; there, Else (or Elsa) was a student at the art school run by her brother, Eugen, and Erich Klossowski was a young art historian, founder of a journal, and painter in his spare time.
Else (known as Mouky), the youngest of the Spiro children, had already lost her parents, who were practicing Jews, when she married Erich Klossowski in London on October 8, 1904. Erich’s family was Polish Catholic on his father’s side, but his father, Victor, had become a naturalized Prussian and converted to Protestantism in order to pursue a career as a magistrate. This led him to Bunzlau and later Breslau (both then part of the German Empire), where he died in 1895. Erich’s mother, Lisbeth, born Doerk de Freval, was not consulted or even informed about Erich’s choice of a bride. A deliberate slap in the face to their respective milieus, this union of two bohemian artists was a matter of love and single-minded devotion to the arts.
While Balthus was acquainted with his paternal grandmother, his father’s family played a less important role in his life than his mother’s, which included several artistic couples. Eugen Spiro—Else’s brother and Balthus’s uncle—enjoyed a successful painting career in Berlin, and later in New York, while their sister, Gina, also married a painter, Emil Trebicky. The Spiros and the Trebickys successively put up the Klossowskis in Berlin for long periods during and after World War I.
Before their marriage, Erich and Else had lived together in Paris. He moved there in 1902, and she joined him two years later. They mixed with the artists and intellectuals who frequented the Café du Dôme, the meeting point for Montparnasse’s German emigrants—Julius Meier-Graefe, Wilhelm Uhde, Harry Graf Kessler, Karl Hofer, and others—as well as a Swiss contingent including the writer Charles-Ferdinand Ramuz, the painter René Auberjonois, and the collector Otto Ackermann, Balthus’s future godfather. Among their friends were also French painters, notably Pierre Bonnard. Erich and Else exhibited their work regularly in Paris at the Salon des Indépendants, and later in Germany at the Berlin Secession and Alfred Flechtheim’s gallery. Erich also wrote a number of books, including monographs on Honoré Daumier and the Montmartre painters.

Childhood: Paris, Berlin, and Switzerland (1908–25)

Balthasar Klossowski was born in Paris on February 29, 1908. He was called Baltus, or Baltusz, already as a child, and by 1929 at the latest he signed his name Balthus. He had a brother, Pierre, who was three years his senior, and the pair grew up in the artistic milieu mentioned above. By jus soli (birthright citizenship) they were French, but when war broke out in 1914 they, not yet ten years old, had to leave with their parents, who were expelled as German nationals. After a brief stay in Zurich, the Klossowskis moved to Berlin, where they lived with their Uncle Eugen and his family, and Erich worked as a set designer for the great playwright and theater director Victor Barnowsky. By 1917 the Klossowskis were back in Switzerland, where they lived in Bern, Geneva, and, briefly, Beatenberg, in the canton of Bern, where Balthus would often return in later life. His parents continued to mix with German and French artists passing through Switzerland, as well as with local figures like the conductor Ernest Ansermet, who put them up for a time, and the painter René Auberjonois. After the war, Erich worked increasingly in Munich as a set designer; for all practical purposes, the couple had now separated, although they never divorced and remained on friendly terms for the rest of their lives. In 1920 Else became “Merline,” muse and companion of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. Largely conducted by letter, their relationship was otherwise made up of brief periods together until Rilke’s death, in 1926. The children lived with their mother in Geneva, but also made long sojourns with their father in Munich and the family in Berlin. Rilke recommended the Klossowskis to his contacts in Paris—among them André Gide, who took Pierre under his wing—and urged Balthus to publish his first series of drawings, Mitsou: Quarante images (Mitsou: Forty Images). When it appeared with a preface by Rilke in 1921, Balthus was thirteen. At this time and on into his teens, Balthus found other artistic mentors in the form of Lotte Pritzel in Munich, who taught him sculpture and doll-making, and Margrit Bay in Beatenberg. In 1923 he discovered England and a culture that was to leave an enduring mark on him, especially through its literature and writers like Lord Byron, Emily Brontë, and Lewis Carroll. The following year he began visiting France, rediscovered Paris, was counseled by Bonnard, and made copies in the Louvre. Most importantly, though, in Bern he met Antoinette, the younger sister of his friend Robert de Watteville. Balthus was sixteen, Antoinette was twelve.

