Berthomme Saint-André in his studio, 1956

Louis Berthomme Saint-André is one of the few artists to have followed successful parallel careers both as a leading painter of his time, and as an erotic illustrator who was never short of commissions. He was born in Barbery in north-eastern France and grew up in Saintes, in Charente-Maritime. His first short-lived career was as an architect, studying under Georges Naud, then responsible for the departement’s historic monuments, but in 1921, following his love of fine art, he moved to Paris, where he was a pupil of Fernand Cormon and Jean-Paul Laurens at the École des Beaux-Arts.

He exhibited from 1924 to 1929 at the Salon of French artists, where he won several medals, and in 1928 spent some time in Algiers as the recipient of a grant to paint Algerian subjects; he was to return to Algiers to paint on a regular basis. While in Algiers he stayed at the Villa Abd-el-Tif, a Moorish villa, established as a French artistic academy in 1907; Berthomme Saint-André won the annual Abd-el-Tif prize in 1925.

Nude study, 1934

Though he also painted many landscapes and still lifes, his first love was painting women. His studies recall those of Eugène Delacroix, but his luminous inspiration, inspired by the Algerian sun, is more Cézanne than orientalist. His paintings of women show him as a skilled observer of real women, and he clearly had no shortage of willing models. He never married, but is reputed to have enjoyed a string of lovers. His politics were patriotic and socialist; he joined the Resistance during the Second World War and collaborated on the radical journal Vaincre. One of his last commissions was as an official artist in Senegal in the early 1970s.

His ability to depict the human form, together with his rich erotic imagination, made Berthomme Saint-André the perfect illustrator for many of the more risqué literary works published by clandestine houses in Paris in the 1930s. Not all his portfolios bear his name, but his unmistakable style show him to have illustrated some fifty works, from Verlaine, Apollinaire, Baudelaire, Diderot, Voltaire and Alfred de Musset, to the transgressive works of Pierre Louÿs and the controversial Ma vie sècrete of ‘Walter’. A complete checklist of all the books illustrated by Saint-André can be found on the Erotica Bibliophile website here.