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French Artist Pierre Le-Tan Leaves an Indelible Mark

Mitchell Owens

Acclaimed for everything from theater sets to furniture designs to book illustrations, French artist Pierre Le-Tan, who died of cancer on Tuesday at the age of 69, was the caliph of crosshatching. His finely intersecting scratchings of India ink delicately expressed shadows or indicated tonal variations amid a macaron palette of watercolors, another of his signatures. As for Le-Tan’s oeuvre, world-weary melancholy spiced with Surrealism is the best description. Intérieur à la coiffeuse, a 1998 work, appears to be a study of a dressing table illumined by a single lamp—that is, until one notices a woman’s elegantly shod foot slipping out of view, a diverting detail that sparks multiple narratives and myriad questions. Is she fleeing? If so, from what, or from (or to) whom?

Born in the comfortable Paris suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine, Le-Tan was brought up in a family that was steeped in creativity. His father was Le Pho (1907–2001), a distinguished, highly collectable Hanoi-born French painter—himself the son of Le Hoan, viceroy of Tonkin in the 1880s—who was admired for his post-Impressionistic scenes of colorful flowers and the lissome Asian women embowered within them. His dashing mother, Paulette Vaux, was a French journalist for Time and Life magazines and a niece of the photographer Marc Vaux.

Architectural Fragment, from his last exhibition, La Collection de Monsieur X.
Photo: Tom Carter / Courtesy of Tristan Hoare Gallery

“My father gave me the taste of drawing and being a collector,” Le-Tan once wrote. “Today, I collect cracked pieces of porcelain.... It may be a bit ridiculous. I went to museums to see exhibitions, to antique shops.... I followed my parents. I frequented the friends of my parents, and all that plunged me into this environment. And I have not changed. Today, timidity is still there, and also the nostalgia of the past periods.”

Le-Tan followed in his father’s footsteps, precociously so: At the age of 19, he produced a painting that became the cover of the February 14, 1970, issue of The New Yorker—an empty Yves Klein–blue room where an open window framed a red heart floating, like an alternative moon, in a beclouded sky. Some 20 covers for the magazine followed, with subjects ranging from crockery arranged on a shelf (June 14, 1982) to a sedan navigating a dark and lonely road during a pelting rain (April 14, 1980). For Manhattan dealer R. Louis Bofferding, a close friend, Le-Tan drew choice items in his stock for opening invitations, and, for the announcement of a new shop, a captivating view of its façade. He also produced illustrations for The World of Interiors, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, and other publications, as well as for more than 100 books, a number of them for Umberto Pasti and the Nobel Prize–winning novelist Patrick Modiano. Le-Tan’s latest cover can be seen on A Booklover’s Guide to New York, written by his daughter Cléo Le-Tan and published in October by Rizzoli.

A 1963 photograph of Pierre Le-Tan's brother, Alain; his father, the artist Le Pho; his mother, Paulette; and Pierre.
Photo: Courtesy of Findlay Galleries

In addition to Cléo, Le-Tan is survived by a son, Alexis, a DJ and musician, and Olympia, an accessories designer for whom he designed fabrics, all from his marriage to his first wife, an Englishwoman known as Plum. He also leaves his African second wife, Toboré, and their children, Edward and Zoe; his mother; and a brother, Alain.

Le-Tan’s inventions leaped off the page too, deployed in advertising campaigns for Hermès and the deluxe like, the decoration of Tory Burch’s Paris boutique, a great map of the world for the London restaurant Mirabelle, and even an unexpected collaboration with J. Crew. For Quadrille, a 1997 movie adaptation of the 1937 Sacha Guitry play of the same name, he conjured up candy-colored sets that looked for all the world like habitable, three-dimensional versions of his drawings, though the furniture—boldly painted and crosshatched to a fare-thee-well—could actually be used for its intended purposes. Private clients flocked to his side, such as Manhattan decorator Delphine Krakoff and her Tiffany & Co. chief artistic officer husband, Reed, who hired the artist to design a playroom for their children.

An illustration by Le-Tan from A Booklover’s Guide to New York.
Photo: Courtesy of Rizzoli

Whatever the scale of the commission, Le-Tan’s work—by turns unsettlingly mysterious and suavely chic—nearly always hinted at the 1940s, when Jean Cocteau, Christian Bérard, et al. were reveling in Neo-Romanticism. “He likes the ’40s, and you can feel in his drawings that he would rather have lived back then than now,” Olympia Le-Tan said in a 2012 interview on Purple Diary.

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That interest in the 1940s extended to the artist’s personal connoisseurship, which ranged from a whimsical butterfly-painted chest of drawers that Jansen made for the Duchess of Windsor to Renaissance marbles to 18th-century Turkish carpets (a particular passion), all contained within his high-ceilinged apartment, once Cocteau’s own, in Paris’s tony place du Palais-Bourbon. Le-Tan collected so much, in fact, and with such exquisite if budget-savaging avarice, that he periodically would let things go to various dealers in Europe and America or disperse select treasures at auction houses. “If I weren’t a collector,” he once observed, “I’d be a gambler.”

Originally Appeared on Architectural Digest