Christian Bérard (1902 – 1949) was a flamboyant French artist know affectionately by his friends as Bébé. He painted portraits and nudes, designed decors and costumes and illustrated books and fashion magazines.
Bérard was born in Paris, the son of an architect. As a youngster, he was captivated by the theatre and ballet and collected pictures of costume and scenery designs that he kept in scrapbooks. He studied at the prestigious, Lycée Janson de Sailly in Paris. From 1920 to 1923, he attended the Académie Ranson, where he studied with painter Édouard Vuillard.
In 1924, Bérard had his first exhibition of paintings. Painting was his first love, but in the 1930s, to earn an income, he began illustrating and designing fabrics and interiors. He found fame as a fashion illustrator, starting in 1935 for Harpers Bazaar and Vogue magazines. During the 1930s and 1940s, Bérard illustrated for many of the leading designers, including: Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, Madeleine Vionnet, Nina Ricci and Elsa Schiaparelli.
In the early 1930s, in collaboration with Jean Cocteau, Bérard started to do theatre set and costume design. He worked with directors Louis Jouvet and Jean-Louis Barrault, and choreographer Serge Lifar. Bérard also collaborated with French interior designer Jean-Michel Frank. In 1939, Frank hired Bérard to paint trompe-l’oeil paneling for the Institut Guerlain in Paris. Bérard is especially remembered today for his enchanting set and costume designs for Cocteau’s film La Belle et la Bête (1946).
In 1949, while working at the Théàtre Marigny, Bérard died suddenly on the stage just after having cried “It’s over!”. He was taken by a heart attack at just 46-years-old.
Bérard was a central and celebrated figure in the artistic Parisian social circles of his era. His boyfriend was Boris Kochno (1904-1990) a Russian poet, dancer and librettist who moved to Paris in 1920. He was impresario Sergei Diaghilev‘s assistant, librettist, and main collaborator. They were also briefly lovers. In 1925, Kochno had an affair with songwriter Cole Porter, with whom he carried on a longtime correspondence. Kocho worked for the Ballets Russes and was also co-founder of the Ballets des Champs-Elysées.
Together, Bérard and Kochno were one of the most noted openly gay couples in Paris during the 1930s and 1940s.
Bérard is one of the truly great Bohemian characters. The prince of Parisian nightlife, he was celebrated for his kindness and his chubby physique. He was photographed by Man Ray, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Richard Avedon; composer Francis Poulenc dedicated his Stabat Mater (1950) to Bérard, and Cocteau dedicated Orphée (1950) to this influential, eccentric artist. Gertrude Stein‘s poem Christian Bérard is included in her collection Portraits And Prayers (1934).
Bérard’s work can be seen in the world’s great galleries and museums, including the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City.