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Dates: b.1889 - d.1963
Jean Cocteau was born outside of Paris in the last years of the Belle Epoque. His father a lawyer and painter committed suicide when Cocteau was nine years old. At fifteen he left home. At nineteen he published his first book of poetry, Aladdin’s Lamp. Despite success in a number of creative fields Cocteau thought of himself as first and foremost a poet. Read more…
Jean Cocteau was born outside of Paris in the last years of the Belle Epoque. His father a lawyer and painter committed suicide when Cocteau was nine years old. At fifteen he left home. At nineteen he published his first book of poetry, Aladdin’s Lamp. Despite success in a number of creative fields Cocteau thought of himself as first and foremost a poet. In the years just before World War I Cocteau began to make a name for himself as a writer becoming associated with Marcel Proust and André Gide. He also met the legendary Sergei Diaghilev of Les Ballets Russes who challenged Cocteau to experiment with Ballet challenging him with the now famous line, “Etonne-moi” or “Surprise me.” Cocteau responded by writing the libretto for Le Dieu Bleu.
During the Great War Cocteau served in the Red Cross as an ambulance driver for a year. After leaving the Red Cross he returned to his bohemian circle. It was during this period that he met many of the artists who would become lifelong friends and collaborators such as Guillaume Apollinaire, Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani. In 1917 Picasso and Cocteau proposed a collaboration to Sergei Diaghilev that became the ballet, ‘Parade’. ‘Parade’ was to bring togethersome of the leading members of the avant garde. The ballet was designed by Pablo Picasso, choreographed by Leonide Massine and composed by Erik Satie.
In his thirties Cocteau became addicted to opium. His most famous book, ‘Les Enfants Terribles’, was written while suffering withdrawls from Opium. He went on to write ‘Opium, Diary of an Addict’ in which he combines the details of his withdrawl experiences with personal thoughts on the people and events in his circle. Over the next several years he alternately battled his addiction and created some of his best known works of theatre; ‘La Machine Infernal’, ‘La Voix Humaine’,( The Human Voice) 1930, ‘Les Chevaliers de la Table Rounde’, (The Knights of the Round Table) 1937, Les Parents Terribles (Intimate Relations) 1938, Le Bel Indifférent, (written for and starring Édith Piaf) 1940, and La Machine a Ecrire, (The Typewriter) 1941.
Cocteau did eventually successfully overcome his addiction and returned to film as a medium (his first film, The Blood of a Poet was released in 1930). After striking up a friendship with the actor Jean Marais Cocteau seemed to have found his muse. They began a director/actor collaboration with The Eternal Return (1943) and went on with Beauty and the Beast (1946), and Orpheus (1950). He made a few more experimental films in the 1950’s, his final film being, Le testament d'Orphée (The Testament of Orpheus) (1960).
In 1957 Cocteau finished his first church murals in the Chapelle Saint-Pierre located in the French Riviera town of Villefranche-Sur-Mer. The façade and the exterior depict the life of Saint Peter and an homage to Saint-Mary-of-the-Sea
and the ladies of Villefranche. He continued with frescoes and decorations at the registry office in Menton and redecoration with the themes from Greek mythology of an ancient theatre at The Mediterranean Centre for French Studies in Cap d’Ail, France.
It was the French cultural advisor in London, Monsieur René Varin who conceived the idea of asking Jean Cocteau to paint murals for Notre Dame de France in London. The French catholic church had been heavily damaged in the blitz and was being rebuilt and redecorated. Cocteau completed the murals between the 3rd and 11th November 1959. The theme he chose to depict was the Annunciation, the Crucifixion and the Assumption. It is said that he spoke out loud to the characters as he was drawing them. While painting the virgin he is quoted as saying, ““O you, most beautiful of women, loveliest of God’s creatures, you were the best loved. So I want you to be my best piece of work too… I am drawing you with light strokes… You are the yet unfinished work of Grace”.
Other church decorations include: Interior frescos at Chapelle Saint-Blaise des Simples (1960) at Milly-la-Foret, France, motifs on the stained glass windows at the Chapelle des Gournay, (1962) and for the Église Saint-Maximin in Metz, France and frescoes for the Chapelle Notre-Dame de Jérusalem in Frejus, France. Cocteau died before it’s the completion of Chapelle Notre-Dame de Jérusalem. Edouard Dermit and Roger Pelissier, the ceramic artist, finished it in 1965.
Jean Cocteau died of a heart attack at his chateau in Milly-la-Foret, France, on 11 October 1963 at the age of 74. He is buried in the Chapelle Saint Blaise Des Simples in Milly La Foret, Essonne, France. His epitaph reads: "Je reste avec vous" (I stay among you).
Jean Cocteau was a member of the Académie Française and The Royal Academy of Belgium. He was commander of the Legion of Honor, Member of the Mallarmé Academy, German Academy (Berlin), American Academy, Honorary President of the Cannes film festival, Honorary President of the France-Hungary Association and President of the Jazz Academy.
The Jean Cocteau Museum is located in Menton, France.