Get to know painter Pierre Daura and his family in ‘Picturing Attachments’ at the IU Art Museum

Perhaps you haven’t heard of Pierre Daura. After all, the Catalan-American artist isn’t exactly a household name.

And that is precisely why you should see “Pierre Daura (1896-1976): Picturing Attachments” before the exhibition ends its run at the Indiana University Art Museum on Dec. 21.


In ‘Louise in a Black Dress,’ Pierre Daura posed his future wife like a queen. Their daughter Martha donated the painting to the Indiana University Art Museum in 2001.

Daura is an extraordinary modernist painter who studied with Pablo Picasso’s father in Spain, then moved to Paris, where he worked in the studio of prominent symbolist Emile Bernard.

But his work is more than that; it’s personal.

Daura’s American-born wife, Louise, and only child, Martha, inspired his art and served as his models, both as subjects and as metaphors for larger issues such as the human toll of war.

“In the case of Pierre Daura, I have never found an artist for whom the entire unfolding of his life inspired his creativity when it comes to his deepest personal attachments,” said Indiana University Art Museum director Adelheid Gealt, who organized the exhibition.

“He’s a remarkable artist. I wish I’d known him,” she said. “I’m glad I know his daughter.”


In 2000, a couple unexpectedly popped by Gealt’s office. A woman wondered whether the museum might be interested in her father’s work. Martha Daura’s father turned out to be a prolific painter – and a notable one.

The surprise meeting was the start of a friendship, a gift to the museum and years of research.

Gealt was especially attracted to Pierre Daura’s portraiture. When she initially selected work for the museum gift, she was unaware that a few of her favorite pieces captured key moments in the life of Martha and her mother.

One of Gealt’s long-term research projects has been examining major artists with this question in mind: How does the arc of life, especially in relation to their own family, influence their work? “The women who write art history tend to be interested in these questions,” she said.

The painter’s devotion to his wife and child is something Gealt finds deeply moving. “When Martha was born in 1930, that was the most welcome thing in his life. He remained devoted to the two of them,” she said.

When Daura was “picturing attachments,” he sometimes knowingly followed the conventions of great artists over the centuries. He painted his wife dressed in fancy costumes and his daughter while she slept. He suggested family harmony by showing his wife and daughter playing music together.

Yet at other times, Daura’s compositions were unique and highly individual. Later in life he painted himself as an older man with a cane, but in the same work he depicted his wife and daughter in their youth, as memories.

“He warms himself, literally, figuratively with these memories,” Gealt said. “These are enormously personal. This is totally his own language.”

Victims of war

Daura also developed a unique approach to images of war, a subject he knew well.

“For him it became specific. His own personal life was projected out to the people he saw suffering from war,” Gealt said.

Pierre Daura

After fighting in the Spanish civil war, Pierre Daura painted himself in uniform in many works such as ‘Self-Portrait as a Loyalist Soldier,’ 1939, IU Art Museum.

The artist was living in Paris when the first World War erupted, though the city itself was largely spared. In 1917, he returned to the Mediterranean island of Minorca for three years of required military service in the relative safety of a neutral Spain.

Daura went to Spain in 1937 to fight in its civil war, leaving his family and home in the French village of St. Cirq Lapopie. By now a 41-year-old with one good arm, his duty was to observe and direct gunfire for the Loyalist forces, who opposed Francisco Franco.

He recalled a battle in which, at the last moment, he stopped a gunner from firing at a military barracks that had surprisingly become a makeshift school. A child had stepped out of the shadows and in his mind, he saw the child as Martha.

Later in the war, Daura was shot in three places and returned to his family to recover.

He also returned to art. In a series of works, his family became something larger: the human family.

“Again, this is something that I had never seen another artist do, where his own family becomes the models for these victims of war,” Gealt said.


War soon changed the course of Daura’s life again. During an extended visit with Louise’s family in America, World War II broke out. The Daura family spent the war years exiled in Virginia, later establishing it as their permanent residence.

When artists are in exile, Gealt said, their work often turns to family. “The same thing happens with Daura. In America, the only thing left to him that he can really connect to is his own family, his wife and his daughter.”

Before returning to painting full time in the 1950s, he taught art at Lynchburg College and Randolph-Macon Woman’s College. He and his daughter became U.S. citizens. The family spent summers at their medieval home in St. Cirq Lapopie, but Pierre Daura never did return to Spain.

Over the course of his life, Daura’s artwork shifted back and forth between abstraction and realism. He remained a serious and devoted painter, but one who valued family over fame.

“Throughout his life there is this very specific reference to his personal life in his work,” Gealt said. “It’s not the only thing he does. He was a landscape painter. He painted professional portraits. He did lots of other subjects.

“But he always came back. There’s never a time when he isn’t referencing his family.”


When “Picturing Attachments” opened at the IU Art Museum, the show had a special visitor. The artist’s favorite model, his daughter Martha, was able to attend.

Martha in Her Graduation Dress

Pierre Daura painted ‘Martha in Her Graduation Dress’ in 1946 when she was 15. She gave it to the IU Art Museum in 2001.

Now 84, Martha has donated more than 20 of her father’s works to the IU Art Museum. It’s just one of the gifts she has distributed to museums in the United States and abroad. She donated the family home in St. Cirq Lapopie to the French government, and it now serves as a center for artist residencies.

“Pierre Daura (1896-1976): Picturing Attachments” will be open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday through Dec. 21.

The exhibition is documented in a richly illustrated catalog written by Gealt and published by the Georgia Museum of Art. In it, Daura’s artwork is accompanied by charming family photos of the Dauras.

In 2015, the exhibition travels to the Georgia Museum of Art, home of the Daura Center and archive, the Daura Gallery at Lynchburg College and the Joel and Lila Harnett Museum of Art at the University of Richmond.

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