The Jean Tabaud Project

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Jean at age 42
photo by
Bob Willoughby
Jean Tabaud at 42

     The following summary of Jean Tabaud's life is based on my forty-year friendship with him, which began in Hollywood in 1956, and which lasted until his death in 1996. It is based on tales he told me, on letters he wrote to me, on the four manuscripts he left behind (three autobiographical novels and one memoir), on numerous newspaper articles he authored, on interviews he gave, on appointment agendas, and diaries he kept, albeit haphazardly, throughout the years. As well as on other bits and pieces of information about his life that I found among his papers, which I inherited as the executor of his estate. He also left in my care some 300 paintings, drawings, and sketches. And hundreds of photos of portraits he executed during his lifetime, some identifiable, but most are not. A few of these can now be viewed on this website. More will be posted as this site expands.

     There were years when Jean and I didn't see each other. When he was either traveling in Europe or in various parts of the United States, and when I was also living in other parts of the world and on other continents. But we always managed to stay in touch, no matter what the circumstance. At the very least, a few letters a year passed between us, even when I was caught in the turmoil of the Congo's independence from Belgium in 1960. Or, subsequently, when I was farming on the remote pampas of Argentina and Jean had become a prominent portrait artist with studios in New York, Paris, St. Moritz, London, San Francisco.


     Jean Tabaud was born Jean Gilbert Tabaud on July 5, 1914, in the small town of Saujon, France, on the Southwest Atlantic coast, north of Bordeaux. He was the son of Lucien Tabaud and Ernestine Tabaud Hillairet. His father was a butcher by profession, who served in World War I, where he was wounded and gassed during the conflict.

     Jean remembered his early childhood as being a happy one, helping his father in his butcher shop. And, when he was old enough, served as his delivery boy, riding about the countryside on his bicycle, delivering his father's meats and homemade sausages to the housewives in the area, who never failed to reward him with a sweet or two. As an only son, he was adored by his parents, and when not attending school or helping out in the shop, was allowed to roam as he pleased over the landscape of the Charente River where it empties into the Atlantic. Jean had a free, good-natured spirit, an open, candid smile, sparkling black eyes that exuded good humor and which never failed to elicit a smile in return from those he met, friend and stranger alike. He loved to run in the fields and jump walls. He longed to fly like a bird.

     By the time he was ten, however, his father could no longer support the pain caused by his war wounds. One evening he invited Jean to a local restaurant for a celebration dinner, as he called it. When they returned home, he took off the four-banded gold ring that wound around the third finger of his left hand in the form of a snake and handed it to Jean, telling him, "Always wear this. It belonged to your grandfather and his father before him." Then he embraced his son, climbed back into his car, and put a bullet in his head.

     Despite this traumatic heartbreak, Jean's optimistic outlook on life continued. His spirit remained a free one; his appreciation of nature's beauty, and his adoration of the human body as a sublime creation, especially the female figure, never ceased to fill him with wonder.

The Ballet

Jean Dancing

     Following his father's death, Tabaud's formal education came to a halt. In his teen years he earned his living selling brooms from door to door, apprenticed as a picture framer, dabbled in journalism, and at nights worked as a cloak-room attendant at "La Forge," a music hall in nearby Bordeaux. He often wandered backstage, observing the dancers and envying them their graceful agility, imitating their routine whenever he could. It was there that he met the famous Belloni, husband and wife team, who encouraged him to study classical dance for a year, following the rigorous Cecchetti method. Then the impresario Lifar came into his life. His first engagement, at the age of 20 in 1934, was with the Comédie Française. Later he would dance with the Marquis de Cuevas' Grand Ballet Company, and soon was invited to join the Ballets Russes.

     While in Paris he met several artists - friends of the theatrical crowd with whom he associated. Among those who particularly impressed him was the Polish artist, Maïa Berezowjka, and recognizing his natural talent, she encouraged him to study art. He attended a few classes at the École des Beaux Arts but he had little time for this as his ballet career developed into full-fledged stardom for him with the Ballets Russes, dancing in Paris, Berlin, Geneva, Belgium, Switzerland, Rio de Janeiro, Tangiers, Casablanca, and Argentina.

World War II

     But while performing at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires in 1939, he fell while practicing a particularly difficult dance maneuver, injuring his spine, and forcing him to give up dancing. He returned to France to seek treatment for his back but instead met up with the outbreak of World War II. He was immediately drafted into the French Army, witnessed the fall of France to Germany, and was taken prisoner in 1941.

     Yet, despite the hardships he suffered, his ever-present back pain, and the horrors he witnessed, his good humor and blithe spirit remained intact to the point where his fellow war-weary prisoners knick-named him "Simplicimus" - the simple one.

