Biography of Valentine Prax

"Do your own work, that’s the only reason we are here on earth. Your O." Zadkine, posthumous letter to Valentine, 1967

1897-1919 Mediterranean Sources

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Valentine Henriette Prax was born in 1897 in Bône (Annaba). Her father Henri Prax, a Catalan from Perpignan, worked as a forester in this city which is the second largest port in Algeria. He also served as Vice-Consul for Spain and Portugal. In his spare time, this taciturn man wrote poetry, two handwritten books of which are held by the Musée Zadkine. Valentine's mother, whose maiden name was Magliulo, was of Sicilian origin with connections to Marseille (another port city) and Constantine. She was almost blind.

Although sparing with confidences on her native Algeria, Valentine Prax nevertheless revealed that memories of the sea remained keen. But nothing deterred the young girl from Bône from dreaming of leaving, far away from this "sapphire coloured sea" and "luminous sky" for the promised land – France! Paris! – where you could become a painter or a poet. After three years of study at the École des Beaux arts in Algiers, she decided to sell several items of jewellery given to her by her grandmother. She left her family and her country.

1919 A glass cage in Paris

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The young woman arrived in Paris in 1919, having only just reached the age of majority. She moved into the miniscule "glass cage" of the studio in 35 Rue Rousselet of which she became "the captive bird for fifty francs per month." *She knew no one. She was timid. She was poor. She made the acquaintance of the Russian on the second floor, a sculptor "with a rather curious appearance": "My name is Ossip Zadkine, what's yours?” He found her to be provincial, and overdressed: "if you come back to see me, I will cut your hair."  She showed him her paintings and her drawings in the ancient style. "I can see no talent here … Put aside drawing and painting… you will be a poet." However Valentine was unable to resign herself to "not being a painter one day". Zadkine drew her into the milieu of the avant-gardes of Montparnasse, to the small smoky, jam-packed artists’ café of La Rotonde, and to Le Dôme.

1920 -1921 First Opportunities

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"I believe all the same that you have talent. It must be the years you spent at the Beaux-Arts which spoilt you. Avoid art schools […]. Visit museums; do the rounds of the exhibitions, the good exhibitions…” Zadkine proved to be a well-informed and enthusiastic mentor. The Cubists and the Fauvists, Picasso, Braque, Van Dongen, the paintings by Cézanne, the personal collection of the dealer Ambroise Vollard and the reading of Apollinaire and Max Jacob – were all discoveries which left Valentine "trembling with new emotions every day".  She deliberately worked from nature, setting up her easel in Bièvres where Zadkine joined her on Sundays, "painting landscapes" in Clamart, in Montfort-l’Amaury or Marly-le-Roi in harmonies of grey, green and brown.

In the summer of 1920 Foujita and Fernande Barrey, his first wife, welcomed Valentine to Collioure. She received a telegram from Zadkine: "Come. Let's talk about marriage." She joined him as soon as possible in Bruniquel, the mediaeval village in Quercy which Zadkine had adopted. They married on 14th August 1920. Valentine's parents made the trip. The Foujitas were their witnesses. Zadkine was in espadrilles, Valentine wore a turban fashioned by Fernande – a ceremony which could not have been more modest "but the discovery of walks to be made amongst the wildlife, the ancient houses, trees and old stone buildings compensated for the regret of not having even the means to buy wedding rings. Someone lent us some." 

Then everything began to happen. After a first solo exhibition at the Galerie Mouninou in the Rue Marbeuf in April 1920, Valentine Prax exhibited in December 1921 at the Galerie La Licorne which was run by the great collector Maurice Girardin. In her the critic recognised a "fresh, unembellished spontaneity", and an "ingenuity which laughs in the face of ignorance". For his part, Zborowski, Modigliani’s dealer, bought several canvases from her and opened an account for her with an art supplies dealer – Valentine could continue to paint with complete peace of mind.

