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JEAN COCTEAU (1889-1963)

"Orpheus 2"

"Orpheus 2"

8 1/4" x 5 1/4", Pencil and Ink on Paper 11175



10 1/2" x 8 1/4", Crayon and Pencil on Paper 11174

Jean Maurice Eugene Clement Cocteau (1889-1963)


Jean Cocteau is undeniably a unique artist, and one whose body of work is almost too hard to fathom. Many artists have multiple titles, but Cocteau was a true renaissance man. He drew, painted, sculpted, wrote poetry, wrote theatrical productions, wrote, directed, and acted in his films. There is no one like Jean Cocteau.

Jean Cocteau was born in Maisons-Lafitte on July 5th, 1889. His father was a stockbroker who painted, his mother loved ballet, and his grandfather collected art. Cocteau’s family were well off and certainly influenced his interest in all things creative from a young age. When Cocteau was ten, his father committed suicide. This became something the artist would try to unpack for many years in his art, and affected his outlook on life. 

As a child, Cocteau was never interested in school or what it had to offer. He was expelled multiple times, all he cared about at the time was poetry and the theater. He began writing poetry as a teenager and wanted to pursue it, but his mother was very possessive. After a few years of trying to appease his mother, his poems were read in Paris which was his sign that it was time to go. It was then that he joined his first group of creatives, including Proust, Mauriac, and others. With encouragement from the group, Cocteau published his first collection of poems in 1909. As he began to publish more work, he started to become recognized in other artist’s circles and with the general public. Many artists were intimidated and almost annoyed by how much talent he possessed, but his ever curious mind and wonder made his relationships with them easy. 

Around this time he met Stravinsky who became a big influence. His work “La Potomac” a cartoon-esque work loosely inspired by Stravinsky, was unlike anything that Parisians had seen and became popular. During this period he also met Sergei Diaghilev who worked with the ballet, and invited Cocteau to work on their promotional posters. Cocteau had always loved the ballet because of his mother, and was excited to work on the project.


Parisians ignored World War I for as long as possible, but eventually the reality of it sunk in. In 1914 Cocteau reluctantly enlisted, but was soon discharged. For a brief time he worked in airplanes, then drove an ambulance, and was finally put to better use in the propaganda department. World War I was unlike anything in history and inspired many artists, Cocteau included. Even though he wasn’t in combat, the effect of it on society was irrevocable. 


Working in the propaganda department brought him back to Paris which is what he wanted. He wished to be officially declared unfit for duty so that he could go back to his full time work on his own projects. It was at this time that he met Picasso for the first time. 


Because of the many skills he possessed one could assume that he only liked to work alone. This is yet another surprising part of Cocteau’s life- he enjoyed collaboration and made some of his grandest ideas come about by working with his peers. 

The first big example of this is “Parade” which was his first ballet. Picasso did the set design and costumes, Satie did the music, and Diaghilev brought his russian dancers. Initially the public did not understand it but after a few years it became a smash hit. 

In 1918 he formed an intense friendship with Raymond Radiguet, then age 15. He was a talented young writer whose work Cocteau promoted. Cocteau fell in love with him, but the feelings were not reciprocated. He was a young poet who had fresh ideas and wanted to forge his own path. Cocteau was open about his homosexuality, although he had romances with women as well. His affairs brought melancholy into his work, as heartbreak led him to often write tragedies.  

Sadly, in 1923 Radiguet died of Typhoid, which sent Cocteau into a deep depression. He was so broken that he couldn’t even muster up the energy to attend Radiguet’s funeral, which confused many. He turned to opium and became fascinated by religion. He even converted, but it did not last long. Unfortunately his addiction to opioids only got worse and received treatment many times. 

Cocteau’s work darkened and changed as the war continued and he dealt with heartbreak. Over a trip he had the idea to remake greek tragedies with modern touches to relate to the tragedy the war brought on. His first was Antogonie. 


At this time cocteau turned to music and became enthralled with jazz, and even joined a band. He received critique from his fellow artists who called him a fake and a poser. Cocteau dealt with this type of critique all throughout his life, not only because he was so talented in so many ways but because he was an artist who lived in his own world. 


Surrealism was the movement growing amongst his peers at the time, specifically in France. But Cocteau hated surrealism, although many people associate his work with the movement. The play “La Voix Humane” was partially inspired by this frustration, and it’s success solidified his unique place in art, separating himself from the others. 


The second World War approached and tensions grew in Paris. Cocteau was not highly critical of the German regime and in fact praised the work of Hitler’s favorite sculptor, Arno Breker. He was fascinated by his use of greek aesthetics. Some of his friends were very put off by his lack of opinion on the matter, and his relationships strained. Around this time his mother passed away, and then in 1946 Cocteau fell ill himself. Sickness combined with a controversial response to his rendition of “Bacchus” gave the artist no reason to stay in Paris.

He then moved to the mediterranean and because of some of his sponsors, was offered access to Villas that he would work in all day. He painted the walls and cupboards, built sculptures and made films. This time period rekindled his love of life and art. He met a young man who became his companion and friend, and he adopted him as his heir.

After some time Cocteau decided to return to France. With his adopted heir he purchased a house in Milly-la-Foret, France which was mostly peaceful, except constant pestering by the media.

Cocteau’s last work was “Requiem” perhaps knowing death was on the way. The work was inspired and unlike much of his work. He died of a heart attack on October 11th, 1963. His work endures, and his home in Milly-la-Foret was turned into a monument of his work.

Jean Cocteau received many honors throughout his lifetime. He was elected to the Royal Academy of Belgium  in1954, and the next year to the Académie Français. Other recognition included memberships in the German Academy of Berlin, the American Academy, Mark Twain Academy, and Honorary Chairmanship of the Cannes Film Festival.

Cocteau represents a time in France that has passed, a remnant of something many wish they could have witnessed. His life was tumultuous, but his body of work is expansive and has stood the test of time.

Biography adapted from multiple sources.



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