Denyse de Bravura: French artist – an untold story


Denyse de Bravura in Paris

This is the untold story of Denyse de Bravura, an aspiring French artist and illustrator during les années folles and the thirty years following World War I. We were introduced to Denyse by our French teacher, Véronique Degas. One day, after class, we mentioned our book project on the French journalist, Claude Blanchard. Véronique told us she had a similar story that needed telling. Would we be interested? 

Mais oui,” said my wife, Kim, little knowing what lay ahead.

Denyse and my mother had been close friends in Paris,” recalled Véronique later that week, over a Provençal lunch outside her lovely old stone home, under the olive trees. “Years later, and unknown to me, Denyse had made me her heir. When she died I came into possession of all her drawings, sketches, correspondence, and diaries. Pouring through hundreds of documents, I discovered what her childhood and her life as an artist had been like. She knew I would want to tell her story.” 

Denyse’s family roots were tangled and tortuous. Her grandmother, Noémie, gave birth to two illegitimate girls. The first, Jeanne, appeared around 1860, and the second child, Germaine, twenty years later. By then, Noémi had settled into a bourgeois life with a respectable new husband in Marseilles. So, to hide her recent infidelity, she recruited her older daughter, Jeanne, to act as baby Germaine’s mother. 

A marriage between Jeanne and a suitable husband was hastily arranged, and the young couple was sent to India where baby Germaine’s false birth records were legalized. Years later, Germaine gave birth to Denyse, who was told Jeanne was her grandmother.  But, in fact, Jeanne was her aunt. It was complicated and, not unlike our French language classes with Véronique, hard to comprehend at first.

Denyse in Paris 1950s

I didn’t really know much about Denyse until later, near the end of her life, when she moved down to Fayence from Paris to retire,” said Vèronique. “She was tall, silver hair thrown back, always impeccably dressed in white pants, dark glasses that hid her blue eyes, and bare feet in sandals. When she spoke, a slight Russian accent only added to the gossip about her in the village. Every day, in an old Citroën, Denyse would go down the hill in search of food, cigarettes, and conversations with the locals she trusted: the butcher, the baker, and the bartender. She would walk, very dignified, with her juniper cane, as onlookers watched with admiration and astonishment. If the Citroën was not functioning, or out of gas, she walked to town with her little donkey, Jacotte, following along behind.”

As Kim and I began to dig into the voluminous collection of letters Denyse had written to her mother, and which Vèronique had archived, a picture of this remarkable woman came to light. 

Denyse at the beach in Cannes

She was, in her youth, a disheveled and energetic tomboy, un garçon manqué as the French may have said. She grew wild and free in the year-round sunshine that fired up the French Riviera.

While Coco Chanel and Madeleine Vionnet dominated haute couture, and the move away from stiff, formalized clothing in Paris, a young Denyse skied the Alps and swam out from the beaches of Cannes, where her mother, Germaine, lived. When Scott Fitzgerald left Cap d’Antibes for Hollywood in 1927, she was ten.

In the Alps

Jean Cocteau

Two years later, Jean Cocteau published Les Enfants Terribles, The Holy Terrors, the story of a fatherless brother and sister who torment each other in a ruthless game of one-upmanship. Like the characters in Cocteau’s book, Denyse shared a fatherless life with her brother, with both vying for the attention of Germaine. 

Cocteau and de Bravura were both born outside Paris, in the village of Maisons-Laffitte. They were separated by nearly thirty years, but their paths were about to cross. 

Mustapha Marcel Khelilou ben Abdelkader – Marcel Khill

In 1936, encouraged by her art teacher in Cannes, Denyse moved to Paris, hoping to find work as an illustrator. But there was nothing for her in the male-dominated world of illustrators, and she returned home. Not one to give up, she tried once again the following year.

Marcel Khill and Titaÿna and Jean Cocteau

There, she met and fell in love with Mustapha Marcel Khelilou ben Abdelkader, Marcel Khill, the ex-lover of Jean Cocteau. Through Marcel, she joined the tight circle of Cocteau’s friends including Coco Chanel, Jean Marais, Christian Bérard, and Jean Hugo. New jobs followed, even one designing for Chanel. But her mother, Germaine, didn’t approve of Marcel, his friends, or life in Paris.


