Art and Psychosis

Isabelle SPAAK

Art and Psychosis
Séraphine de Senlis (1864-1942)

A self-taught naïve painter prodigy’s
tormented ascent to fame

by I. Spaak, France

What a singular destiny that of Séraphine Louis. Born into a needy peasant community in Picardy, France, in 1864, who could have foreseen that life’s path would lead her to the pantheon of French naïve artists between the two World Wars? Mystical, prone to visions, this fey artist praised by the surrealists painted, she said, at the behest of the Virgin Mary. Ever more mysterious enlaced flowers, leaves, and fruits thrived in the heaven bound “garden of paradise” that grew out of the ramblings of her unconscious mind. Provided for and encouraged by Wilhelm Uhde, the German art collector who discovered Picasso and Henri Rousseau, her works exhibited, Séraphine over the years drifted through visions and fancies and on into madness. Committed to a lunatic asylum in 1932, she died there 10 years later, utterly destitute, leaving to the world of art her numinous experience incarnate in paintings of the “Good Lord’s garden.”

Medicographia. 2010;32:210-216 (see French abstract on page 216)

“An extraordinary passion, a sacred fervor, a medieval ardor.” Thus it was that Wilhelm Uhde, the great German art connoisseur, described the still life paintings of his one-time domestic help, Séraphine Louis. Born into a poor family in Arsy, Picardy (France) on September 2, 1864, Séraphine was elevated by Uhde to the pantheon of French naïve artists between the two World Wars. It is thanks to Uhde, one of the first collectors to champion Le Douanier Rousseau, Picasso, and Braque, that every lover of modern art today can marvel at the fruits and flowers rising heavenward painted by his orphaned, unschooled, friendless protégée in a state of exaltation in a sordid room in Senlis (Picardy). Inspired by nature, the fields and woods where she wandered as a child, not 100 kilometers north of Paris, Séraphine’s art has something of the numinous about it. Her painting, she said, was a response to the divine, to orders from the Virgin Mary. Increasingly undermined by delirium and hallucinations, painting alone in her studio, Séraphine began a slow descent into madness. Committed to the Clermont insane asylum in Picardy in February 1932 because of “chronic psychosis,” abandoned by everyone during the German occupation, the victim of hunger and hardship, Séraphine died there a decade later at the age of 78, never again having taken up another paintbrush.

A decisive encounter

Tired of the hustle and bustle of Parisian life, wearied by the brilliant exhibition he had just devoted to Henri Rousseau, in 1912 Wilhelm Uhde rented a small apartment in Senlis as a weekend bolt-hole. Dining one evening at his neighbors’ house, Uhde spied a small painting of apples in one corner of the living room. Moved by its beauty and craftsmanship, he thought to himself that “Cézanne would have been pleased to see it.”
“Who painted this?”
I enquired. “Séraphine.”
Not knowing who this could be, I said:
“Which Séraphine?”
“Why…your housekeeper. She was thinking of selling it to us, but if you like it we’ll happily withdraw. It’s eight francs.”

The next day, when she arrived at Uhde’s house for the day’s work, Séraphine noticed her picture propped up on a chair. Not in the least surprised, she laughed.
“Sir has bought my painting? Does it please him?”
“Greatly. Do you have others?”*

Séraphine hurried home to the rue du Puits-Tiphaine, rushed up the squalid stairs to her garret, grabbed a few canvasses and hastened back. Uhde was overjoyed. The paintings were as beautiful as the first. In them he discerned what Kandinsky called the “inner necessity,” an urge arising from Séraphine’s innermost being, guileless, unstilted, plain. Painted with rare freedom, coated with a kind of varnish, Séraphine’s minutely detailed compositions of fruits, flowers, and leaves were redolent of the illuminations of the Middle Ages.

Wilhelm Uhde. Detail of a larger
photo showing a group of avantgarde
European artists who patronized
the Café du Dôme in Paris.

Photo taken in February 1910 by Will Howard.
Billy Klüver Collection. Courtesy of
Mrs Julie Martin. All rights reserved.