From 1921 to the 1930s Painting in a Slightly New Style

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In the vicinity of Bruniquel, "the Russian and his companion with the short hair" fell in love with the beautiful village of Caylus, dear to Antoine Bourdelle. They returned there every summer, and ended up by buying a dilapidated house where Zadkine carved his first Orpheus out of elm wood. In this region of Quercy, Valentine found a place where she could settle, the ritual of an ancient way of life and the poetry of humble objects. “I began to paint in a slightly new style"… The colour became warmer, the subjects softer, and the composition denser and more skilful. The lesson of Cézanne and of Cubism, the esteem and advice of the painter Charles Dufresne (1876-1938) bore fruit.  The Procession, Couple de paysans à Caylus (Peasant Couple at Caylus), L’Atelier du menuisier (The Carpenter’s Workshop) and Nature morte avec lapins et poule (Still Life with Rabbits and Hen) caught the attention of Parisian art lovers. The Galerie Berthe Weill devoted an exhibition to Valentine Prax in January 1924.

Alongside this rustic vein, mythology where "the joy of living explodes in colour" inspired her to create an entire series of paintings on the Abduction of Europa. Nothing restrains the celestial and fluid blue of these marine spaces which we find in Le Royaume d’Amphitrite (The Kingdom of Amphitrite), in Femmes et chevaux (Women and Horses)… The plasticity of the elements is the expression of freedom won: "In art everything is permitted”, Zadkine had revealed to her. “You must give free rein to your imagination." The imagination of Valentine the Mediterranean affected Zadkine, who in his turn took inspiration from the living sources of Greco-Roman antiquity. Undoubtedly the worlds of the two artists had never been closer than at the turn of the 1930s. Valentine recounts how she left "loaded with a roll of her canvases and gouaches by Zadkine" to present to art lovers in Brussels or Antwerp.

The young woman then experienced a real commercial success with her "paintings on glass" – a technique used in former times by popular painters: presented through the glass, the colour remains very fresh and amazingly luminous. The museum holds a few of these small formats – La Musique, La Musicienne - which Valentine Prax set in Louis XIV frames unearthed with Zadkine at flea markets and antique shops in Carcassonne and Toulouse.

In May 1926 she signed a contract with the Galerie Barbazanges which numbered Charles Dufresne and the sculptor Despiau amongst its protégés. In Brussels several exhibitions were devoted to her, at the Galerie Sélection in 1922 and the Galerie Le Centaure in February 1927.

1934-1939 Un atelier, a home and an exhibition abroad

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In 1928 Zadkine and Valentine had left the Rue Rousselet where they worked in very precarious conditions for the "little pavilion and garden in the Rue d’Assas which Zadkine had coveted for many years. He had never had enough money to pay the first months’ rent."

When they were not occupying the Parisian studio at 100 Rue d’Assas, the two artists were “on their land” in the Lot, in “the house with the tower” in the village of Arques, acquired in September 1934. Although fairly dilapidated, the ancient house nevertheless had a barn – "an enormous barn, a sculptor's dream!"  – and lots of space where the couple set up four studios. Valentine could finally paint at her ease.

Valentine Prax was now a well-known name, and solo exhibitions were devoted to her in London, Chicago, Philadelphia and the Palais des Beaux-Arts in Brussels in December 1934. In Paris, she took part in the Salon d’Automne in 1933 and 1936 and the Salon des Tuileries in 1935. On the occasion of "The International Exhibition of Art and Techniques in Modern Life" opened in May 1937, Zadkine received several orders; for her part Valentine Prax was commissioned to paint one of the large glass windows of the Musée d’Art Moderne on the theme of aviation; the others were executed by Touchagues (1893-74), François Desnoyer (1894 - 1972), Francis Grüber (1914-1948) and Hermine David (1886-1970).

The war found the two artists hard at work in Arques: Zadkine was carving the large Christ (1938/1940) in elm wood, today located in the village church; for her part Valentine was tackling a tapestry project for the Legoueix workshop in Aubusson, but events advanced quickly and the tapestries were not made, despite the support of Jean Lurçat.

1939-1945 The end of happy times

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“There were five blazing summers
The sap had dried up
With empty hands and dead eyes
We silently watched life passing,
A puff of wind would have dashed all our hopes.
Where is the coolness of the dawn?"