Youth—Early Successes—Love Letters (1926–36)

In 1926, through the good offices of his Zurich art patron Jean Strohl, the eighteen-year-old Balthus was able to spend several months in Tuscany absorbing the art of the Italian Renaissance and Piero della Francesca in particular. A year later he received his first public commission, the frescoes for the church in Beatenberg, which have since been covered over. He was now often in Paris and Berlin—and in Zurich, where in September 1929 he exhibited for the first time, with two other artists, at Galerie Forter. In 1930 he fell in love with Antoinette and wrote to her often. Aged twenty-three, he spent 1931 doing his military service with the French army in Morocco.
In 1932 he began dividing his time between Paris and Bern; in the Historisches Museum Bern he made copies of works by the minor Swiss master Josef Reinhard. In 1933 he rented his first large studio in Paris, close to Eugène Delacroix’s on rue de Furstemberg, and found kindred spirits in André Derain, Alberto Giacometti, Antonin Artaud, and Pierre Jean Jouve. A family friend, the German art critic and dealer Wilhelm Uhde, introduced Balthus to the gallerist Pierre Loeb, who gave him his first solo show in April 1934, bringing a succès de scandale, a few favorable reviews, and zero sales. The suicide attempt that followed was, however, essentially that of a spurned lover: Antoinette was promised to someone else. To earn a living, Balthus took on portrait commissions and designed stage sets: first, for his father’s friend Barnowsky, who was directing Shakespeare’s Comme il vous plaira (As You Like It) in Paris, then for Artaud and his play Les Cenci. This helped solidify his budding reputation among a certain Parisian elite—he was in frequent contact with aristocratic patrons like Vicomtesse Marie-Laure de Noailles and Marguerite Caetani, Princess of Bassiano—and a number of society portraits made him more comfortable financially. Early in March 1936 he exhibited for the first time in London: drawings illustrating Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights, some of which had been published in 1935 in the journal Minotaure.

Marriage and Children (1937–46)

On April 2, 1937, Balthus married Antoinette de Watteville in Bern and the couple set up house in Paris. Balthus’s biggest painting to date, La Rue, was bought by the American connoisseur and patron James Thrall Soby. The painter was developing closer relationships with the gallerists Pierre Colle in Paris and Pierre Matisse in New York. It was at Colle’s gallery that Pablo Picasso later (probably in 1941) acquired the large painting Les Enfants Blanchard; Matisse organized Balthus’s first American exhibition in March 1938 and sold the double portrait Joan Miró et sa fille Dolorès to the Museum of Modern Art. Matisse showed his work again in March 1939. When war broke out, Balthus was called up but returned to Paris in December. The following year, 1940, he was discharged for health reasons and he and Antoinette moved to Champrovent in Savoie. Balthus’s parents had acquired French nationality just before the war, and their German background caused no problems; while Erich was settled in Sanary-sur-Mer, on the south coast of France, however, Baladine—the name Else had been using as an artist since the 1920s—had to flee Paris because of her Jewish origins and went into hiding in the Département Gironde in Southwest France.
In 1942 Balthus and Antoinette moved to Fribourg, Switzerland, where their first son, Stanislas, was born. In 1943 the Galerie Moos in Geneva mounted his first solo exhibition in Switzerland. The couple’s second son, Thadée, was born in Bern in 1944, and in 1945 the family moved into the Villa Diodati in Cologny, just outside Geneva, where Balthus renewed his acquaintance with Giacometti and other artists he had mixed with in Paris before the war. He also got to know the publisher Albert Skira and the writer André Malraux. With the end of the war cultural life began to pick up again: in 1946, with the backing of the French embassy, Balthus organized an exhibition of French painting in Bern and included one of his own pictures; and in November of that year Henriette Gomès, formerly Pierre Loeb’s assistant, curated Balthus’s second major Paris exhibition at the Galerie des Beaux-Arts, made available by its proprietor, Georges Wildenstein. Balthus took up his Parisian existence again, but now without his family, which stayed in Switzerland. In a mode similar to that of Balthus’s parents, he and Antoinette remained on good terms and got together, with the children, at holiday time. They first divorced some twenty years later.

Solitude in Paris (1947–52)

Toward the end of 1947 Balthus began a discreet affair with Georges Bataille’s daughter Laurence, then aged seventeen and living with her mother, Sylvia Bataille, and the latter’s new companion, Jacques Lacan. At the time, Balthus’s reputation was on the rise, especially in the theater, with costumes and sets for Camus’s L’Etat de siège at the Théâtre Marigny in 1948, Boris Kochno’s ballet Le Peintre et son Modèle at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in 1949, Mozart’s Così fan tutte at the Aix-en-Provence Festival in 1950, and Ugo Betti’s L’Ile des chèvres at the Théâtre des Noctambules in 1953. Laurence, whose ambition was an acting career, played in this latter production. After solo exhibitions in Paris (Pierre Colle, 1948) and New York (Pierre Matisse, 1949), Balthus underwent a major personal crisis in the wake of his father’s death, in 1949. In January 1952 the Lefevre Gallery organized his first solo exhibition in London.

