History is full of muses. They captivate the world for only a moment, only to fade away into obscurity with time. But Renée Perle wasn’t like that. She was like a creature from another time, and the fashion world can’t seem to forget her. Thanks in part to her relationship with genius photographer and pioneer Jacques-Henri Lartigue. He was photography’s most famous and earliest child prodigy, and a legend in the field. In 1930 he met the captivating Romanian model Renée Perle, who instantly became his muse and the subject of his most striking photographs. He became completely obsessed with her. In his diary he wrote, “Around her, I see a halo of magic.” Nearly four decades after her death, Renée Perle’s halo of magic has only grown to inspire droves of prominent artists and designers. Her finger-waved hair, her perfectly painted cupid’s bow lips, her long neck and a fashion sense that seems shockingly ahead of her time, have left us eternally inspired by this mysterious woman. Here is Renée Perle’s story.
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Jacques-Henri Lartigue was a man fascinated by beautiful women. Renée Perle’s sensual figure, easy confidence and distinctive style made her the quintessential muse. Their chance encounter under a Parisian street lamp in 1930 sparked a two-year love affair, and inspired some of the century’s most striking art. Jacques-Henri Lartigue would be lauded as a photographic genius. Renée Perle would be forgotten for the next seventy years.
Lartigue’s first breathless account of Renée Perle – the stunning Romanian model about whom almost nothing is known – immediately betrays his fascination. He writes of Renée Perle’s petite nose, dark curls and graceful fingers; features he longs to photograph. Between 1930 and 1932, the bourgeois playboy captured his lover and muse lounging along the French Riviera, sporting goggles in motorcars, pushing the boundaries of conventional style and challenging the camera with her penetrating gaze.
While Lartigue may have been the era’s finest documentarian, Perle remains its most alluring ambassador. It was her wide-brimmed hats, daringly modern t-shirts, seductive spirit and ease before the camera that inspired the most definitive work of his career. Renée Perle’s images are more powerful and more enduring than Lartigue’s racecars, family portraits or any of his wives. Renée continues to inspire fashion editorials and designer collections, and is widely regarded as a style icon.
Despite the intensity of their romance, Perle was forever a puzzle to her lover. Lartigue writes, “Renée! She is tender, devoted, passionate. And above all she is in love. She is always making scenes. Is it jealousy, or is it madness? Maybe it is the need to be assaulted, to be made unhappy and to cry – all for the sake of reconciliation? I am far too down-to-earth; too much of a spectator and too bad an actor to fall into…the kind of game Renée wishes me to play.”
Though their passion was genuine, it seems the symbiotic love of photographing and being photographed formed the basis of their attraction. As such, the romance was always doomed to fade. When the two finally parted, Lartigue went on to enjoy modest acclaim as a painter and late life success as a Vogue fashion photographer. His great muse slipped into obscurity bearing a tender and priceless parting gift.
We can assume Renée loved again, became a mother, a grandmother. In our minds she trades her signature bangles and androgynous trousers for aprons and housecoats. She watches a family grow, years pass, fashions change and Renée former lover’s star rise. She fondly remembers a different time, a different self.
Renée Perle died in the south of France in 1977, not far from the lapping waves and sun soaked dunes of her youthful romance. In 2000, her descendants quietly released 340 prints documenting her relationship with Lartigue for auction.
In the fantastically intimate photographs Perle is relaxed, playful, charming and pensive. She stares straight through the lens into the soul of the man behind it. She is indeed a woman in love – with both Lartigue and his camera. However, the auction included no journals or diaries, and Perle never lived to narrate her own legend. But perhaps the story is better not told. Perhaps the mystery of a great woman viewed through the lens of a lover is truly what inspires.
For Lartigue, Renée Perle was pivotal; a thrilling distraction in a creative slump. She was the woman who would – in part – define him. In the end, however, she was just one of many. He wrote, “Around (Renée) I see a halo…of magic. At the same time her charm disturbs me. I am afraid it always will. Renée…is everything I desire. But there is one haunting thought, with whom can I expect to talk about love after Renée has gone?”
The great romance between Renée Perle and Jacques-Henri Lartigue seems to have ended much the way it began, with a lyrical meditation on an unforgettable woman. Though we cannot know Renée Perle’s private thoughts in those last days of their affair, Lartigue laments “There is only one image my eyes remember…her mouth against mine, long, bare legs, hair against my cheek. And that scent! How I wish I could preserve every precious second of a love affair…the atmosphere, the colors, the dimensions and the perfume.”