This month's artist is Louise Bourgeois. Born on Christmas day 1911 in Paris...
In 1914, WWI broke out and German tanks rolled into France. Louise's father, Louis, enlisted in the French army and her mother moved Louise, her older sister Henriette, and baby brother Pierre out of danger to Aubusson. At 3 years old, Louise understood little about politics or war. She only knew that as she lay in bed at night, she heard through her bedroom window the cries of wounded soldiers passing by on trains from the battle front. The sounds mingled with the smell of the town's slaughterhouse across the street.
After the war, the Bourgeois family bought a house with gardens and began a tapestry business employing 25 women. Louis would collect worn, tattered tapestries for the workshop women to repair and resell. The rhythm of the business punctuated Louise's daily life. She played by the river where the laundry workers washed tapestries. She saw the pots of dye bubbling on the gas stove in the kitchen, skeins of dyed wool hanging in the garden to dry. She watched the seamstresses spread torn fabric out, thread needles with yarn, and begin stitching and reweaving them back to their original glory.
Louise worked hard at home and school, always seeking her parents' approval.
Louise's parents, although they lived a comfortable life, were entrepreneurs, not French aristocrats. They combined their individual talents to keep their tapestry business going. One day a draftsman, whose special job it was to fill in the missing areas of the tapestry, did not show up. Josephine said to her 10 year old daughter, since you make drawings all the time, why don't you help me make a drawing on this tapestry, so we can go on? Since the tapestries were torn at the bottom from dragging on the floor, the feet on the figures were often missing. Cautiously Louise made a sketch. To her relielf, everyone though her feet were wonderful.
There was a dark side of Louise's father Louis; he had quite a temper and relentlessly teased Louise. One night for entertainment, her father peeled a tangerine with a knife, cutting from it a small figure he claimed was a portrait of Louise––her head, a pair of wings or huge ears, two breasts, legs, and feet. "But wait," he said, as the pith of the orange came out with a long twirl between its legs. "Look at this splendid thing. Louise has nothing down there. It can't be my daughter after all! Louise of course was humiliated. She often felt ashamed not to be the boy he always wanted. [link to video of Louise demonstrating this party trick]
When Louise was 11, her father hired a young, blonde Englishwoman named Sadie Gordon to take care of the children and teach them to speak English. It was an open secret that Sadie eventually became Louis Bourgeois's mistress. She lived with the family for 10 years. Louise remembers going for drives in the family sedan, her father and Sadie in the front and she and her mother in the back seat.
Louise's mother Joséphine seemed to accept Sadie as she accepted most of her husband's extravagant behavior. Joséphine was capable, hardworking and artistic. She created special dyes she brewed from old herbal recipes that gave the tapestries historical accuracy. Soft rose, moss green, dusky blue––these colors found their way into Louise's art. Josephine was a tough employer, "she had a lot of women working for her and she had to be forceful."
Josephine contracted the Spanish flu right after the War. Louise stopped going to school in order to care for her mother. "To please my father, I took care of my mother. We treated the tapestries and repaired them. And by extension I treated my mother and tried to repair her. I spent my time repairing things." Joséphine survived but it left her with chronic lung problems. She later died on September 14, 1932, when Louise was 21.
I always like unfinished paintings but I'm a picker and I just can't stop messing with a painting. But today, this one, I think I'm going to leave it right here...it's finished (I think.)