A Chateau in the Country: Chassy (1953–61)

During the summer of 1952 Balthus found the Château de Chassy for rent in the Morvan, in Burgundy, and moved in the following spring. This was made financially possible by his gallerists Henriette Gomès and Pierre Matisse, and a group of collectors including Maurice Rheims, Alix de Rothschild, and Claude Hersent, who ensured him a regular income in return for his latest pictures, which they distributed among themselves. The chateau was considerably rundown, and Balthus led a simple life amid a process of continuous refurbishment. For company he had the poet Léna Leclercq, who was introduced to him by Giacometti; she helped him move in and kept an eye on things when he was away in Paris. She stayed on until the spring of 1955. In the meantime, Balthus had begun an affair with his niece by marriage, Frédérique Tison, stepdaughter of his brother Pierre. It was during this period, and at Chassy, that he finished Passage du Commerce-Saint-André, a work that immortalized the street corner in the Cour de Rohan in Paris, where he retained the studio and apartment he had had since 1935 as his pied-à-terre.
In March 1956 Henriette Gomès mounted a new Balthus exhibition in Paris, and in December he had his first solo show in a museum, at the Museum of Modern Art, in New York. He was now forty-eight, things were looking up financially, and his reputation had gone international: Life magazine ran an article about him in January 1957, with photographs taken at Chassy by the much-respected Loomis Dean. The 1950s closed with his first Italian gallery shows—Rome and Turin—in April and May respectively, and in 1960 a project for a French adaptation of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar at the Théâtre de l’Odéon in Paris. Balthus had now begun to cultivate an aura of mystery around his life and refused to include biographical details in his exhibition catalogues.

A Palais in the city: Villa Medici (1961–77)

Late in 1960, André Malraux—France’s new Minister of Culture and a friend of Balthus’s since 1946—offered him the post of director at the Académie de France à Rome in the Villa Medici. The appointment caused quite a stir—the nominee was not a member of the Institut de France!—but Balthus took up his duties in August 1961, launching a radical fifteen-year revamp of the historic building, from its frescoes to its furnishings and gardens. In specially renovated rooms he presented exhibitions that revealed his influences and friendships: August Rodin (1967), Gustave Courbet (1969), Giacometti (1970), Bonnard (1971), and Derain (1976). Caught up in his official functions and the business of restoration, he painted little, but was celebrated on the international museum scene: in Paris (Musée des Arts Décoratifs, 1966); the United States, with an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art that subsequently traveled to six other American cities (1966–67); London (Tate Gallery, 1968); and Marseille (Musée Cantini, 1973). He mixed with Italian artists from every sphere, among them Federico Fellini and Riccardo Muti, and welcomed such famous friends from his Paris years as Francis Bacon to Rome.
Things changed emotionally in 1962, when Balthus met Setsuko Ideta in Japan. She was nineteen and followed him to Rome; in 1966 he divorced Antoinette in order to marry Setsuko the following year. Together they had two children: Fumio (b. 1968), who lived only to the age of two, and Harumi (b. 1973). Baladine, Balthus’s mother, died in September 1969. In 1970 he bought the Castello di Montecalvello, near Viterbo, north of Rome.

Return to the Swiss Mountains: Rossinière (1977–2001)
On a visit to Switzerland once his term of office at the Villa Medici was up, Balthus fell in love with an eighteenth-century hotel at Rossinière, between Gruyère and Gstaad. He bought the “Grand Chalet,” and, as he had done with all his residences, set about restoring it to all its former glory.
The last years of his life were marked by a receptiveness to the press, in complete contrast to the cult of mystery he had previously advanced. He gave interviews—sometimes at the instigation of famous artist friends like David Bowie and Richard Gere—and allowed himself to be photographed and filmed. He worked at Rossinière during his final years; failing physical strength prompted him to seek new ways of studying his models before painting them, and polaroid photographs came to take the place of drawing.
Meanwhile, his international fame continued to grow. When his work was shown at the Venice Biennale in 1980, the venue was not a national pavilion but a palace: La Scuola Grande di San Giovanni Evangelista. In 1991 he was awarded the Praemium Imperiale, Japan’s highest distinction and the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for Art. Exhibition followed exhibition: Chicago (Museum of Contemporary Art, 1980), Paris (Centre Pompidou 1983–84), New York (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1984), Rome (Villa Medici, 1990), Lausanne (Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts, 1993), Beijing, Hong Kong, and Taipei (1995), and Madrid (1996).
Balthus died on February 18, 2001. Not long afterward, his most significant retrospective followed, at the Palazzo Grassi, in Venice (September 2001–January 2002). In 2017 the foundation he had created to manage his estate became the Balthus Archive, which will enter the Musée Cantonal des Beaux-Arts (MCBA) in Lausanne in 2019.