Séraphine Louis was a dowdy French woman who walked with an earnest gait and cleaned houses for rude aristocrats in the village of Senlis. She communed with nature by day and painted beautifully by candlelight while singing hymns at night. She made her own paint and her own wine, and her talent was on par with Van Gogh's, but she was treated poorly by her landlady-employer and nearly everyone else she encountered.
With a lack of confidence and a strong religious faith, Séraphine was humble and rarely shared her paintings, until a chance meeting with German collector, Wilhelm Uhde, who immediately recognized her talent. When he asked why she worked as a maid when she had "gold in her hands," Séraphine replied with a quote from St. Teresa of Avila, "Be ardent in your work, and you will find God in your cooking pots."
During the first World War, Uhde was forced to flee Senlis in a hurry and he lost contact with Séraphine for years. Despite the absence of her number one fan, she became even more dedicated to painting, taking on fewer cleaning jobs as he'd advised. She struggled to make a living as a full-time artist until Uhde returned to become her patron. She enjoyed a brief period of success before tragically descending into madness. Her tortured life had caught up with her and once institutionalized, personal art therapy was no longer an option.
Martin Provost's film about the artist, Séraphine, won seven Césars (French Oscars) this year, including Best Picture and Best Actress for its star, Yolande Moreau. It is a studied, quiet film, and although not a documentary, it satisfied my desire for a documentary-style portrait of the artist. The award-winning cinematography is painterly in itself, and the film should be given the respect of your undivided attention. As critic Andrew O'Heher states in the film's press release, "If you turn off all that electronic crap in your pockets and sit still for it, Séraphine will be one of the year's most memorable movie-going experiences."
Séraphine's story could be compared to that of American artist Henry Darger, a janitor with enormous artistic talent who remained largely undiscovered until after his death. Both artists achieved posthumous fame and were thought to suffer from mental illness. What's remarkable about them -- whether labeled Naive (Séraphine) or Outsider (Darger) artists -- is their natural dedication to art for art's sake, and their initial lack of interest in any kind of fame or glory. Both stories also lend support to the argument that some of the best artwork is made by the most tragic characters.
Séraphine is now playing at the Clay Theatre (San Francisco) Shattuck Cinemas (Berkeley) Camera 3 (San Jose) and Smith Rafael Film Center (San Rafael).