Mary-Antoinette Courbebaisse and Claude Cahun: A Legacy of Self-Expression

The Origins: A Tale of Two Women

The story of Mary-Antoinette Courbebaisse is deeply intertwined with that of her daughter, the 20th-century artist Claude Cahun, born Lucy Schwob. This tale begins with Lucy’s birth on October 25, 1894, in Nantes, France. Born into a prominent intellectual Jewish family, her father, Maurice Schwob, was a well-known figure in the media as the owner and publisher of the regional newspaper, Le Phare de la Loire. Her mother, Victorine Mary-Antoinette Courbebaisse, unfortunately, suffered from mental illness, which led to her permanent residency in a psychiatric facility when Lucy was just four years old. Raised by her grandmother, Mathilde, in her mother’s absence, Lucy’s early life was marked by significant familial and societal challenges.

Challenges and Changes: From Lucy to Claude

At the age of 12, Lucy moved to England for schooling, escaping harassment from her French classmates due to her Jewish heritage. It was during her teenage years that she met Suzanne Malherbe, who would later become her life-long partner and collaborator. Suzanne, who later changed her name to Marcel Moore, played a crucial role in Lucy’s life and artistic journey.

In a bold move at the age of 18, Lucy Schwob adopted the name Claude Cahun, signifying a profound statement against conventional gender and sexual norms of the time. This name change was not just a personal choice but a political statement, challenging the rigid binary views of gender and sexuality prevalent in society.

A Creative Partnership: Cahun and Moore

Cahun’s creative journey was deeply connected with that of Marcel Moore. They formed not just a romantic partnership but a creative duo that defied conventional norms. Cahun’s father’s remarriage to Marie Eugenie Malherbe, Moore’s mother, made them stepsisters, adding another layer to their unconventional relationship.

Artistic Exploration: Gender, Identity, and Photography

Claude Cahun is celebrated for her pioneering work in photography and writing, which deeply explored themes of gender and sexual identity. Her stark, playful, and often ambiguous photographs from the 1920s in Paris stand out for their exploration of self-representation. Cahun often depicted herself in various guises and genders, challenging the viewer’s perception of identity. In one of her notable works, she confronts the viewer with dual silhouetted portraits, posing the question, “What do you want from me?” This exploration is further elaborated in her writings, particularly in “Disavowals,” where she states, “Feminine? Masculine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.”

Legacy and Recognition: A Lasting Impact

Claude Cahun’s work gained significant recognition in the 1990s, a period when global conversations around gender issues were gaining momentum. Her photographs, often a collaborative effort with Marcel Moore, have been exhibited in numerous museums worldwide, including in Paris, Washington, London, Warsaw, Melbourne, and more. Her art and life story continue to inspire scholars, artists, and activists, particularly in the fields of art history, feminism, and LGBTQ+ studies.

Summary Table

Aspect Details
Early Life Born Lucy Schwob in 1894, Nantes. Raised by grandmother Mathilde.
Family Background Daughter of Maurice Schwob and Mary-Antoinette Courbebaisse. Prominent intellectual Jewish family.
Name Change Changed name to Claude Cahun at 18 to challenge gender norms.
Partner and Creative Collaborator Met Suzanne Malherbe (Marcel Moore), forming a life-long partnership.
Artistic Work Known for photography and writing exploring gender and sexual identity. Famous for challenging traditional gender representations.
Legacy and Recognition Gained recognition in the 1990s; influential in art history, feminism, and LGBTQ+ studies.
Cultural Impact Symbolizes the power of self-expression and breaking societal norms.


The Power of Self-Discovery The life and work of Claude Cahun, and her relationship with her mother, Mary-Antoinette Courbebaisse, tell a story of resilience, creativity, and the power of self-expression. Their story transcends time, offering inspiration and insight into the journey of breaking free from societal norms and discovering one’s true self.

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