Self-Portraits of Desire: Louise de Vilmorin & Gwen John

by | Feb 7, 2022 | Poet, Research

Reflections on Francis Poulenc’s Trois Poèmes de Louise de Vilmorin

Francis Poulenc’s Trois Poèmes de Louise de Vilmorin was performed as part of Portraits: The Self Illuminated. For more information about the program, check out my projects.

Louise de Vilmorin (1902-1969)

Louise Lévêque de Vilmorin by Cecil Beaton
Photo: National Portrait Gallery – London
Portrait by Cecil Beaton (1940’s)
Photo: National Portrait Gallery, London

Louise de Vilmorin, the French heir of a seed fortune dating to the reign of Louis XIV, had a private life which often eclipsed her recognition as a poet, novelist, and journalist. Vilmorin is often remembered more for her string of high-profile marriages and lovers, as well as her chic fashion sense, than the impact of her writing.

From the 1930’s through the 1960’s, she had well-documented affairs with powerful men: author of The Little Prince and pilot Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, actor and filmmaker Orson Welles, aristocrat Count Paul Esterházy de Galántha, British ambassador Duff Cooper, and French Cultural Affairs Minister and author André Malraux. She also married Las Vegas real-estate heir Henry Leigh Hunt and Hungarian playboy Count Paul Pálffy ab Erdöd.

Carrying herself with a slight limp due to childhood tuberculosis of the hip and dressed in designs by Azzedine Alaïa, Jeanne Lanvin, and Christian Lacroix, Vilmorin epitomized a certain French aristocratic charm, elegance, and razor-sharp wit. She was a complicated figure; although she believed feminists to be a “herd of vain she-asses,” questioned why young women would wear pants, and thought women who rejected using their “feminine” charms in society as “worringly pretentious,” she applied the same bruising commentary to her relationships with men, stating “I have no faith in my fidelity.” [1]

In her thirties, she began to write, publishing her first novel Sainte-Unefois in 1934. In all, Vilmorin published fifteen works of fiction, five poetry collections, and a series of society and culture articles for the magazine Le Promeneur. As a poet, she was encouraged in her writing by composer Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), who read Aux Officiers de la Garde Blanche in 1935, after Vilmorin gifted the poem to their mutual friend, French soprano Marie-Blanche de Polignac. Poulenc insisted that Vilmorin compose more poems, and their interaction resulted in the texts for Poulenc’s Trois Poèmes de Louise de Vilmorin, which he set in 1937.

Comparing Vilmorin to the likes of Paul Éluard and Max Jacob, both celebrated poets in the Symbolist and Surrealist movements, Poulenc wrote, “Few people move me as much as Louise de Vilmorin: …because she writes French of an innate purity, because her name evokes flowers and vegetables, because she loves her brothers like a lover and her lovers like a sister. Her beautiful face recalls the seventeenth century, as does the sound of her name.” [2]

I recall Vilmorin’s lengthy list of relationships because I find in Trois Poèmes de Louise de Vilmorin a potential self-portrait of the poet herself: an addict to the spontaneity of desire, to the come-what-may attitude, she will always throw herself head-first at love despite the glaring pitfalls. In “Le garçon de Liège,” Vilmorin handles her “ennui” with visits from the boy from Liège, “who won’t be caught in a trap” and floats in and out of her life. “Au‑delà” describes Vilmorin’s relationship to desire, which she flippantly views as a game of pleasure that ends in a sigh; she prizes the lover who makes her laugh. In the final song of the cycle, “Aux Officiers de la garde blanche,” Vilmorin pleads with the White Guard to protect her from an all-consuming attraction, writing, “Spare me the torment of pain/ Of loving him more one day than I do today.” As a set, Trois Poèmes de Louise de Vilmorin detail the poet’s own ambivalence towards intimacy, and she wryly keeps others at arm’s length as a means of self-preservation.

Francis Poulenc (1922) by Joseph Rosmand, Photo: J. & W. Chester, London


Trois poèmes de Louise de Vilmorin by Francis Poulenc
Eunchan Kim, piano

i. Le garçon de Liége
ii. Au-delà
iii. Aux officiers de la Garde Blanche

Gwen John (1876-1936)

Gwen John by Bassano (1928)

Who is Gwen John, and how does she figure into the poetry of Louise de Vilmorin? Although they have no direct connection, except in my imagination, intersections exist between John and Vilmorin.

John was born in Wales, and later moved to London in 1895 to study at the Slade School of Fine Art with her younger brother, Augustus, who developed into the pre-eminent portrait painter of Western Europe after World War I. His creative output and public career significantly overshadowed Gwen’s work throughout her lifetime.

In 1899, she relocated to Paris, studying with James Whistler at his Académie Carmen. Her self-portrait, Gwen John, is a product of this period, as she stares dryly, even defiantly, from the canvas, her hand on her hip. John returned to London, where she presented a joint exhibition with her brother at the Carfax Gallery; he showed forty-five paintings, while Gwen showed three. In 1904, she moved to France permanently, settling in Paris, where she supported her artistic work by modeling for other artists, such as sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917). They fell in love, and their affair lasted for more than a decade.

Attracted to both men and women, Gwen was passionate in her relationships, producing 2,000 fervent letters to Rodin. As their relationship dwindled in 1913, she converted, also ardently, to Roman Catholicism, painting portraits of the nuns at the local convent in Meudon, the suburb of Paris where she lived. Since Gwen financed her career through the sale of her paintings, she was able to forego modelling. American art collector John Quinn first met her in Paris, and from 1910 until his death in 1924, he purchased every work that she produced for sale. After Quinn’s death, however, Gwen suffered financially, and her artistic output decreased significantly. With the reputation of a recluse, she lived alone, producing self-portraits, portraits of women and girls, still-lives, and occasional landscapes. Considered a post-Impressionist, John used a muted, earth tone palette, creating small, square canvases, where her subjects often sat with their hands in their laps at a three-quarter profile. Gwen died in obscurity in Dieppe, France, and her grave was not identified until 2014.

Auguste Rodin by George Charles Beresford (1902)
Photo: National Portrait Gallery

Over the past ten years, there has been a significant resurgence of interest in her life and a recontextualization of the unique and eccentric qualities of her paintings, apart from her relationships with Augustus John and Auguste Rodin. Gwen John wrote to painter Ursula Tyrwhitt, “As to whether I have anything worth expressing, that is apart from the question. I may never have anything to express, except this desire for a more interior life.” [3]

Self-Portrait (1907-1909) by Gwen John

For me, Gwen John and Louise de Vilmorin share a kinship, since historical narratives about both women have focused on their affairs and associations, instead of their artistic expressions of an “inner life.” Both artists fiercely sought self-expression, although in distinct ways. Vilmorin was an aristocrat and socialite, while John was a religious recluse. As we weave Vilmorin’s words through John’s self-portraits, a woman appears. She displays a bold and unflinching gaze as both the observer and the observed. She molds her body’s likeness in the world; she devises representations from her own image; she defines her own desires.


1. Christopher Petkanas, “Chichi Devil.” The New York Times. February 19, 2009. Accessed November 21, 2019.
2. Graham Johnson, Liner notes to Francis Poulenc: The Complete Songs, Hyperion Records, CD (2012).
3. Maria Tamboukou, “Mapping Gwen John.” In Nomadic Narrative, Visual Forces: Gwen John’s Letters and Paintings. (London: Peter Lang, 2010), 2.