Martin Provost’s Séraphine (2008) The Movie and the Woman Behind it

I come from a family of painters. Everything related to painting has always fascinated me. I remember the smell of oil paint from my childhood. Someone was always fiddling around with paint and turpentine, heavy cigarette smoke in the air… Creativity, inspiration and spirituality are some of the most important things to me. All this and much more is captured in this heartbreaking movie.

Séraphine is one of the most tragic movies I have ever seen. It is based on a true story, on the life of the painter Séraphine de Senlis, cleaning woman, artist, visionary, madwoman. But first, and most touchingly, a vulnerable human being. The actress Yolande Moreau does an absolutely outstanding job in this role. Ulrich Tukur starring as the famous German art collector Wilhelm Uhde is equally good.

In 1914 Uhde rents an apartment in Senlis, some 40 kilometers from Paris, to recover from his stressful life. The cleaning woman his landlaydy hires for him startles him at first. She is very rough and hardly speaks a word, seems completely uneducated. Séraphine is pitied by all and hardly taken seriously. People think that she is slightly mad and very odd. During the days she cleans houses and washes people’s laundry, at night she paints and sings. She produces her own paint, mixtures from blood, wax, juices and other substances. When Uhde sees one of her paintings in the appartment of his landlady, he is astonished. To him, who collects the work of the so-called Primitives,  this is the work of a genius and he can hardly believe it has been painted by someone with no schooling. He asks her to paint more for him and to improve herself. The paintings she produces from now on are getting better and better but when the war breaks out, Uhde abandons Séraphine and flees back to Germany.

He doesn’t go back to Senlis for almost twenty years but when he comes back he finds Séraphine again. She is by now totally impoverished but still paints the most magnificent pictures. He helps her sell them and in a short time she makes a lot of money that she spends without restraint until the second world war announces itself through a huge economic crisis. Uhde looses a lot of money and can no longer support Séraphine. But worst of all, the big exhibition in Paris, to which she has been looking forward to for years, will not take place.

Séraphine doesn’t recover from this shock and goes mad. The scene in which she walks through the village, barefoot and in a silken marriage dress is haunting. She is finally  taken to an asylum where she will stay until her death.

Séraphine’s story is sad but also very mysterious. Where did a simple woman without any background or education take her inspiration from? How did she learn to paint? Séraphine said that the virgin Mary inspired her, she sounded like a visionary, not unlike Hildegard von Bingen who painted too.

She also seesm to have communicated with nature. Many of the visually most powerful scenes of the movie show Séraphine walking over fields, hugging trees. This is her way to connect an refuel.

Séraphine is a thoughtful, almost meditative movie, heartbreaking, moving and utterly fascinating. It is slow-paced and takes its time to unfold.

There are so many mysteries in the world. Art, creativity, inspiration and spirituality are some of the most powerful ones. Thanks to movies like Séraphine, we are reminded of this.

For those who want to see more of Séraphine de Senlis’ paintings, I attached this interesting documentary.

19 thoughts on “Martin Provost’s Séraphine (2008) The Movie and the Woman Behind it

  1. This is such a lovely, sad movie. Yolande Moreau was definitely wonderful in it. I am reminded that I wanted to see if there are any big pretty art books featuring her work…

  2. I really enjoy reading this post of yours. Thank you for sharing this. Her pictures are beautiful,too bad her life was so sad.

    from the trailer,it looks like the movie is not as boring as The Girl with a Pearl Earring.

    • Thanks, I’m glad. It was a sad life. But this had also something to do with her being a woman at the wrong time. I have many books on female artists and many ended in asylums. She seems to have been a bit closer to madness than others but she was also very alone in the world. The movie is very slow, the camera stays for long moments on pictures, trees, landscapes but i didn’t think it was boring. Girls with a Pearl Eaing is quite different. The book is surprisingly well done though.

  3. I tried to remember my history lesson…as far as I can remember there was no famous female painter, right? I mean as famous as picasso.

    We should be grateful we are born in this better time 🙂

    So I have read, but the movie (The girl ..) is very boring! I would have turn it off without seeing the ending if Cillian is not in that movie.

    • There were a few like Artemsia Gentileschi and some others but yes, not universally as famous as Picasso. The tragic thibg is that they are often as good or better but they are to apprecaited. They ususally had a hard life, were put in asylums, like Camille Claudel and Séraphine. It sure is better nowadays but I think women still have it much harder than men when it comes to art.

  4. Wonderful post, Caroline. Camille Claudel came to mind while I was reading this. Such a tragic story, but a wonderful film. I must see this one too. Thanks for sharing the video with her art!

    Mary Cassatt is about the only other female painter who’s achieved fame from another time.

  5. I liked this a lot, but the biggest complaint I had about the film is the lack of information about Seraphine prior to her ‘discovery.’ A bit of additional background would have been great.

    • I had read an excelllent mini-biography before that’s maybe why I didn’t mind at all. There are hints when the sisters visit her, we know there was a pre-history of “madness” (or hearing voices). The movie doens’t analyze much, mabe one reason why they did not go too much into the biographie before. I was wondering at one point if I should add what I read about her. A German academic has issued three wonderful books with some 45 biographies of female writers and artists that all were termed mad at some point. It clearly states what was called “mad” once would have another name nowadays. Interesting in any case.

  6. You’re right. The most famous Indonesian painters are Basuki Abdullah and Effendi … but I can’t recall any female painter from my country. I wonder why female is less known in art :/

  7. I’m not at all familiar with this painter, so thanks for the introduction. I wonder if this is a movie I can try and rent here in the US. It’s sad how often creative people, women particularly are marginalized for being different. Creative people have such a different way of looking at and seeing the world–I do admire that and would like to be more creative in that way instead of being tied to doing things in only the traditional manner.

    • You will easily get it on Netflix as I have heard. It is a fascinating movie. Particularly also because it shows how physical painting is… And the source of her inspiration. She always pretended to hear the Virgin Mary. Like a mystic. I always wanted to be a painter but that is not a particular talent of mine. I draw nicely but that’s it. I think creativity and spirituality are the most important things in my life but unfortunately they are totally absent from my day job…

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