Uhde tried to learn more, but his artistic housekeeper was close-mouthed: her recipes based on Ripolin paints, moss, earth, holy oil, or blood were a secret. So too was her inspiration. All she revealed in her usual plainspeaking way was:
“What can I tell you, Sir? I paint as I pray. There’s no difference. I always say that I do all this for the Virgin Mary. I paint above all at night when the town is asleep. My still lifes are like gifts for the Good Lord and the Holy Mother. Necklaces of pearls and precious stones that I thread so they’ll be pleased with me. So I’ll go to Paradise.”

“Continue Séraphine,” urged Uhde. “What you’re doing is beautiful. Your fruits are so lifelike, so natural that one almost wants to eat them. And yet no, that’s not quite right. Your fruits are like jewels, the first ever to exist in this world, so pulpy, so ripe under a sun that we have never seen.”

“But the sun is God,” Séraphine replied. “These are the fruits of paradise, that’s how I see it.”

“When I set up there,” Uhde later wrote, “Little did I know that in that great stillness a human destiny was being forged. That here the hallowed heart of a servant was driven to rekindle the sublime of the Middle Ages, to create powerful works of art imbued with the Gothic spirit.”

Uhde watched over his protégée, noted her progress every weekend on arrival in Senlis, helped her with money, and marveled at every new painting. Small boards of wood gave way to canvasses, the colors became more refined, the motifs complex. Yet harbingers of mental ills were already appearing in Séraphine’s works: tentacles sprouted from pomegranates and lemons, plants threatened, eyes glowered from foliage.

Les Cassis. Oil on canvas (19×24 cm), circa 1918.

Musée d’Art et d’Archéologie de Senlis, France. © Musée d’Art et d’Archéologie
de Senlis; Christian Schryve, Compiègne; © ADAGP.

Les Grenades. Oil on wood (18.5×23 cm), circa 1920.

Musée d’Art et d’Archéologie de Senlis, France. © Musée d’Art et d’Archéologie
de Senlis; Christian Schryve, Compiègne; © ADAGP.

du paradis
Oil on canvas
(195×130 cm),
circa 1929.

Centre Pompidou –
Musée National
d’Art Moderne, en
dépôt au Musée
d’Art et d’Archéologie
de Senlis.
© Collection
Centre Pompidou,
Dist. RMN/
Jacqueline Hyde.

Photograph of Séraphine painting at her easel, taken circa 1924.

Musée d’Art et d’Archéologie de Senlis, France. Albert Benoit © Musée d’Art et d’Archéologie de Senlis; © ADAGP.

“Let me paint as I wish, Mister Uhde. I know where I must go. There is no doubt.”
“Wherever you go Séraphine will be fine. And I too will go there.”

A bond of friendship and respect was formed between them, without Séraphine ever acknowledging her protector’s openhandedness. Back in Paris, Uhde showed Séraphine’s work to his “most knowledgeable” friends, and they too were “deeply moved.”

“Make no mistake,” wrote Uhde. “What she paints is in appearance but a narrow world of flowers, leaves, and fruits. Yet this is not rustic decorative painting of the sort to be found anywhere, but one of the most fabulous and powerful works in history, which we judge fairly only if we consider the shepherdess of Arsy as the younger sister of the shepherdess of Domrémy (Jeanne d’Arc).”

A life of toil

When Uhde met Séraphine, she was already 48. Not yet old, but stooped, hands raw from scrubbing floors, cleaning windows, wringing clothes, polishing brass, dusting, scouring. A life of labor begun in childhood.

Her mother, Victorine-Adeline Julie Maillard, a domestic on a farm, a drover, oftentimes a woman of sorrow, died 1 year to the day after Séraphine’s birth. “She was distraught,” said Séraphine, with no why or wherefore. Her clockmaker father, Antoine-Frédéric Louis, repaired pocket watches at fairs, roamed the area setting clocks in homes and farms. Taken ill, “because he couldn’t do without wine” according to Séraphine, he died when she was aged 7. Raised thereafter by her older sister Victorine, who labored in the fields to make ends meet, Séraphine attended to a thousand tasks too grueling for a girl of her tender years. On the suggestion of the priest at Arsy, she attended school from the age of 10 and was a gifted but solitary pupil. To friendship with the village girls Séraphine preferred the intimacy of the woods, of walks in the fields, hours whiled away on the banks of ponds and streams, talking to flowers, poring at plants, marveling over nature’s beauties. Delicate pistils, powdery down on butterfly wings, the miracle of seeds and the slow rise of sap, the enchanting colors of a pheasant’s feather, nothing was a mystery for the young shepherdess. The small church at Arsy too cast its spell in the light of the stained-glass windows, in the bouquets of lilies at the feet of the Virgin Mary, in the singing of canticles. Homeless and lovelorn, Séraphine was enraptured.

