The honeymoon is over: Jacques Henri Lartigue's intimate photographs reveal the truth behind his troubled marriage

As a new London exhibition will reveal, the famed French photographer's shots of his bohemian socialite wife lay bare the underlying truths of their tumultuous relationship

The photographer has dared to enter the private space of her bathroom – yet the young French socialite Madeleine Messager is far from angry. In fact, perched on the lavatory, she dares to gaze coquettishly back into the lens. The man behind the camera: the renowned French photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue. It is 17 December 1919, the night of their wedding, and Messager – better known by her nickname Bibi – is in love.

Lartigue captured Bibi's free spirit in a blizzard of photographs that would receive a public audience only five decades later – when a collection of 100,000 of his shots was discovered by the Rado agency. Yet, while Messager was at first the smiling focus of Lartigue's passion, by 1928, her joie de vivre had all but vanished…

The daughter of the French composer André Messager and fêted Irish opera singer Hope Temple, Bibi mixed in the same high-society crowd as Lartigue's wealthy industrialist family. When they met in the Alps, in 1918, it was the playful Bibi who gave chase to the deeply inhibited Lartigue. Drawn to her bohemian nature, he proposed. "She's wonderful, joyful, intelligent and curious," he marvelled in his diary.

Like many high-society couples, they spent seasons in Biarritz and Paris and on the Riviera; all the time, Lartigue's lens capturing France's elite at leisure; all the time, Bibi at the centre, whether at yoga or frolicking on the beach.

While the birth of their son Dany, in 1921, did little to dent their glamorous lifestyle, that smile first faltered when tragedy struck in 1924, with the premature death of their daughter Véronique at just a few months old. Consumed by sorrow, the couple threw themselves into the jazz-soaked party scene – and Lartigue's eyes began to wander.

No longer the sole object of his desire, Bibi was now frequently shot in the company of other women, sometimes even relegated to the periphery. Lartigue embarked on a series of affairs and luxuriated in the attention, and Bibi was less than happy with this arrangement: melancholy fills the frame of a shot of her taken while on a trip to Marseilles in 1928 (page 22, bottom).

Yet when Bibi made the decision to file for divorce, Lartigue was devastated. "My broken heart only wishes her well," he declared. The divorce marked not only the end of a relationship but also a change in his photographic style.

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1919: Jacques Henri Lartigue, Agay, Cap du Dramont

The celebrated fashion portraits he took of his subsequent partner – the Romanian model Renée Perle – lack both the spontaneity of his earlier work and the joyfulness that his first wife instilled in him. "I don't like this period," agrees Maryse Cordesse, curator of a new exhibition of his shots of Bibi at the Photographers' Gallery. "Yes, Renée was more beautiful, but she poses."

Lartigue was to spend the next 30 years in relative poverty: the family home sold off, he painted portraits to make ends meet. It was not until the age of 69, while he was married to his third wife, that Lartigue's body of work was discovered by the wider art world, with an exhibition of his albums at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1963.

As for Bibi, she found happiness elsewhere, moving to St-Tropez after the divorce, to live the rest of her days away from the lens. "I'm sad that they did not stay together," says Cordesse, who knew Lartigue well in his later life. "She was the living part of the couple."

'Jacques Henri Lartigue: Bibi' is at The Photographer's Gallery, London W1, from 11 October to 5 January

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