Séraphine Louis, known as Séraphine de Senlis (1864–1942), was a French painter in the naïve style. Self-taught, she was inspired by her religious faith and by stained-glass church windows and other religious art. The intensity of her images, both in colour and replicative design, is sometimes interpreted as a reflection of her own psyche, walking a tightrope between ecstasy and mental illness.
Séraphine was born in Northern France in 1864 where she grew up and lived in very difficult conditions, without much tenderness and support. At 17, she started working as a domestic worker in a Convent in Clermont and remained there for 20 years.
In 1901, she finally decided to leave after her Angels and the Virgin Mary told her to dedicate herself to painting. This is when she moved to Senlis and became a housekeeper for people who didn’t treat her with any kind of respect. She had no one but she found happiness and purpose in painting and her connection to nature.
At night, Louis painted by candlelight, largely in secret isolation, until her considerable body of work was discovered in 1912 by German art collector Wilhelm Uhde, famous for discovering Picasso, Braque and the Douanier Rousseau, amongst others.
Uhde saw a still-life of apples at his neighbor's house and was astonished to learn that Louis, his housecleaner, was the artist. Not only did he see the genius in her paintings but he treated her with gentleness, respect and even admiration. His support had barely begun to lift her horizons when he was forced to leave France in August 1914; the war between France and Germany had made him an unwelcome outsider in Senlis, much as Louis was, given her eccentric persona.
They only re-established contact in 1927 when Uhde – back in France and living in Chantilly – visited an exhibition of local artists in Senlis and, seeing Louis's work, realized that she had survived and her art had flourished. Under Uhde's patronage, Louis began painting large canvases, some of them two meters high, and she achieved prominence as the naïve painter of her day.
In 1929, Uhde organized an exhibition, "Painters of the Sacred Heart," that featured Louis's art, launching her into a period of financial success she had never known – and was ill prepared to manage. Then, in 1930, with the effects of the Great Depression destroying the finances of her patrons, Uhde had no choice but to stop buying her paintings.
In 1932, Louis was admitted for chronic psychosis at Clermont's lunatic asylum, where her artistry found no outlet. Although Uhde reported that she had died in 1934, some say that Louis actually lived until 1942 in a hospital annex at Villers-sous-Erquery, where she died friendless and alone. She was buried in a common grave.
Uhde continued to exhibit her work: in 1932, at the exhibition "The Modern Primitives" in Paris; in 1937–38 in an exhibition titled "The Popular Masters of Reality" which showed in Paris, Zurich, and New York (at the Museum of Modern Art); in 1942, at the "Primitives of the 20th Century" exhibition in Paris, and finally, in 1945, in a solo exhibition of her work in Paris.
Louis's works are predominantly rich fantasies of intensely repeated and embellished floral arrangements. She used colours and pigments that she made herself from unusual and exotic ingredients she never revealed that have stood the test of time for durable vividness. Her paintings' surfaces have a matte, almost waxy appearance. Sometimes her signature (typically "S. Louis") was carved by knife, revealing a ground of contrasting colour. In some cases, she appears to have signed her paintings before painting them.
Louis was an artist consumed by an irrepressible urge to create, "this famous internal necessity of which Kandinsky spoke", terms employed by Bertrand Lorquin, conservator of the Musée Maillol in his introduction to the exhibition "Séraphine Louis dite Séraphine de Senlis" at the Musée Maillol in Paris, which ran from 1 October 2008 to 18 May 2009.
Louis's paintings are exhibited in the Musée d'art de Senlis, the Musée d'art naïf in Nice, and the Musée d'Art moderne Lille Métropole in Villeneuve-d'Ascq.