I’m not a
I’m a taxidermist
on the way.”
So wrote Jacques Henri Lartigue, one of the most celebrated and prolific photographers of the twentieth century. One of those “things” that life put in his path happened in March of 1930, when Lartigue met a Romanian model, Renee Perle, at Doeillet. The exquisitely turned-out beauty quickly became his muse, lover and friend and for the next two years, the photographer set about creating an indelible icon in a relationship played against the backdrop of the quintessentially breezy atmosphere of the leisured class: Paris, Cannes, Juan-les-Pins, and Biarritz.
Hot to the touch and cool on the eyes, Lartigue christened her an “angel.” “Around her, I see a halo of magic,” he wrote. In an earlier post on the famed muse, Anatomie de l’élégance, Lartigue recorded her physical perfection in his diary, describing her thus:
“She is beautiful.
“The small mouth
full painted lips!
her fur coat
comes a warmth
Photographer and muse shared a kind of symbiotic exchange with she reveling in the eye of his lens and he immortalizing her on film, creating a legend that would endure far longer then her life or her romance with Lartigue. Beyond that brief span of time, little to nothing is known about her, which only heightens the mystique.
What intrigues and captivates me most about Lartigue, beyond his extraordinary talent, or his depiction of a world like that of the 18th-century painter Fragonard–enchanting and frivolous, with life’s disappointments and sorrow well out of frame, was the magical narrative of the arc of his life that encapsulated goes something like this:
In his early years, he reveled in high society and luxury until the decline of his family’s fortune forced him to search for other sources of income. Despite his fall from privilege, he continued to write, photograph and record mesmerizing, vibrant and exciting images of the times, places and people who inhabited his world, all the while supporting himself and his family as a complete unknown; a mediocre, and most would say, “dreadfully inferior” painter.
In what can only be described as one of the greatest reversals of fortune in human history, Lartigue and his third wife, Florette, embarked on a cargo ship to Los Angeles in the early 1960’s. In a roundabout way, they stopped on the East Coast and meet Charles Rado of the Rapho Agency, who in turn, introduced them to the Museum of Modern Art’s head of the photography department, John Szwarkoski.
The year is 1963 and Lartigue is sixty-nine years old when he first presents a selection of his many photographs taken throughout his life to the young curator. That same year there is a photo spread of his work in the famous Life Magazine issue which commemorates the death of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and which is publicized all over the world. Overnight, the aging, impoverished and unheard of Lartigue becomes one of the renowned photographers of the twentieth century. The patient and long suffering would murmur in unison that ‘Good things come to those who wait.’ Maybe they do, after all.
Twenty-two years after being ‘discovered,’ Lartigue left this earth on September 12th 1986, in Nice, at the amply-lived age of 92, leaving behind more than one-hundred-thousand photographs, seven-thousand diary pages and fifteen-hundred paintings. A remarkable body of work for a man who never stopped discovering, documenting and recording a life as it was lived.
Of course, among that legacy were the pictures of Renee Perle with her wide-brimmed hats and sleekly tilted berets, the stacked bangles lining her arms, the billowy pants, the perfectly-coiffed finger waves and those nails, those infallibly polished nails, rendering her the status and chic of a true style icon, one that endures to this day.
The following magazine spread shot by Alexi Lubomirski for German Vogue in March 2009, with model Georgina Stojiljkovic is as timeless today as it was when Lartigue and his angel roamed the beaches and bistros of the cote d’azur.