Friday, November 5, 2010

Lesbian Images by Suzanne Ballivet

From Gamiani, ou deux nuits d'excès

Today we look at two sets of illustrations by the French artist Suzanne Ballivet. She illustrated many books but these come from her work for two erotic works Gamiani, ou deux nuits d'excès and Les Chanson de Bilitis.  The Gamiani illustrations are in red chalk the earlier Bilitis ones are the subtly coloured ones.

From Les Chanson de Bilitis

Not very many women produce erotic art; in fact Triple P can only think of a handful.  Partly this may be because women's erotic sense is more attuned to the literary but mostly, we suspect, women artists of any kind have always struggled for recognition in a creative world which, until comparatively recently, tended to be run by large male dominated art institutions. 

Partly it may be to dowith the expectations of what was appropriately feminine. Even a fine artist like Mary Cassatt felt that she had to confine herself to subjects appropriate to a woman, such as children and other domestic scenes.

So the work of Suzanne Ballivet is rare and unusual.  Today we are just going to look at some of her lesbian themed work as that will be our focus on this site for the next week or so.  In due course we will return to her other works featuring couples of the opposite sex.

She was born in the 7eme arrondissement of Paris, the daughter of a photographer from Montpellier in 1904.  She attended the Beaux Arts de Montpellier in 1922 and then began to exhibit her work in drawing shows.  She married in 1925 and had a son, Michel, in 1927. 

In 1941 she got divorced and moved to Paris but them moved to Nice in 1943 where she illustrated her first book; an edition of Pierre Louÿs  book Les Chanson de Bilitis (1894). 

This is a collection of erotic poems which purport to be about the life of Bilitis, a courtesan who is a contemporary of Sappho. 

Louÿs claimed that the poems had been found on the walls of a tomb in Cyprus but in fact they were virtually all (he re-uses some lines from Sappho herself) his creation. 

At the time many people were convinced that the poems were, indeed, the long-lost work of a classical poetess.  Debussy set some of them to music.  It would become a very popular book with lesbian readers as the second part of the book Elegies focuses very much on lesbian love.

Other illustrations for books followed including  "Les Aventures du Roi Pausole" in 1945. She returned to Paris in 1946 after the end of World War 2 and produced illustrations for many more books including: Longus's "Daphnis et Chloe" (1946), Anatole France's "Thais" (1948), Colette's "Claudine à l'école" (1950) and "Oeuvres" (1962) by Marcel Pagnol.

Most of her erotic works date from the nineteen fifties.  She produced a series of illustrations in red chalk for the novel Gamiani, ou deux nuits d'excès (1833) which, whilst anonymous is believed to have been written by Alfred de Musset. 

The lesbian heroine, Countess Gamiani, who is first seen disporting in her bed with a young girl called, appropriately, Fanny, is believed to have been based on de Musset's lover George Sand.  later they are joined by a man and spend the time describing sexual adventures from their past.

Her earlier illustrations for Bilitis are softly feminine. Her sweet-faced, smooth-pussied women are presented in poses that show them entwined with each other in a lovely entanglement of soft limbs.

Her later pictures for Gamiani are less stylised  and more explicit.  The women are drawn in the period of the book as shown by their hair styles and the background furniture and decor.  Unlike the the gentle suggestion of the Bilitis illustrations here we have visible labia being probed by  fingers and tongues.

At the age of 64 she remarried and moved to the west of Paris. Later in her life she suffered from articular rheumatism which stopped her drawing and painting. She died at St. Aunès Herault, on June 15, 1985 at the age of eighty-one.


  1. Is there any info on her life history ? - she inspires me as a person - has she got any family left ? I would like to hear her TRUE life story.

  2. A quick note to say that the Gamiani illustrations are definitively not by Suzanne Ballivet -- none of the experts on this literature know who these 'sanguine' illustrations are by, but they are not by Ballivet.
    Suzanne Ballivet's illustrations are very distinctively her own style -- if you are interested to see more of her work, look out for her illustrations to 'Initiations Amoureuses' or Restif de la Bretonne's 'Monsieur Nicholas'.
    There is very little biographical information about Suzanne Ballivet, and as far as I am aware not even a photograph of her, a sad indictment of the fate of women illustrators of the era in the shadow of their better-known husbands.