     While in the camp, he managed to procure some paper and crayon, and, to pass the time, began sketching portraits of his fellow prisoners. One of the German guards, observing this, asked if he, too, could have his portrait done. The result was so pleasing to him that soon other guards, as well as the Commandant of the camp, asked for the same and supplied Jean with all the drawing materials he needed.

German Soldier

One day in 1942, Jean seized the opportunity to leave the camp, along with a group of other prisoners, who were assigned to assist local farmers to bring in the harvest. But he never returned with them. He quietly slipped away and made his way to Paris, where he found friends who supplied him with false identity papers. For the next two years he made his living as a peripatetic artist, in the evenings going from one café to another, drawing portraits of German soldiers, sailors, airmen of all ranks, charging but a few francs each. He plied his trade not only in Paris but traveled to the Normandy coast and Le Havre - often on bicycle. He returned to Bordeaux, visited his mother in nearby Saujon, and then went on to Marseilles, Nice, and the south of France. Then he returned to Paris, always using the same false identity papers. All the portraits he executed during this time had to be signed with the name they bore: Juvee.

     While plying his trade at night, Jean sought help for his back during the day from several Parisian doctors, but without success. Yet, he continued to practice his classical ballet exercises. Painting was just a way of earning a living for him until he would be well enough to resume his dancing career. In 1943 Jean was invited to join a French troupe, which was asked to perform in Berlin. His pain was almost unbearable but he managed to execute the most perfunctory of steps. Soon, however, the bombing became intense, the ravages of war all about them intolerable, and the company shortly limped back to Paris.

     Meanwhile, Tabaud lived constantly with the fear that his escape from the prison camp would be discovered. But the Germans evidently believed he was harmless enough, never dealing in the black market or suspected of being a member of the underground. He was useful to them. His subjects ranged from lowly seamen to high-ranking officers, most choosing to be portrayed in full uniform, but some did not. Toward the end of the war, Tabaud was recruited by a German doctor to do the portraits of wounded and dying soldiers in the Paris hospitals. He preferred these assignments above all others. These portraits were then sent to their families back in Germany.

     By the time of Germany's defeat, Tabaud had executed over 5,000 portraits between 1942 and 1944. During this time he managed to secure a camera and took photos of the portraits he had done to show to potential clients. Ninety-five photos of these portraits have survived and several examples can be seen on this website.


     Tabaud was in Paris when the Germans marched out and the U.S. troops marched in. This extraordinary period in his life is recorded in detail in his French memoir of the war years titled, Une Couche de Vie sur une Tranche d'Histoire. Roughly translated: A Layer of Life upon a Slice of History.

     He remembers having witnessed the following scene in August 1944, two months after the Allied Forces landed in Normandy. "In the afternoon I awoke," he wrote, "and headed toward the Place Blanche in search of something to eat. The streets were deserted. All of Paris was hiding behind shuttered windows and doors, waiting for the Americans to arrive, terrified by the rumor that Paris had been mined and would blow up before we were saved. As I turned the corner, I was astonished to discover a tide of Germans, as far as the eye could see, filling the boulevards, flowing slowing, silently, upstream and downstream, like a river."

     It was at this time that Jean, forced to remain secluded in his apartment with his mistress, existing on only flour and water, drew his first nude. (Nudes would become one of his favorite subjects from here on and would greatly contribute to his fame as an artist.)

     Then, Jean's memoir continues, "…It took several more days for them (the Americans) to arrive, but first came de Gaulle, marching triumphantly down the Champs Elysées at the head of his Free French troops…and this time all of Paris was there to greet him…

     "The Americans followed the next day. I was thunderstruck by what appeared before my eyes: a mass of miserable corpses, mute, silent, surrounded on all sides by jubilant crowds. They came wearing tattered uniforms the color of dead leaves. Coming so soon after the stony, granite-like, impeccably dressed Germans, one would think the Americans fought the war in their pajamas. And wearing slippers. For if it weren't for the tanks that accompanied them…one would not take them for soldiers at all. They marched with a soft step and waddling gait - barely a military one - in rubber heeled shoes. They did not make more noise than a caravan of camels."

Morocco, Hollywood, Mexico

Jean in Holllywood with a drawing of Jossee, his favorite model, in the background
     Following the end of the war, almost one year later, Tabaud, seeking the sun and escape from war-torn Europe, traveled to Majorca and then to Morocco, where he lived for eight years. In Tangiers and Casablanca he established a school of dance, gave recitals, choreographed ballets, wrote articles on art and the dance. During this period he painted many Moroccan landscapes, as well as studies of the local people. In 1953 he was encouraged to try his luck in the United States.