From the age of 13, Séraphine worked as a domestic in middle- class homes, first in Paris and then Senlis. Drudge, chambermaid, occasional cook, she was tireless, but whimsical. She stood up to her mistresses, changed employer several times, and dreamed of independence while scrubbing floors. Legend has it that she was a servant in a religious school, where behind the classroom door she eavesdropped on art lessons.

In 1881, Séraphine went to work as a domestic help for the Sisters of Charity of Providence in Clermont, where she remained for the next two decades. “I stayed a long while because I was happy there and the work wasn’t strenuous.”

Les Chardons. Oil on canvas (28×34 cm), circa 1920.

Musée d’Art et d’Archéologie de Senlis, France. Albert Benoit © Musée d’Art
et d’Archéologie de Senlis; © ADAGP.

Admitted to services, Séraphine joined the sisters in prayer and meditation, was filled with hymns and songs, the odor of wax, and the smell of incense, the silence. But her quirks and slovenly dress, her bumptiousness worried the Sisters. And in the town too, Séraphine was gaining a reputation for eccentricity, with her skirts and ample black smock, blouse pinned at the neck with a small pearl brooch—her sole extravagance— her fichus, her unprepossessing countenance, her cotton bundle knotted at four corners, talking to herself and reciting prayers as she walked. Whether it was because she was tired of the bickering of the sisters or of the “crimes” she was convinced she had witnessed within the convent walls, Séraphine left in 1902 and resumed work in town as a char.

Grappes et feuilles roses. Oil on canvas (116×89.5 cm), circa

Musée d’Art et d’Archéologie de Senlis, France. © ADAGP; © RMN/Michèle

The call of the Virgin

In a side chapel in Senlis Cathedral, one day in 1905, an angel’s voice called: “Take up drawing Séraphine, paint for the glory of God. It is Mary’s express wish. I will be back with further instructions. Mary herself will appear to you and order paintings.” Enthralled, Séraphine set to work. Armed with tubes of gouache and oil paint, she withdrew to the scullery to draw bouquets and baskets, everywhere and anywhere: on paper, vases, pitchers, bottles, plates, old shelves, even her furniture. A frenzy of activity. Her awkward fingers regained the nimbleness of a young girl’s. She signed her paintings S. Louis and showed them to her employers, most of whom, whether indifferent or heartening, gave her in return a crust of bread or chunk of cheese. A paltry barter perhaps, but one that helped shorten her hours of drudgery.

Séraphine alone

Séraphine signed her canvasses even before applying the first brushstroke. Working for hours at a stretch, heady with the vapors of terebenthine, lacquers, and house paints, she spurred herself on with her own concoction—“energy wine,” a strange brew of brandy and macerated walnuts. Uhde faithfully bought everything she produced.

But on July 31, 1914, the day Jean Jaurès was assassinated in the Café du Croissant in Paris, on the eve of the Great War, Uhde abandoned his apartment and collections, his friends, and Séraphine too, and returned to Germany. Deserted, reduced to begging, Séraphine fell back on her last hope— painting—and survived in wretched conditions during the First World War in a town forsaken by its people. When the bloodshed finally ended and the people of Senlis returned, Séraphine became something of a laughingstock among the townsfolk. She was mocked for her visions, her faith, her dreams of love. The seamstresses of a local dressmaker’s even toyed with the idea of dressing up as the Holy Virgin, with a blue sash and a veil of tulle. Little did Séraphine care: “Ah, if only you knew how beautiful it is when She comes.” At night, her window open over the town’s rooftops, Séraphine painted and sang canticles. Canvasses of all sizes piled up, always with motifs of flowers, feathers, and fruits, thick materials, soft and downy like fur, pearls, mysterious plants. Solitary, touchy, thinner now, Séraphine dismayed the neighbors with her getups and ragged clothes, an old boater repainted with oils, her odd habits and obsessions. Yet a certain Charles Hallo believed in her. A friend of the painter Albert Guillaume, and President of the Society of the Friends of Art in Senlis, he invited her to exhibit work along with other local artists in the function rooms of the City Hall. On October 16, 1927, the day of the preview, as the other artists put up their dull still lifes, pretty-pretty bouquets, boar and deer hunting scenes, Séraphine hung three canvasses whose sensuality eclipsed them all.

