Suzanne Ballivet in 1943

Suzanne Ballivet, French illustrator and designer, is one of the most underrated – and least known – of the talented and prolific illustrators whose work is included here. Her French Wikipédia page doesn’t even have a photograph of her, and very few of her original artworks appear to have survived.

She was born in Paris, but apart from a short period in the late 1920s when she lived and worked there she spent most of her life in and near Montpellier in southern France, where her father Jules worked as a photographer, and where she went to high school. In 1923 she started her studies at l’École des Beaux Arts in Montpellier, one of a number of influential art schools in France, where her circle included her two future husbands, Camille Descossy and Albert Dubout, and Dubout’s first wife, the fashion designer Renée Altier.

Suzanne and Camille married in 1925, and their son Michel (who became a travel writer and photographer) was born in 1927; they moved back from Paris to Montpellier in 1931. During this period Suzanne worked mostly as a fashion and theatre designer, looking after her son and supporting Camille in his painting and teaching work at l’École des Beaux Arts. As Camille became more interested in teaching, landscape painting and his dream of a rural painting community, Suzanne increasingly felt the need to flex her own considerable artistic talent; in 1941 she and Camille divorced and went their separate ways. Suzanne had kept in touch with Albert Dubout, whose marriage with Renée Altier had also ended in 1940, and they became increasingly close both as friends and artistic collaborators. Albert, already established as a satirical cartoonist, had had enormous success in the late 1930s with his illustrations for Marcel Pagnol’s novels, and recognising Suzanne’s talent for illustration he introduced her to his publishing contacts in Paris.

Suzanne Ballivet in 1950

Before long Suzanne was in demand as an illustrator, her flexibility and ability to work quickly bringing her commissions to illustrate Pagnol, Colette, and Pierre Louÿs. By the early 1950s she was producing illustrations at a prodigious rate, and both she and Albert were experimenting with erotic illustration, much in demand from specialist limited-edition publishers including Éditions du Livre in Monte Carlo and Éditions du Cent Cinquantenaire in Paris. The best of her erotic work was produced for a privately-published edition of Initiation Amoureuse published by Éditions Georges Guillot in 1950, a version of Robert Denoël’s (pen-name Robert Sermaise) 1934 sexual initiation classic Prélude Charnel. Other erotic classics for which Suzanne produced illustrations in the 1950s include Sacher-Masoch’s La Vénus à la fourrure (Venus in Furs), for Éditions Maurice Gonon, and Restif de la Bretonne’s Monsieur Nicolas ou le cœur humain dévoilé (Monsieur Nicolas or The Human Heart Laid Bare) for Éditions du Cent Cinquantenaire.

Suzanne Ballivet in 1970

Suzanne and Albert married in May 1968, and for several years they divided their time between his house in Mézy-sur-Seine west of Paris and her family home in Saint-Aunès near Montpellier. Suzanne continued to illustrate books, including Colette, Stendhal, and la Fontaine, and was working for Éditions Pastorelly in Monte-Carlo until 1973, when arthritis started to get in the way of the detailed work which was her trademark.

Albert died in June 1976, and Suzanne retired to Saint-Aunès, still drawing and painting well into her late seventies. She died on 15 June 1985, and was buried in the St Fulcrand cemetery at Saint-Aunès alongside Albert.