Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Portrait d'Angel Fernández de Soto
Price Realized is hammer price plus buyer’s premium and does not reflect costs, financing fees or application of buyer’s or seller’s credits.
- £34,761,250 Set Currency
- £30,000,000 - £40,000,000
- ($46,000,000 - $60,000,000)
- Sale 7857 —
- Impressionist/Modern Evening Sale
- 23 June 2010
- London, King Street
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Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Portrait d'Angel Fernández de Soto
signed and dated 'Picasso 1903' (upper right)
oil on canvas
27 5/8 x 21¾ in. (70.3 x 55.3 cm.)
Painted in Barcelona in 1903
No VAT will be charged on the hammer price, but VAT at 17.5% will be added to the buyer's premium, which is invoiced on a VAT inclusive basis.
Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, Berlin.
Justin K. Thannhauser, Berlin and Lucerne, by 31 August 1935.
M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., New York, by whom acquired from the above on 2 September 1936.
William H. Taylor, West Chester, Pennsylvania, by whom acquired from the above in October 1936.
Donald and Jean Stralem, New York, by whom acquired from the above through the agency of M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., New York, in May 1946; sale, Sotheby's, New York, 8 May 1995, lot 14.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
This work has been requested for the forthcoming exhibition, Picasso, Miro, Dali. Angry young men, the beginning of Modern Art, to be held at the Palazzo Strozzi, Florence, from March 11 to July 17, 2011.
PROPERTY FROM THE ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER FOUNDATION
J. Cassou, Picasso, New York, 1940 (illustrated pl. 47).
F. Elgar & R. Maillard, Picasso, Paris, 1955, p. 185 (illustrated, titled 'Angel Fernández de Soto').
D. Sutton, Peintures: époques bleue et rose, Paris, 1955, no. 24. P. Daix & G. Boudaille, Picasso, The Blue and Rose Periods, A Catalogue raisonné, 1900-1906, London, 1967, no. IX.20, p. 225 (illustrated, titled 'Angel Fernández de Soto').
A. Moravia & P. Lecaldano, L'opera completa di Picasso blu e rosa, Milan, 1968, no. 74, p. 93 (illustrated).
C. Zervos, Pablo Picasso, oeuvres de 1895 à 1906, vol. 1, Paris, 1969, no. 201 (illustrated pl. 90, titled 'Angel Fernández de Soto'). D. Sutton & P. Lecaldano, The Complete Paintings of Picasso, Blue and Rose Periods, London, 1971, no. 74, p. 92 (illustrated p. 93).
J. Palau i Fabre, Picasso, Life and Work of the Early Years, 1881-1907, New York, 1981, no. 911, p. 542 (illustrated p. 352, titled 'Blue Portrait of Angel F. de Soto').
J. Warnod, Le bateau lavoir, Paris, 1986, p. 61 (illustrated, titled 'Portrait de Soto').
J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso, 1881-1906, vol. I, New York, 1991, p. 285-286 (illustrated p. 285, titled 'Portrait of Angel de Soto').
P. Daix, Picasso: Life and Art, London, 1993, p. 36.
M. Covenay, Cats on a chandelier: the Andrew Lloyd Webber story, London, 1999, p. 213.
B. Léal, C. Piot & M.-L. Bernadac, The Ultimate Picasso, New York, 2000, no. 120, pp. 60 and 506 (illustrated p. 64, titled 'Blue Portrait of Angel F. de Soto').
Buenos Aires, Galeria Müler, Exposición Pablo Ruiz Picasso, October 1934, no. 4.
Philadelphia, Museum of Art, Exhibition of French Art, March - April 1937.
New York, M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., Loan Exhibition of Allied Art for Allied Aid, June 1940, no. 18.
New York, M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., Exhibition Celebrating Knoedler's One Hundred Years -- 1846-1946, April 1946, no. 76.
New York, M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., Picasso before 1907. Loan Exhibition for the Benefit of the Public Education Association, October - November 1947, no. 15 (illustrated, titled 'Angel Fernández de Soto').
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Summer Loan Exhibition, August 1949.
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Summer Loan Exhibition, July - September 1960, no. 87.
New York, M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., Picasso: an American Tribute, April - May 1962, no. 18 (illustrated, titled 'The Absinthe Drinker').
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Summer Loan Exhibition, July - September 1962, no. 63 (loan no. L 62.63.6).
Toronto, The Art Gallery, Picasso and Man, January - February 1964, no. 17 (illustrated p. 37, titled 'Angel Fernández de Soto/The Absinthe Drinker'); this exhibition later travelled to Montreal, Museum of Fine Arts, February - March 1964.
Dallas, Museum of Fine Arts, Picasso: Two Concurrent Retrospective Exhibitions, February - March 1967, no. 7 (illustrated p. 14, titled 'The Absinthe Drinker').
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Summer Loan Exhibition, July - September 1968 (loan no. 68.85.9).
New York, Saidenberg Gallery Inc., Homage to Picasso for his 90th Birthday. Exhibition for the benefit of the American Cancer Society, October 1971, no. 2 (illustrated p. 17, titled 'The Absinthe Drinker'). New York, Acquavella Galleries, Inc., Picasso. A Loan Exhibition for the Benefit of Cancer Care, Inc., The National Cancer Foundation, April - May 1975 (illustrated, titled 'The Absinthe Drinker').