     He began in Hollywood, where he was immediately successful, receiving commissions for portraits from such stars as Charles Boyer, Deborah Kerr, Pier Angeli, "Zizi" Jeanmarie, to name a few. The French Ambassador to Mexico, while visiting Hollywood, suggested an exhibit of his works - particularly his Moroccan landscapes - in Mexico City. It was met with considerable success and was followed by two more exhibits. One in Monterrey and one in Acapulco.

New York

Jean at 56 (1970)
working in his Pauling studio
     Following several more critically acclaimed exhibits in Los Angeles and San Francisco, Tabaud moved to New York City in 1957, where he established his studio at 440 East 79th Street. Over the next ten years he traveled extensively, executing portrait commissions in the United States
Mrs. John Y. Randolph Crawford
New York, N.Y.
and Europe of the rich and famous, as well as the not so rich nor famous. Among his innumerable clients were such subjects as the Mrs. Henry Fords, (both Anne and Christina) as well as Henry Ford's children, Anne, Charlotte, and Edsel. Mrs. Ted Kennedy, Mrs. Stavrous Niarchos (Eugénie) and her children. Mrs.Pierre S. DuPont, Jr., Henry Miller, Lady Sarah Russell, Lady Sarah Crichton Stuart, Mrs. T. Jefferson Coolidge, Mrs. Clint Murchison, Jr., and her daughter. Suzy Parker, Peter and Lili Pulitzer and their children, Mrs. John Warner (daughter of Paul Melon) and their children. John Kenneth Galbraith, Baroness Fiona von Thyssen, Mrs. Howard Cushing, Jr., and her children.

Experimental Works

Pyramid Man

     In addition to portrait painting, Tabaud experimented with various schools of art, most notably cubism, and with several different techniques, such as oil on canvas as well as on board, colored pen, water colors, pastels, charcoal and pencil, melted crayon with scratched pen technique, etc. He was strongly influenced by the artists of the impressionist era, especially Renoir, Monet, Corot, Van Gogh, and later Modigliani. The influence of Gauguin can be detected in his Moroccan paintings.

Lady L

     At the height of his career, Tabaud executed several paintings under the name of Leret, but was unsuccessful at marketing them. What sold was a Tabaud. What clients wanted was a Tabaud and nothing less. For several years he was featured in Portraits, Inc., in New York in their annual exhibits of portraits by well-known artists. His work appeared regularly in their New Yorker and other magazine ads, as well in their New Year's greetings to their clients, featuring the portraits he did of the founders of Portraits, Inc., - Lois Shaw and Helen Appleton Read. These cards sometimes included the portrait he did of Andrea Erickson Gehringer as well.

Pawling, New York

     By 1968 Tabaud began to tire of the social life his portrait-seeking commissions demanded of him, and he bought several acres of woods outside the village of Pawling, New York, where he built his "hideaway." Most of the house and outbuildings he constructed himself, but still maintained his studio in New York City, to which he commuted three days a week, and continued to travel to Europe for three months out of the year, especially to France where he owned an apartment outside of Versailles. In 1975 he made a trip to South America, where he had commissions in Brazil.

Jean at 80 (1996) outside
his house in Pauling, NY

     He also visited Argentina and the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires, where, thirty-six years before he had had his famous "mishap." The pain in his back never left him. However, he continued to maintain contact with the world of ballet, and kept himself in excellent shape, exercising daily, and following a strict diet of organically grown foods, supplemented by a wide range of vitamins. In Pawling, he learned carpentry, built his own furniture, a sundeck for his house, a woodshed, and a guesthouse hidden away deep in his woods. Spring, summer, and fall he spent hours clearing the underbrush in these woods and alongside the steep banks of the delightful, fast-flowing, boulder-strewn brook that ran through his property. He harvested his own wood, chopped, split, and corded it for his fireplace, which burned brightly on chilly days and all through the winter. If a visitor was lucky enough to be invited for dinner, he, or most likely she - for Jean never wanted for female companionship - would be treated to chicken roasted over this fire, and sometimes a grilled steak.

     He enjoyed observing the deer as they came to feed in the meadow outside his picture windows, and, at the same time, admiring the wild flowers that grew there in great profusion. He was fiercely protective of these flowers, considering them more beautiful than any cultivated rose and scolded the hapless visitor who inadvertently happened to trample on them. "Please don't walk on the wild flowers!" he would say. He refused to use a lawn mower on his property.

