D escribed by the art historian Claude Roy as “one of the most somber paintings of his oeuvre, somber in all senses of the word”, Le Gottéron is an extraordinary landscape depicting the rocky gorge near Fribourg, where Balthus and his family took refuge during the second half of the war. Recalling the silvery views of Toledo by El Greco (see fig. 1) and the Bibémus quarry paintings of Cézanne (see fig. 2), the present work shows Balthus’ tendency to flatten space, both through color and design, with the composition divided into horizontal bands and geometric patterns in a manner typical of his landscapes of the 1930s and 1940s.

Left: Fig. 1 El Greco, View of Toledo, 1596-1600, oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Right: Fig. 2 Paul Cézanne, La Carrière de Bibémus, circa 1895, oil on canvas, Museum Folkwang, Essen

There are no overt “wartime” pictures in Balthus’ oeuvre, yet the dark palette and lack of open sky in Le Gottéron hints at the prevailing mood of foreboding. Commenting on the present work’s vertical format, Mieke Bal writes: “Endless heights to climb, and when you reach the summit, there is more darkness to be found.” (Mieke Bal, Balthus, Works and Interview, 2008, p.134). Balthus had depicted a rocky Swiss vista in his monumental The Mountain (see fig. 3), but while the sunlit tone of open uplands is ostensibly different in his pre-war masterpiece the sense of isolation is remarkably similar: a hiking party enjoys the landscape together, yet the figures are strangely separated from one another, a persistent characteristic of Balthus’s work. Barely discernible in the lower register of Le Gottéron, the solitary figure carrying a tree trunk provides this hallmark sense of isolation as well as a sense of scale.

Fig. 3 Balthus, The Mountain, 1936-37, oil on canvas, The Metropolitan Museum of Art,New York