L’Arbre de
. Oil on
cm), 1928.

Musée d’Art et
d’Archéologie de
Senlis, France.
© Musée d’Art
et d’Archéologie
de Senlis; Christian


Wilhelm Uhde, recently returned to France, read of the exhibition in a local paper and set off for Senlis. “The walls were covered with paintings, watercolors, drawings of humdrum provincial art. As I glanced at one after another, in a corner my eyes suddenly alighted on three large canvasses of startling power: a bouquet of lilacs in a black vase, a cherry tree, two laden vinestocks, one of black grapes the other of white. And while I was contemplating Séraphine’s paintings, all of a sudden I thought I heard the reawakening of the bells, long since silent.”

Despite the local press’s gibes at the town’s slightly unhinged self-taught painter, Uhde bought the three paintings. He couldn’t wait to find Séraphine. Did she still live in her miserable attic on the rue du Puits-Tiphaine? He knocked.
“Who’s there?” asked the artist, who opened her door to scarcely anyone.
“It’s me, Monsieur Uhde.” The door inched open.
“Monsieur is back?” said Séraphine.
Without wasting a moment, she showed him her work.
“Look Monsieur Uhde, here’s the Good Lord’s garden, see all the flowers that I have grown there.”

But years of solitude and pauperism had transformed Séraphine. She seemed to be struggling with a double personality. On the one hand modest—“It’s terribly difficult. I’m old and a beginner who hardly knows anything”; on the other, paranoid and megalomaniac, signing her canvasses “Séraphine Louis, second to none.”

Believing herself persecuted by voices, the old woman worked barricaded in her room, windows and doors fastened by 40 or more padlocks. A small sign at the bottom of the stairs warned would-be visitors: “Mademoiselle Séraphine sees no one.” What did she fear? That someone would steal her formulas, take her mixtures, those cryptic blends of mud and moss, holy oil and housepaint, blood? Uhde was doubly compassionate. He admired her work, found everything she asked for—stretcher bars, colors, varnishes—sent from Paris by express. The canvasses grew in size as the voices multiplied inside Séraphine’s head. She imagined a fiancé back from the war. Spendthrift, she dreamt of buying a town house and hoarded knick-knacks for her future wedding home. Once humble, Séraphine became arrogant, no longer wished to hear of other artists frequented by her patron. Her canvasses changed, she painted kneeling in a state of uncontrollable exaltation. Inner demons haunted her. Spiteful eyes stared from bouquets, unsettling insects lurked among the leaves.

Abandoned by one and all

In 1930, reeling from the economic crisis, the art market collapsed. Uhde pared expenses and warned Séraphine that he could no longer underwrite her. He distanced himself, and feeling abandoned she fell into decline. On a glacial January day in 1932, she put away her canvasses, packed her treasures, and dumped the bundles at the door of the Senlis police station. Threats and shouts. People wished her ill, she yelled at the gendarmes as they tried in vain to calm her.

“This legendary figure of Senlis,” the local paper reported, “suffering from mental deficiency, will doubtless be sent to an old people’s home where good care will be taken of her. For this poor unfortunate has lost her way and no longer knows how to behave or to procure even the bare necessities.”

Committed to the Clermont lunatic asylum, Séraphine was buried alive among the mad, half-starved and ravaged by the breast cancer that would kill her a decade later. For a while, a mysterious benefactor paid Séraphine a small stipend in an attempt to improve her everyday fare. Was this a final gesture by Wilhelm Uhde?