Tabaud's Women

     It was only in 1980 that he gave up his studio in New York altogether and settled permanently in Pawling, traveling but once a year to France to visit old friends. He had no family. He never had any children. His mother and older sister - his only sibling - had died. His closest relative had been her daughter with whom he had lost touch years before. Jean Tabaud never chose to marry; although, the number of mistresses in his life were many. There were few women who could resist his natural charms. And his delightful French accent. Even after fifty years in the United States, he never lost it. Although from the French bourgeoisie, Jean had the manners of a highborn gentleman, and treated each woman he met as though she, too, was of royal blood.

     I came to the conclusion, after many years, that Jean loved all women to the extent that he could never commit himself to any one woman for life. After a period of observation, Tabaud could find something special in the countenance of each one of his subjects, no matter how poorly endowed by nature they might seem to the casual observer. It was not unusual for a woman to exclaim upon completion of her portrait, "I feel like I have just been made love to!"

     In an interview with the New York Times in 1966, Tabaud is quoted as saying that after he has painted a woman he knows her better than do her friends of ten years. "To paint," he said, "is an act of love whether the subject is a tree or a woman. …A person who feels she is being loved opens up and you get to know her."

     In 1954 the Palm Beach Daily News reported that "Tabaud makes his revelation of personality radiate from the source of personal expression, the eyes of his subjects. The individuality, then, shifts to the treatment of hair, the curve of lips and, finally, is crowned with poetic precision by a pure and thin contour line of exquisite delicacy."

Mexican Child

     Tabaud also excelled in painting children. Though he never had any of his own, he enjoyed painting them. The art critic of the Los Angeles Examiner said in his review of one of Tabaud's exhibits in 1956, "I am hard put to recall if I have ever seen more arresting pictures. It has been three days since I looked at his works and still their memory lingers in a most pleasing way. Especially the portraits of little children. He gives their faces marvelous expressions: as if they are, in a spiritual sense, on the threshold of adult experiences, as if some unknown force is pulling their thoughts into a world they would much rather back off from."


     In Pawling, Tabaud pleased friends and neighbors by drawing their portraits, free of charge. Whole days and evenings were spent reading the works of philosophers whose thoughts he had longed wished to examine but had never had the time to do so before. It was during this period that he wrote his World War II memoir and completed the manuscripts of three novels. All three of which sing praises of, pay homage to, the beauty of the female form - page after page. Two years after his death the Village of Pawling changed the name of the winding dirt road leading to his home from Gristmill Lane to Frenchman's Lane.


Jean Tabaud at 82 (1996)

     Jean spent the last five years of his life battling Lyme disease. But this debilitating disease was not diagnosed until three years before his death, when treatment by antibiotics was of little use. By age 79, his hearing began to fail, as well as his eyesight. At 80 he was diagnosed with cancer of the prostate and underwent major surgery. This dealt a particularly fierce blow to his self-esteem. At 82, having been fiercely independent all his life, he was denied a driver's license. He feared the prospect of ending his days in a nursing home, costing him most of his considerable, hard-earned fortune. Thus he made the decision to will all his money to the Maryknoll Catholic Missions in Peru, in care of my brother, Father Edmund Cookson. "For the children," he told me and his lawyer, "where it will do some good."

In the last letter he ever wrote, dated December 1, 1996 - two days before his death - Jean Tabaud wrote to Father Edmund Cookson in the Altiplano of Peru regarding the inheritance he was about to receive:

I trust you do the best work possible to improve the life of those poor people and the funds will be used wisely, in a solid practical way.

I like to imagine you standing in the bright sun of a pure sky, fulfilled by the task of the day. You have a splendid life--

Signed: Jean

Later he made me promise, "And, please, Elise, no prayers!" Jean had been born a Catholic, and raised by the Jesuits, but following the death of his father had never set foot in a church, of any kind, again. Shortly thereafter, he made his exit from this world, as his father had done before him: with a bullet in the head.

     Despite my promise, prayers were indeed said for Jean Tabaud by the population of the distant city of Yunguyo in the Altiplano of Peru, on the shores of Lake Titicaca. They took the form of a candlelight procession to the top of the highest surrounding mountain, where a Requiem Mass was said in remembrance of him. And following this, his photo was placed in the 16th century cathedral of Yunguyo, which his money helped to restore, and he is remembered in the daily prayers of the congregation.

     He died December 3, 1996. Eight years later, when I began my research on his biography, I discovered the following note among his papers. It was dated October 3, 1996:

For many years now I have suffered from chronic Lyme disease, which takes away all my strength. If the day comes when I no longer am able to assume the chores around the house, rather than pay somebody to do it for me - etc., etc. - I would chose to save the money for the people I leave it to. This means that I'll have to die a little sooner. With satisfaction.
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