By Patricia Reaney

NEW YORK (Reuters) - French-born painter Balthus is known for his street scenes and portraits, but it is his paintings of young girls, some with erotic undercurrents, that are the focus of the first exhibition of his works in New York in 30 years.

"Balthus: Cats and Girls - Paintings and Provocations," which opens at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Wednesday and runs through January 12, examines the early decades of the artist's career from the mid-1930s through the 1950s in Paris, Switzerland and central France.

Thirty-four works by Balthus, who died in 2001 at the age of 92 and was among the most admired painters of his time, are in the exhibition.

Many works are of unsmiling girls shown in portraits, sitting, reclining, looking out windows and playing, often with cat, an animal that is a recurrent motif in his paintings.

"These pictures are powerful, sometimes troubling. Some may have been created with the intention to shock their viewers," Thomas P. Campbell, the director of the museum, said at a preview of the exhibition.

Sabine Rewald, the show's curator, had interviewed the realist artist and many of his models and was the author of the catalog for the museum's major 1984 retrospective of Balthus, whose real name was Balthasar Klossowki.

She said he is most identified with his paintings of young girls between childhood and adolescence.

"It is a stage marked by rebellion and also boredom," she explained. "It is much easier to depict in poetry and prose. Balthus did it in paint."

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The exhibition is divided into four galleries, each showing a different stage of his work. In addition, there is another room holding about 40 pen-and-ink drawings done in 1918 when the self-taught artist was 10 years old. The drawings about the loss of his cat, Mitsou, were published in 1921 by the German poet Rainer Maria Rilke.

Many of the works are of Therese Blanchard, a dark-haired, 11-year-old girl, who was the artist's neighbor in Paris and a favorite subject.

"She inspired this exhibition," Rewald said of Blanchard.

"Therese," a 1936 portrait of the girl in a dark dress, is one of 10 works Balthus did of the child, many in somber colors and a flat style.

In "Therese on a Bench Seat," she is shown unsmiling and aloof, wearing a bright red sweater, dangling a string and playing with a cat not shown in the painting. Another work, "Therese Dreaming" depicts her leaning back with her leg raised.

"He often captured his models in poses that children unconsciously and naturally take, which might be ungainly or unguarded," said Rewald.

After being wounded early during World War Two, Balthus left Paris in 1940 and moved into a farmhouse in the Savoie, the free zone in France not occupied by the Germans, and then to Switzerland. His paintings took on lighter tones and showed different models reading, sleeping and looking into a mirror.

"Balthus was always very influenced by his surroundings and his surroundings influenced his painting style," Rewald said, adding his works turned dark again when he returned to his gloomy studio in Paris in 1946.

"The Cat of La Mediterranee," done as a decoration for a restaurant in Paris in 1949, is a self portrait of Balthus, who painted himself as cat eating at a table with the sea and a rainbow in the background.

The final gallery features large, bright canvases done while Balthus was living at the chateau de Chassy in central France from 1953-60.

In "Girl at a Window," his 16-year-old niece by marriage Frederique Tison leans on a chair and looks out of a huge window over a garden and courtyard, and she reclines on a sofa in "The Cup of Coffee."

Although the exhibition shows Balthus' works up to 1960, Rewald said he continued to paint throughout his life.

(Editing by Eric Kelsey and Leslie Gevirtz)