Claude Cahun (née Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob) was born in 1894 in Nantes, France. Her father was a wealthy Jewish newspaper publisher. Raised by her maternal grandmother in a family of writers and artists, young Lucy began experimenting with photography and self-portraits by the age of 18.
By 1922, she had settled in Paris with her step-sister and lifelong partner Suzanne Malherbe, assuming the androgynous pseudonym Claude Cahun. The duo immersed themselves in the vibrant community of Paris artists and intellectuals, and befriended noted surrealists such as André Breton and René Crevel. These experiences would leave a lasting impression on Cahun's work.
Though she is mainly remembered for her self-portraits, Cahun also experimented with writing and theater, exploring ideas of gender and sexuality. In 1932, she joined the Association of Revolutionary Artists and Writers, which was affiliated with the local Communist party.
When the Nazis occupied France, the persecution of Jews and homosexuals forced Cahun and her partner to flee to Jersey, a small island located between France and Great Britain. From this remote location, Cahun and Malherbe began producing and distributing anti-German fliers which included news reports, poetry, and other critical writing. They even went so far as to attend German military events and distribute these writings to soldiers and onlookers.
Eventually, this subversive behavior resulted in their arrest. Sentenced to death, the two were imprisoned until liberation by the Allies in May 1945. Cahun fell ill during her time in prison and never fully recovered.
She died in 1954.