Jean Cocteau was born in Maisons-Lafitte into a wealthy Parisian family. His father was a lawyer and amateur painter who committed suicide when Cocteau was nine. Cocteau’s father had a lasting influence on his son. According to psychoanalytical critics this tragic event also created his awareness of human weakness which he compensated by putting himself in the service of the performing arts and the mysterious forces in the universe. Poetry was for Cocteau the basis of all art, a “religion without hope.” In the secondary school Cocteau was only a mediocre student who was unsuccessful after repeated attempts to pass the graduation examination. He published his first volume of poems, ‘Aladdin’s Lamp’, at the age of 19.
Soon Cocteau became known as ‘The Frivolous Prince’ — the title of a volume of poems he published at twenty-one. In 1915 he met Pablo Picasso and fell under his spell. “I admired his intelligence, and clung to everything he said, for he spoke little; I kept still so as not to miss a word. There were long silences and Varese could not understand why we stared wordlessly at each other. In talking, Picasso used a visual syntax, and you could immediately see what he was saying. He liked formulas and summoned himself up in his statements as he summoned himself up and sculptured himself in objects that he immediately made tangible.”
In 1918, Cocteau formed an intimate friendship with a 15 year old novelist, Raymond Radiguet. Radiguet strongly influenced Cocteau’s art and life. The young writer would die from typhoid fever in 1923. His death was a severe blow to Cocteau and drove him to use opium. During Cocteau’s recovery from his opium addiction, the artist created some of his most important works including the stage play ‘Orphee’, the novel, ‘Les Enfants terribles’, and many long poems.
In 1954, on the death of his novelist friend Collette, Cocteau took her place in the Belgian Academy. In 1955, he was elected to the French Academy.
In 1959, Cocteau made his last film as a director, ‘The Testament of Orpheus’. The elaborate home movie stars Cocteau and also features cameos from many celebrities including Pablo Picasso, Yul Brynner and Jean-Pierre Leaud.
The artist died of a heart attack at age 74 at his chateau in Milly-la-Foret, France on October 11, 1963 after hearing the news of the death of another friend, the singer Edith Piaf.