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Boy with Cat (Jean Bourgoint), 1926

It is likely that Christopher Wood painted this portrait in 1926, having come to know Jean Bourgoint and his sister Jeanne during the previous year. The Bourgoints were prominent figures in the Parisian circle of poet Jean Cocteau, and were said to be the models for his novel of sibling love and destruction Les Enfants Terribles. Wood formed a special attachment to Jeanne, with whom he had a brief and tempestuous relationship and whom he considered “the ideal female model for me”. As well as a series of drawings of both Bourgoints, he made this portrait and one of Jeanne now in the collection of the University of Essex, Colchester.

In both paintings Wood chose to include an animal whose nature is meant to reflect some aspect of the sitter, in this case a cat. Traditionally cats have symbolised fickleness and promiscuity, and the artist must surely have been aware of this. Given Jean’s liberated attitude, the spiky Siamese introduces something of the sexuality of the fey youths of Cocteau’s circle, an identification which is further signalled by the coincident blue of the eyes of sitter and pet.

In a note about the painting, Jim Ede discussed it as if it had been made in a hurry. Indeed the elongated shape of the canvas seems to have been the source of compositional problems. Had it been wider, it would have allowed the sitter to be placed at the angle devised in a preparatory drawing. As it is, the figure is squeezed close to the right edge. The whole has a casual feeling which conveys the familiarity of the sitter but did not lead to a resolved composition. The unexpected details of mouth and face which float beside the sitter’s head appear as ‘reference’ notes to help the completion of the painting after Bourgoint’s departure. This is an imaginative suggestion but it might be asked how much more beneficial this would have been than painting the details in their rightful place. It seems equally likely that these details reveal the painter’s continuing uncertainty in portraiture, and that through them he attempted to work out some of the difficulties caused by the face-on pose.

In 1951 Ede sold the painting to the singer Libby Holman, a fellow Tangier resident, whose recently deceased son it resembled. This was a typical compromise between sentiment and commerce, as there was an agreement that the painting would eventually return to Ede. It was not until 1974, just after the Edes’ departure for Edinburgh, that Boy with a Cat arrived at Kettle’s Yard.

Provenance: gift (or purchase?) from the artist to Jean Bourgoint; purchased by H. S. Ede, 1935; purchased by Libby Holman, 1951; bequeathed by Libby Holman Reynolds to Kettle’s Yard, April 1974.

Painting [CW 25]

Displayed

Oil and graphite on canvas

1480 x 585 mm

About the artist

Wood was born in Liverpool. Through extended visits to Paris between 1921 and 1924 he came into contact with the European avant-garde, meeting Picasso and Jean Cocteau in 1923. In Britain he became close friends with Ben and Winifred Nicholson, painting with them in Cumberland in 1928. That year he also met Alfred Wallis on a visit to St. Ives with Ben Nicholson, and lived near Wallis for several months. He first visited Brittany in 1929, returning in 1930. During his Parisian years Wood was introduced to opium by Cocteau. He became addicted to it and was under the drug's influence when he was killed by a train at Salisbury station.