Photo of Marcel by Denyse de Bravura

When France declared war against Germany in 1939, Marcel was mobilized and sent to the fight in Alsace. He returned briefly, on leave, in 1940.  Not long after, he and Denyse were married, by proxy, from the Front where Marcel had been awarded the Croix de Guerre for his bravery.

Jean Cocteau at left with Coco Chanel by Denyse

Along with thousands of others, Denyse had to leave as the German army advanced on Paris. Through her new friends, she was invited to stay at Castel Novel in Corrèze, in the home of Renaud de Jouvenel, son-in-law of the writer, Colette. There, Denyse met and became friends with Bel-Gazou, Colette’s daughter.

When France surrendered on June 17, French soldiers were demobilized and sent home and Denyse waited anxiously for Marcel. He never returned, and no one knew where he was. Denyse was overcome with depression and returned home to Cannes where she retreated into the mountains. 

Denyse understood depression and loneliness

Two years later, in 1942, she learned from the German Red Cross that Marcel was dead. He had been shot a few days after the Armistice because the soldiers in his sector, French and German, had not received the news in time. 

Denyse de Bravura Career Ups and Downs

The following spring, Denyse emerged from her despair and met the young publisher, Laurent Rombaldi, who commissioned her to do illustrations for his new book, ‘Le Portrait’ by Gogol. Other projects followed and she returned to Paris to work during the Occupation. 

Despite a life that was difficult in terms of housing, food, and heating, Denyse persevered, with projects like her illustrations for ‘Pictordu’ by Georges Sand. 

With the Liberation of Paris, and then the post-war period, life for Denyse was even more difficult. Long periods without work left her depressed, penniless, without food, or a place of her own. Yet she refused to give up and found shelter in the homes of her friends. There, she helped create a community of artists with Bel-Gazou and the Belgian poet Théo Léger. Slowly, and painfully, she became a much sought-after illustrator for several books including:

  • ‘La Jeune Fille Nue’ by Francis Jammes
  • ‘La Route au Tabac’ (Tobacco Road) by Erskine Caldwell and
  • ‘Le Petit Arpent du Bon Dieu’ by Erskine Caldwell, Editions du Pré-aux-Clercs.
  • ‘ The Trojan War Will Not Take Place’ by Jean Giraudoux, Neveu Editions.


Constantly looking for more work, she also proposed designs for women’s gloves, and the sets for the ballet “Escales” by Jacques Ibert, which was performed at the Paris Opera. 

Book Illustrations

More book illustrations followed in the 1950s, including:

  • ‘Book of Monelle. by Marcel Schwob, Rombaldi Editions.
  • ‘La Jeune Fille Verte. by Paul-Jean Toulet, Rombaldi Editions.
  • From 1953 to the early 1960s, illustrations of the complete works of Julien Green at Plon Publishing. 

In 1963, fed up with life in the city, and her years of struggle as a female artist, Denyse retired and returned to the sunny south of France. She never picked up a brush or pen again. Instead, she bought an isolated old farmhouse in Tourrettes, near the home of our French teacher, Veronique, and not far from our home in Seillans. 

She was only 75 when she passed away on March 19, 1993.

Have you ever come across the story of Denyse de Bravura? What an extraordinary untold story! Please share your thoughts in the comments below.


Image Credits:
Copyright all Photographs by Mark Jespersen from the Véronique Degas Collection.


About the Contributor

Mark & Kim Jespersen

Born in San Francisco and raised in Chicago, I fled Minnesota and landed on the coast of New England (as far as I could go at the time). There I met my wife, Kim, in a used bookshop. Fifteen years ago, we set sail for France. Creating – from music to writing to photography to art — keeps us busy.

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  1. Nilgün Mar 16, 2024 at 7:19 PM - Reply

    Fabulous! Congratulations fo both of you… We fondly remember the great time we had at your lovely house.

  2. Mark Jespersen Mar 25, 2024 at 1:55 AM - Reply

    Thanks Nilgün!

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