This is one of the most stunning and sophisticated nudes that Christopher Wood ever produced. It was painted in Paris during a period of creative energy in which Wood made great strides in the consolidation of his artistic vision and in his engagement with the modern movement. And it is evidence of the creativity which flowed from his first female love, Jeanne Bourgoint, a beautiful young Parisienne in the orbit of Jean Cocteau. Behind it all lurk the bright colours and dark shadows of opium, the drug that would eventually lead to Wood’s untimely death.
Through his friend and lover the socialite Tony Gandarillas, Wood was introduced to all of the most significant creative personalities of the Paris avant-garde, including Pablo Picasso, Serge Diaghilev and Jean Cocteau. Wood was immediately impressed by Cocteau, whom he appears to have met for the first time at Villefranche in October 1924. Wood wrote excitedly to his mother: 'we have been staying here with Jean Cocteau, the poet … He is only 35 but he has written many very beautiful things. He is a wonderful draftsman [sic] also, in fact there is nothing he doesn’t know … He will see only very few people so I have been very lucky to have his time. I think I have made a great friend of him … He and Picasso … are the two outstanding genii of this period, perhaps the only two, certainly in the world of art' (C. Wood, quoted in R. Ingleby, Christopher Wood: An English Painter, London, 1995, p. 95).
Cocteau was an enthusiastic devotee of both the pleasures and the creative stimulus of opium, although he would be forced to face repeated spells in clinics trying to free himself of the drug. Wood had already used it, but on his return to Paris, becoming part of Cocteau’s circle, it began to play a far more significant part in his life. Through Cocteau, in 1926, Wood came to meet the brother and sister Jean and Jeanne Bourgoint (who were not twins as was often assumed, and has been written since). The tall, athletic, broad-shouldered Jean (1905-66) had become Cocteau’s lover, reputedly becoming addicted to opium himself from the smoke in Cocteau’s first kiss, and his sister too used the drug. The American novelist Glenway Westcott (1901-87), who knew them, recalled that Jean and Jeanne ‘lived in a small house and shared the same cluttered double room, beds side by side, and they quarrelled and had strange hobbies and games’ (G. Westcott, quoted in J. Rosco, Glenway Westcott Personally: A Biography, Wisconsin, 2002, p. 35). They had an oddly self-absorbed relationship and were rumoured by some contemporaries to be incestuous lovers, although this was probably mere malicious gossip. Cocteau used them as the inspiration for Les Enfants Terribles (1929), his story of obsessive, self-destructive twins who end by killing themselves. Jeanne (d.1929) was an occasional model for the couturier Madeleine Vionnet, but neither of the Bourgoints had meaningful employment. By early July 1926 Wood was infatuated with Jeanne, writing to her ‘My adorable little hare … my dear little darling … my little sweetheart’ (C. Wood, quoted in R. Ingleby, Christopher Wood: An English Painter, London, 1995, p.137). Evidently their relationship was sexual, a significant development for Wood who had previously only had sexual relationships with men, principally his long-term partner Gandarillas. This new relationship perhaps understandably appears to have caused friction with Gandarillas, who disliked Jeanne intensely. He himself had a wife and three children and made no secret of his devotion to Wood, existing within an almost exclusively homosexual set. When Wood and Gandarillas lost their Passy apartment they moved together back to London; there appears no question of Wood wanting to remain with Jeanne, evidence of the strength of his attachment to Gandarillas. Wood wrote to her from London declaring his love but also effectively giving her the brush off: 'Little Jeanne I love you terribly, I know because I have become so firm in my mind about you. I do not hesitate to tell you that you are the only woman for me, but despite my great love for you I do not want you to spoil your life in any way because of me … I am incapable at the moment of helping you in a practical way, you understand. I must be here [in London with Gandarillas] a great deal to arrange what is called a pleasant life' (15 July 1926, C. Wood, quoted R. Ingleby, Christopher Wood: An English Painter, London, 1995, p. 137).
The flowering of Wood’s sexual experimentation with Jeanne engendered a sharp desire to paint the female nude. Barring art school drawings the subject is all but absent from his previous work, but in 1926, the year he began his affair with Jeanne, he painted at least nine canvases. He wrote to her: 'I need a woman’s body for my nudes and I think always of yours, so perfect and firm - I adore you'
(letter to Jeanne Bourgoint 1926; quoted in R. Ingleby, Christopher Wood: An English Painter, London, 1995, p. 138).
The identity of the sitter in Reclining Nude with Flowers remains uncertain. A recent plaque on the frame identifies her as Jeanne Bourgoint, an identification that has often been attached to Wood’s various female sitters. Jeanne appears in a pair of drawings made by Wood in 1925-26 in which she has a close cut male hairstyle with a parting, and a somewhat squarer face and quite boyish features. She was described by most contemporaries as tomboyish or elfin, which appears not to match the present canvas although Jeanne’s reported fair hair would match. However, it is difficult to be certain. There is some similarity - but also dissimilarities - between the sitter of Young Girl (1928) and that of Reclining Nude with Flowers - they share a similar hair colouring and green eyes. In one sense all of Wood’s nudes of 1926 are projections of his feelings for Jeanne and his sexual exploration.
By the time Wood returned to Paris in January 1927 he had tired of Jeanne and declared her tiresome. Her life was to end tragically. Cocteau published Les Enfants Terribles in 1929 to great acclaim. Among those in his circle there was widespread identification of the central characters as Jean and Jeanne, although they themselves, reading the novel, did not make that connection. On Christmas Eve 1929 Jeanne took an overdose of barbiturates. Cocteau was quickly accused - unjustly - of having caused the tragedy, by his representation of Jeanne and the suicide in the novel of the main character. Jean - by this time no longer Cocteau’s lover - was inconsolable. Already involved with Catholic mysticism, he eventually became a monk.
Wood’s Reclining Nude with Flowers displays a new-found technical sophistication and confidence. The face is drawn exquisitely, and so too the flow of the woman’s outline. There is no real background, or setting but instead a jug of flowers almost pop up in the right hand corner to anchor the figure and give it some context. The technique in the painting is a refinement of Wood’s process. He has drawn carefully onto the primed canvas in pure outline and then in areas such as the face and flowers floated patches of paint in between, to allow both outline and canvas to show through. In this there is a satisfying connection to the technique used in the work of Wood’s friend Winifred Nicholson and, to a slightly lesser degree, in that of her husband, Ben Nicholson. Wood has combed the paint in a repeated pattern in areas that would otherwise all be flat colour, in the background and on the girl’s thighs, to articulate the surface and bring it vivacity and variation.
Wood’s modernist credentials were made evident. The closest connection to modern painting was to the nudes of Modigliani, most specifically to his Reclining Nude (1917-18) and to other related works. This debt was also present in other paintings made by Wood - in his adventurous Nude with its flecked painting technique and in The Bather (see lot 18).
In Reclining Nude with Flowers Wood also made reference to the ancestry of modern art, to Manet’s Olympia (1864) which had been acquired for the French state in 1890 at Monet’s pressing amid great controversy, and which Wood would have been able to see in the Musée du Luxembourg. But the positioning of the hands behind the model’s head - lending the figure a languorous, somewhat sensual character - are evidently derived from Goya’s La Maja Desnuda (c.1797-1800), along with the direct gaze which in Wood’s painting both challenges our viewing and inexorably draws us in.
We are very grateful to Robert Upstone for preparing this catalogue entry. Robert Upstone is the author of the forthcoming catalogue raisonné of Christopher Wood.