Impressions of a 20th-Century Artist
Marguerite Castaing was born on September 28, 1900, in Pau, a small town at the foot of the Pyrenees mountains in southwestern France. She was the youngest daughter of Joseph Castaing and Rose Picamilh. Joseph, a well-known painter and pastelist of his time, had a long career of teaching and painting commissions for churches and chateaus—often using his wife and children as models for paintings. Two of the Castaing children would follow in Joseph’s painterly footsteps: his son René-Marie and daughter Marguerite.
Beginning early studies under the instruction of her father, Marguerite knew exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up: a painter. Joseph taught his daughter to master various mediums including pencil, oils, and the not-so-common pastels. He impressed on all of his students, as described by René-Marie, the understanding of space and shape, “He did not allow me to draw with lines. The whole drawing for him was a combined play of light and shadow, the shape of which he taught me to draw.” This methodology is visible throughout Marguerite’s work—she used shading to create shapes and depth, rarely drawing solid lines.
By the time she was 16, Marguerite Castaing’s dream became a reality. She was accepted into the Salon des Artistes Français aux Palais des Champs Elysees where she exhibited landscapes done in pen and ink, oils, and pastels. Marguerite’s emergence in the Paris Salon came during a time when female artists were beginning to receive recognition in a male-dominated field. Her father, a champion for female artists, gave academic lectures on the topic of their importance in art and held female-only classes. Also during this time, the Académie Julian in Paris established itself as a progressive frontrunner in art education by allowing women to study in its classes.
In late 1918, after the death of their father, Marguerite and René-Marie Castaing moved from Pau to Paris to further their careers. The siblings took up studies with Paul Albert Laurens, son of artist Jean-Paul Laurens and instructor at the Académie Julian. Before long, Marguerite found her creativity was stifled, so she sought an instructor who painted with a little more freedom, Pierre Bonnard. “I went to Paris to study with Paul Laurens, but he made my painting too dry. So, I worked with Pierre Bonnard—he was really my master. He showed me freedom in painting,” Marguerite said.
Bonnard, a Post-Impressionist painter known for his intimate scenes and colorfully decorative style, introduced Marguerite to a new world of subject matter and vibrant hues. Her interest in landscapes waned as she began to work in portraiture and nudes, though Bonnard’s colorful influence on her landscapes was also undeniable.
While living in Paris, Marguerite Castaing successfully exhibited her work, making her way through elite social circles of collectors, writers, critics, and celebrities. Friendships she developed with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Louis Bromfield and noted art collector André Seligmann would prove beneficial later in her life. In 1924 René-Marie won the prestigious Prix de Rome scholarship for painting and Marguerite married her first husband,
Maurice Dardenne. A year later she welcomed her only child, a son named Jacques. The family relocated to southern France, though Marguerite’s exhibitions in Paris and other regions continued for the next 15 years.
She eventually was divorced from Maurice and in 1941, married American Francophile, Lewis Riley. The couple settled in Saint-Jean-de-Luz on the Basque Coast, though only for a short while as the Nazis were on the move. In Paris, the Nazis raided Jewish-owned galleries, starting with André Seligmann’s where over 400 valuable works were seized, forcing Seligmann to relocate to America.
“[The Germans] knew everything,” Marguerite said, “They said we should go to a concentration camp, so I packed everything and sent it to Pau. We escaped in the woods through Spain then to Portugal. Then we came to the United States.” Marguerite, Lewis, and Jacques arrived in New York City on October 2, 1942.
On February 9, 1944, André Seligmann and Louis Bromfield introduced Marguerite Castaing to the American audience. Her debut in the David Koetser Gallery in New York City was so well-received that the gallery kept her work on display for the entire year. Three years later, the Berkshire Museum in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, showcased her work with equal praise.
By Jennifer Flynt