V. P. unpublished poem.

“As soon as the German troops arrived in Paris, I felt that our entire way of life was threatened, and also our feelings and thoughts".

Faced with the threat, Valentine discovered she was stronger than she thought. She convinced Zadkine to embark at the last minute for the United States but she decided to stay and defend their works. She bore the burden of distance, the forced silence of exile. The Parisian studio in the Rue d’Assas was seized. She saved Zadkine’s bronzes but tore up his paintings "rather than see them scattered by the Nazi regime". She endured the hunger and anguish of the Occupation in the complete solitude of the house in Arques, subject to the persecutions of the local French Militia. Painting was her only consolation – "this period of the war was the best for my artistic production", she confessed. La Fin des temps heureux (The End of Happy Times), Arlequin dans la ferme dévastée (Harlequin in the Ruined Farm), La Fin des temps romantiques (The End of Romantic Times)… In Paris, the Galerie de France devoted a successful exhibition to her in October 1942, but the  power of these compositions to create a stir was only revealed after the war – at the Galerie d’Art du Faubourg in May 1950, the Salon des Tuileries in 1951 and the Salon d’Automne in 1952.

The forces of evil which Valentine exorcised on her canvas were being vanquished when the longed-for news from New York delivered the final blow: Zadkine had decided not to return. 

1945- 1967 The Second Part of the Life of the Two Artists

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"I have always experienced a great feeling of amazement confronted with the vulnerability of a thing, an animal or a plant. In short everything is part of my life, everything it appears to me should last."

This intimate awareness of the responsibility of the artist was transformed into an act of faith when all around her everything was torn apart, shattered and destroyed. In 1945 a telegram arrived from New York: "I'm ill, miserable and penniless. Are you happy for me to return?" Their life together resumed. Zadkine was fifty years old, Valentine forty-three. They began "the second part of the life of two artists" in virtual destitution. Valentine painted La Jeune and la Vieille Sorcières (The Young and the Old Witches), Les Sorcières en trances (The Witches in a Trance) and Les Naïades (The Naiads)… All paintings which magically restored the peace and harmony of La vie intérieure (Inner Life) – a picture which Valentine completed around 1960.

The year 1963 saw a large exhibition devoted to her at the Galerie Katia Granoff, featuring fifty of her paintings. Now Valentine's world extended between the “Waves and the azure sky” freed from the “latent risk of green chasms”, “delivered from “boats without sails like wounded birds" (unpublished poem). Le Dernier voilier (The Last Sailboat, 1960), Jeu marin (Marine Game, 1966), Les Gens de la mer (The People of the Sea, 1966), Les Gens heureux or Le Jour enchanté (The Happy People or The Enchanted Day, 1969-1970), Le Pauvre Pêcheur (The Poor Fisherman, 1970), L’Enfant heureux (The Happy Child, around 1970)… Transfigured by grace, her painting reflects the image of a fluid creation where all kingdoms commune in the clarity of a re-found eternity.   

1967- 1981 Epilogue

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On 25th November 1967, Zadkine died.

"Do your own work"… Valentine Prax continued to paint and exhibit – Galerie Chappe-Lautier in Toulouse in 1968; Galerie René Drouet in Paris in 1968, 1971 and 1973; the City of Paris Musée d’Art Moderne in 1976.

Faithful to the promise made to Zadkine to take care of his work, Valentine devoted a large part of her energies to creating a Zadkine Museum. Encouraged by Jacques Lassaigne, Director of the City of Paris Musée d’Art Moderne, she approached the City which accepted a donation of a large part of his works in 1978. In the following year, the event was marked by a Zadkine exhibition at Paris City Hall.

This donation was confirmed by the will of 1980 when Valentine Prax bequeathed all of her possessions to the City of Paris, so that the city council could create a museum in the Rue d’Assas. On 15th April 1981, Valentine Prax died. One year later, on 19th April 1982, Jacques Chirac, the Mayor of Paris, opened the Musée Zadkine.