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About Catherine Hessling
Catherine Hessling (born Andrée Madeleine Heuschling) was a French actress and the first wife of film director Jean Renoir. Hessling appeared in 15, mostly silent, films before retiring from the acting profession and withdrawing from public life in the mid-1930s.
Born in Champagne-Ardennes, Hessling sought refuge in Nice during World War I. In 1917, her beauty came to the attention of Henri Matisse, who sent her to fellow artist Pierre-Auguste Renoir as he thought she looked like a suitable Renoir subject. Hessling modelled, sometimes naked, for Renoir until his death in December 1919. Renoir's second son, Jean, fell in love with Hessling, and the couple married on 24 January 1920. Hessling gave birth to a son, Alain, on 31 October 1921.
Jean Renoir had been planning a career in ceramic art, but decided instead to try his hand in the medium of film in order, he would later claim, to try to make Hessling a star. While both were aficionados of American films, and Hessling would copy fashions and behaviour she saw on the screen, she had in fact never had any thought or ambition to become an actress herself.
Renoir produced his first script, Catherine, in 1924. Albert Dieudonné would direct the film. Renoir devised for Hessling a very stark, exaggerated look, with the mouth and eyes a penetrating black against white facial make-up, which was again used in his first full-length film La Fille de l'eau, and the lavish and costly 1926 adaptation of Emile Zola's Nana, in which Hessling's performance has been described as characteristically stylised and unsubtle, but yet appropriate for this role.
Hessling would appear in three more Renoir films before the couple separated in 1931. It was rumoured that she had expected to play the role of Lulu in Renoir's sound film La Chienne, and felt betrayed when the film's producers insisted on, and Renoir agreed to, another actress (Janie Marèse) in the role. Following the couple's separation (divorce would not be finalised until 1943), Hessling appeared in minor roles in three sound films, and had a brief career as a dancer, before abandoning showbusiness completely. She lived the rest of her life thereafter out of the public eye.
Hessling died in suburban Paris on 28 September 1979, aged 79. Jean Renoir had died in California earlier the same year.