In 2010 longtime trustee Denise Fitch gave the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco an extensive collection of drawings by her first husband, artist René Bouché (1905–1963). Bouché—who contributed illustrations to esteemed publications such as Vogue and Time Magazine—is the subject of the special exhibition René Bouché: Letters from Post-War Paris at the Legion of Honor. Friends with both Man Ray and Lee Miller, Mrs. Fitch and René Bouché led rich lives that sparkled with art, culture, humor, and glamour.
I recently sat down with Mrs. Fitch to reminisce about her life with René Bouché and was delighted to be regaled with captivating tales of the world’s cultural and political impresarios. An effervescent octogenarian, Mrs. Fitch has tirelessly supported the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, and her love of art, theater, and people is evident in the artwork and furnishings that decorate her Pacific Heights home.
During the 1950s, Mrs. Fitch was an accessories editor at Vogue, where she met Bouché. According to Mrs. Fitch, their first encounters were over the phone. When they finally met in person at a cocktail party, they struck up a fast friendship, which ultimately evolved into something more.
They spent the next six years together before finally marrying in 1962. Just over a year later, on July 3, 1963, Bouché died suddenly of a heart attack in East Grinstead, Sussex, England, where he was working on a portrait of the Archbishop of Canterbury.
During their short time together, Mrs. Fitch and Bouché hobnobbed with artists, politicians, and fashion designers, including Alexander Calder (Bouché’s best friend), the Kennedys (who nicknamed him “Paintbrush”), and the incomparable (if irascible) Coco Chanel.
Although he is known for his figurative work, Bouché was closely associated with several Abstract Expressionist artists including Robert Motherwell and Willem de Kooning. “They all teased him about his penchant for portraiture—but René just loved the human landscape,” Mrs. Fitch remarked.
Of his technique, she recalls, “Nothing escaped his eye. It could have been a moustache or an old man’s pair of shoes.” His elegant economy of line demonstrated not only Bouché’s acute sense of observation, but also a deep compassion for his subjects.
Bouché was a veritable ladies’ man who recognized that fashion illustration would be his “bread and butter,” but Mrs. Fitch asserted that he preferred to portray male faces. During a sitting, Bouché would create many sketches, always presenting the best one to the sitter as a gift.
“He was a bullfighter,” said Mrs. Fitch with that ever-present twinkle in her eye. “He attacked the canvas, grunting loudly, and he would also make a funny kind of noise when he felt that he had finished.”
This approach proved rather awkward when Time Magazine commissioned Bouché to make a portrait of President John F. Kennedy (now in the National Portrait Gallery). Kennedy had begrudgingly agreed, as long as Bouché “stood in the corner quietly.” Bouché’s charm and talent ultimately won out over his voluble creativity, and President Kennedy inscribed his portrait: “To René, who makes the difficult look easy.”
When Lee Miller became a war correspondent for Vogue during World War II, she and Bouché forged a lasting friendship. A decade later, Mrs. Fitch and Bouché travelled to Poughkeepsie, New York with Miller to attend to her ailing father. “René was devoted to Lee,” said Mrs. Fitch.
Their tight-knit community of artists also proved to be devoted friends, and after Bouché’s unexpected death, Robert Motherwell, Alexander “Sandy” Calder, and Man Ray visited Mrs. Fitch often and continued to look after her.
René Bouché: Letters from Post-War Paris will be on display at the Legion of Honor through October 14.