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FIRST PERSON

A Brush With the Past

December 26, 1990|SARAH WHITE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Sarah White, daughter of the late British journalist Sam White and Sheila Pickering White, is office manager and researcher for the Paris bureau of the Los Angeles Times. She wrote this personal account with the assistance of Times Paris Bureau Chief Rone Tempest .

PARIS — In 1935, French artist Balthasar Klossovski de Rola--Balthus--painted a portrait of 17-year-old Sheila Pickering in Paris. The painting disappeared soon after. Fifty-five years later, a newspaper ad led Pickering's daughter to the valuable artwork, and began her fight to regain the painting and keep it off the auction block.

I had heard about Balthus' portrait of my mother many times before I finally saw a photograph of it a few weeks ago and began my fight to win it back.

My efforts were ignited by a telephone call from a family friend, telling me about a newspaper ad for an auction in Avignon. That call touched off a frantic drive to collect documentation proving my claim to the painting, and at one point led to a conversation with the artist.

In the years before she died, my mother often talked about the portrait that Balthus had given to her in 1935, when she was 17. The painting represented her first love, her youth and the exciting life in the bohemian world of art and literature in Paris. It disappeared when the family moved from a rented villa in the south of France the same year.

She might have gone in search of the work then, but the 1930s was a time of great turmoil in Europe. My mother and her brother moved with my grandmother to Spain, where the family had roots. Mother and my uncle immediately became involved in the civil war against Francisco Franco. She worked as a nurse on the Republican side and was jailed for a month in Barcelona before she, her mother and brother escaped to England.

Then World War II broke out. As a British citizen--her father was British businessman Robert Pickering--my mother was unable to return to France until 1945, when she moved to Paris as the wife of a British diplomat.

Soon after, she went back to Cagnes-sur-Mer, where the family had lived in 1935, and filed a report with the local police about the missing painting. She told me that she even went back to the villa, where she was disappointed to discover that the new occupants knew nothing about the missing work.

This was before Balthus had become a celebrated artist whose paintings are now priced in the millions of dollars and hang in museums all over the world.

Balthus used my mother as a model for several of his works, one of which, "La Montagne," is in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It is a stunning picture set in the Swiss Alps; she is the figure reclining on the grass in the foreground holding a shepherd's crook.

Artist and model shared a fondness for English literature. She posed for his illustrations of the classics "Wuthering Heights" and "The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland."

Balthus had a nickname for my mother: "Sheila, Princess of Cats." To me, the portrait he gave her has a powerful feline quality. The proud expression on the face of the girl who became my mother is like the gaze of a cat that has lifted its head from a favorite pillow to coolly, almost regally, regard an intruder in its domain.

In the portrait, my mother is shown with an open book on her lap. Unusual for Balthus, whose works seldom have words, the book is inscribed with the following message in large letters:

"An Authentic Portrait of Her Highness, Sheila, Princess of Cats . . . Painted by His Majesty, Balthus, the King of Cats Himself."

In addition to Balthus, Mother knew many other avant-garde artists and writers. Henry Miller inscribed a copy of his then-banned "Tropic of Cancer" to her. Another friend for many years was American surrealistic photographer and artist Man Ray.

I have a photograph of myself that was taken by Man Ray when I was 4 and given to Mother.

It was clear from the fond way in which she talked about this era that Mother considered this to be the best, most exciting period of her life.

As the years went by and her health began to fail, the missing painting loomed more and more in her mind as a symbol of stolen youth and paradise lost. She died in 1978 without ever seeing it again.

That was why it was such a shock to receive the telephone call from the longtime family friend.

"Did you see the Herald Tribune Saturday?" she asked. "There's an advertisement for an auction that's selling a portrait of your mother."

I quickly leafed through the pages until I reached a section devoted to art auctions in France and Europe.

Suddenly, I was looking directly into Mother's eyes. In the middle of a large advertisement for an art auction in Avignon the coming Sunday was a portrait of Mother sitting in an armchair. She is wearing what looks like a short-sleeved silk blouse and has a book open on her lap. I knew immediately it was the lost portrait by Balthus.

It was a chilling, exciting experience. For a few moments my dead mother was resurrected before me; I instantly loved the painting. Now that I know it exists, I can hardly pass an hour without looking at it.

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