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As a native Parisian, Henri Laurens is almost an anomaly among the artists of his era. Born in 1885 to a cooper, he travelled only rarely, not even visiting the seashore until after he was fifty. Upon completing his regular schooling, Laurens became an apprentice in 1899 at a School of Industrial Design where he studied architectural draughting, modelled period ornaments and began to carve ornamental stone sculpture in situ on new buildings. It is here that he developed his gift for beautifully poised composition and measured workmanship. At the same time, he took drawing courses in the evenings.
In 1905, he met and eventually married Marthe Duverger who became intimately involved in his work. Their son, Claude, was born in 1908. Due to a serious bone disease, which afflicted him most of his life, Laurens' left leg was amputated in 1909. It was during his convalescence in La Ruche that he began to meet many artists, such as Fernand Léger and Alexander Archipenko. Moving to Montmartre in 1911, Laurens formed a lifetime friendship with his neighbour, Georges Braque, who introduced him to Cubism.
Sculpture had languished for generations, evolving very little from its Renaissance and Baroque vocabulary. Laurens' adoption of the cubist aesthetic was slow but, by 1913, some of his work was included in the Salon des Indépendants. Laurens was not mobilized for the war in 1914 but watched as many of his close colleagues were sent to the front. During this time, he developed close friendships with Juan Gris and Amedeo Modigliani.
Unfortunately, almost none of his early pre-war work, in terracotta and multi-media construction, has survived. The first pieces still extant date from about 1915 and are polychrome wood and plaster constructions in which figures are reduced to an arrangement of geometric elements. In 1916, Picasso introduced Laurens to Léonce Rosenberg, who undertook to give him his first exhibit at the Galerie de l'Effort Moderne.
In the early 1920s, Laurens dropped Cubism in its strictest interpretation in favour of a gradual return to volume and graceful curves. This new linear style gives the pieces a fresh dynamism. Most of the sculpture was still in terracotta as neither he nor Kahnweiler, his new galériste, could afford the casting in bronze. Over and above the sculpture for which he is best known, Laurens was a fine designer and book illustrator. In 1924, he partook in an unusual confluence of talent, creating the set for the Diaghilev ballet, Le Train bleu for which Jean Cocteau wrote the book, Darius Milhaud did the music, Coco Chanel designed the costumes and Picasso created the curtain.
Like many others, he endured the Depression in straitened circumstances, but receiving the Helena Rubinstein Prize in 1935 brought renewed interest in his work. In 1936, he created several works for the Universal Exhibition in Paris and in 1938, the French state made its first purchase, Cariatide, for the Musée national d'art moderne. Once again war disrupted his world and Laurens stayed in Paris, maintaining a low profile, having been attacked early on by the Vichy press. After the Liberation, he exhibited his wartime marbles at Galerie Louis Carré.
In 1948, he was selected to represent France at the Biennale in Venice. He was invited again by the Italians along with Matisse in 1950. The latter was so indignant when Laurens was not awarded the sculpture prize that he shared his painting prize with him, and Giacometti withdrew his own work from the Biennale in protest. The entire Parisian art community was scandalized by what they considered a snub, gave a special banquet in Laurens' honour upon his return from Venice.
A quiet gentleman, Laurens died as he lived, succumbing in May 1954 to a heart attack on his evening walk before dinner. He and his wife are buried in Montparnasse, where their tomb is surmounted by a copy of his sculpture L'adieu.