Sylvette David

French, b. 1934

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Sylvette David was born into a bohemian family. Her father, Emmanuel David, was an art dealer in Paris, and her mother, Honor Gell, was an oil painter and the daughter of an English vicar. The couple divorced before Sylvette was born, and Gell moved her daughter and two sons to a nudist colony on an island off the French Riviera.1 At the age of fifteen David was sent to a progressive boarding school in England called Summerhill, where she met Toby Jellenix, who would become her first husband.

When David was seventeen years old, she and Jellenix moved to southern France with her mother and brother. Jellenix made avant-garde metal chairs. Pablo Picasso noticed the chairs and asked Jellenix to bring some to his nearby studio. David accompanied him. Picasso subsequently presented a picture of her that he had drawn from memory and asked that she model for him. For three months in 1954, David worked as his model and started drawing while she posed. Her beauty and style inspired women, including Brigitte Bardot, who appropriated her look.

According to David, after Jellenix fell in love with her best friend, she had an intense spiritual experience. She remarried and moved to England. She began painting in her forties and signed her name Lydia Corbett to distinguish her identity as an artist from her role as a model; she later added a second signature to these early paintings, using her real name. Her oil-on-board and watercolor paintings often feature flowers, female figures, and mermaids.

Portfolio of Work

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Couple in Bed, n.d.

Oil on board

French

Anemones, n.d.

Oil on board

French

Self-portrait, n.d.

Oil on board

French

The Mermaid, n.d.

Oil on board

French

Donated to the Milwaukee Art Museum

Holding Hands Around the World, n.d.

Ink and watercolor on paper

British

Donated to the Milwaukee Art Museum

Devon, 1989

Oil on board

British

Donated to the Milwaukee Art Museum

Sur La Route Romaine, n.d.

Watercolor on paper

British

Blackbird Song, n.d.

Oil on board

British

Donated to the Milwaukee Art Museum

Cyclamen in the Japanese Moonlight, n.d.

Ink and watercolor on paper

British

Donated to the Milwaukee Art Museum

Pansy Friends, n.d.

Oil on canvas

British

Donated to the Milwaukee Art Museum

The Tea Pot, 1989

Oil on board

British

Donated to the Milwaukee Art Museum

Endnotes 1. See Anthony Harrison, “Pablo and the Ponytail,” Guardian, December 10, 2004.