Ryan, Arlette (1892-1987)

Ryan, Arlette (1892-1987)
Ryan, Arlette (1892-1987)

French artist Arlette Ryan transformed herself from a society beauty, often gracing the canvas of many an artist’s oeuvre, to an artist in her own right. In a series of captivating, soulful portraits and figure studies, Ryan captured both friends and family, and prominent French figures of the early 20th century.

Born into a family of socialites, it would have been common for Ryan, as a young woman, to mix with many of the illustrious and industrious circles of high society in Paris. Here she would have most likely come into contact with the many artists who swamped the scene, desiring to depict the likenesses of the vivacious lives which prospered in such an environment.

In the passionately vivid and strikingly lively pastel portraits of Marcel Baschet (1862-1941) and Paul César Helleu (1859-1927), Ryan is captured. With doe eyes and a cunning smile, she inspires intelligence and intrigue. Baschet in particular depicted Ryan on several occasions, and it seems likely her family had forged a strong relationship with the artist, as we shall see.

In 1920, Ryan married a wealthy American businessman, John Ryan, thus fulfilling her role as a daughter, marrying rich and forging connections. She moved with her new husband to the United States, living with him there until his death, only a few years into their marriage. History goes silent at this point, however it seems that Ryan decided on a return to France, for it is there, in the 1930s, that she begins to exhibit her own work as an artist for the first time.

Her family’s prior connection with Baschet became valuable, it seems, for Ryan received training at the Académie Julian, where Baschet was a teacher. Académie Julian was a private and prestigious art school in the heart of Paris. Ryan clearly received an excellent education. Combined with natural talent, this resulted in arresting, compelling portraits.

The influence of Baschet, and even Helleu, can be seen in the quickly struck lines Ryan utilises to carefully construct her subject’s visage. Conjured from a bold, block colour background which brings emphasis to the subject, Ryan’s sitters burst into the centre of her canvases. Eyes brim with emotion, from the pleasant to the seemingly agonised.

Perhaps her experience from modelling aided Ryan in her own artistic endeavours. She could sympathise with her sitters, conjuring up a close relationship between artist and subject which led to strong characterisation. It might have also influenced the mood of her portrait. An image, gifted to a friend, is executed in luminous liveliness, the subject seems aglow with beauty and good health. On the other hand, a study of her sister, Suzanne Warrain, seems deeply set with melancholy. The rosy-pink hue she sinks into is muddy, her expression is tormented, eyes deeply set and dark.

It seems Ryan was quite successful in her painting career. Not only did she execute works for her friends and family, but also painted prominent members of French society, such as Baschet’s brother René Baschet (1860-1949). Indeed, René Baschet was director of the French news publication L’Illustration, a magazine on whose front page Ryan’s work would appear. This is not to propose favouritism but to suggest that Ryan’s growing reputation and the expanding attention she received were bringing her talent to more and more people. It might have even earnt her commissions.

Ryan received a silver medal from the esteemed Paris Salon in 1941. After this, little is known about Ryan’s artistic and personal whereabouts. She travelled to Brazil on numerous occasions, although the reason for this is unknown. Nonetheless, her legacy as an artist is evident in her singular and stunning portraits which seem to cut down to the very core of her sitter.


Born in Paris, France.


Married John Ryan. Moved to the USA.


Began exhibiting at the Art Salon, Paris, France.


Awarded a silver medal at the Paris Salon.


Died in Paris, France.

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