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, on loan, 1990-1991.
London, Royal Academy of Arts, Pre-Raphaelite and Other Masters. The Andrew Lloyd Webber Collection, September - December 2003, no. 282 (illustrated, titled 'Angel Fernández de Soto').
London, The National Gallery, on loan, May - September 2005 (loan no. 665).
London, The National Gallery, Rebels and Martyrs: The Image of the Artist in the Nineteenth Century, June - August 2006, no. 39 (illustrated p. 117).
This painting was withdrawn from sale in 2006 as a result of an ownership claim by the heirs of Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy. That dispute has been resolved and the heirs of Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy have dropped all claims to the painting.
Painted in Barcelona in 1903, Portrait d'Angel Fernández de Soto is an historic picture dating from the pinnacle of Pablo Picasso's celebrated Blue Period. Many of Picasso's biographers and critics agree that it was during his 1903 stay in Barcelona, his last prolonged visit to Spain before he returned to Paris and essentially made France his home, that the Blue Period reached its peak. This is clear in this portrait of his friend Angel in the dominant colours, the ashen skin, the elongated features and hands and even the theme of absinthe hinted at by the curl of green paint in the glass. Picasso is presenting Angel as a dissipated flâneur, and also as a visionary seeking inspiration through his pipe and glass rather than the more ascetic methods favoured by the Christian saints presented in similar poses by the Old Masters. The importance of this painting is clear from both its extensive exhibition history, which features many instances where it was shown in significant retrospectives during the artist's own lifetime, and by its distinguished provenance. It was formerly owned by Paul von Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, one of Picasso's important pre-Second World War collectors, and was later in the collection of Donald and Jean Stralem, which featured a range of works by the artist alongside those of pillars of art such as Paul Cézanne, Alberto Giacometti, Vincent van Gogh, Fernand Léger, Henri Matisse and the Nabis among others. When their collection was offered at auction in 1995, Portrait d'Angel Fernández de Soto was purchased with funds donated by the famous composer Andrew Lloyd-Webber for the charitable foundation that bears his name; it is for the benefit of The Andrew Lloyd-Webber Foundation, which focuses on the promotion of the arts, culture and heritage in Great Britain, that it is now offered for sale. While the momentum of the Blue Period carried through to the early period of his stay in the Bateau Lavoir, the notorious and ramshackle warren of artists' studios and apartments in Montmartre, it was in Barcelona that Picasso had truly taken the Blue Period to its culmination, be it in his portraits such as those of Sebastíe Junyer Vidal, of the poet Jaime Sabartés and this one of his old friend Angel, or in his more Mannerist images of blind men and beggars. Crucially, while some of those other works are almost idealised visions of human misery, Portrait d'Angel Fernández de Soto provides a personal and indeed searingly psychological insight both into the sitter's character and into Picasso's life during this crucial period, when he was still unrecognised by the wider world yet was gaining an increasing following amongst a small circle of friends and supporters. It is a tribute to the quality of the works from this important moment in his career that so many of them grace the walls of museums throughout the world and that as early as 1914, the critic Gustave Cocquiot, who had so favourably reviewed Picasso's first Paris exhibition over a decade earlier, wrote that collectors sought them out especially; it was in that same text that Cocquiot identified the 'période bleue' for the first time in writing (G. Cocquiot, Cubistes, Futuristes, Passéistes: Essai sur la Jeune Peinture et la Jeune Sculpture, Paris, 1914, p. 147).
As well as marking the apogee of the Blue Period, Portrait d'Angel Fernández de Soto started a new chapter in the development of the portrait as a genre and a discipline. By the time he painted this work, Picasso had already been looking at the examples of Edvard Munch, Paul Gauguin and Vincent van Gogh; here, rather than imitating them, he was already bringing something new to portraiture, finding a manner in which he could express the state of both painter and subject alike, a notion perfectly suited to the Blue Period works. Picasso's stylisation has allowed an expressive, and indeed expressionistic, quality to come to the fore, marking a milestone in his oeuvre. It is for this reason that, comparing this portrait to some of Picasso's portraits of the Soler family painted only just prior to this, John Richardson has highlighted the leaps and bounds that were clearly evident in this bold and accomplished vision of his friend:
'The portraits that Picasso did of his closest friends, Angel de Soto and Sabartés, in the course of his last months in Barcelona delve far more deeply into character and take far greater liberties than the Soler ones. The deformations in the Soto portrait - the jug ear, skewed mouth, prognathous chin - seem caricatural, but the image transcends caricature. By this time Picasso had learned how to exploit his inherent gift for caricature in depth as a means of dramatising psychological as well as physiognomic traits. Whereas the average caricaturist externalises things and comes up with an image that is slick and trite - an instant cliché - Picasso internalises things and comes up with an enhanced characterisation of his subject. Picasso enlarges Angel's heavy-lidded eyes out of all proportion and endows them with his own obsidian stare. Among his immediate predecessors, only van Gogh had this ability to galvanise a portrait with his own psychic energy' (J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso: Volume I: 1881-1906, London, 1991, pp. 285-86).
Picasso's Blue Period resulted in a string of masterpieces that depicted human misery in a new, essentially expressionistic manner. Coming hot on the heels of the success of his Parisian and Spanish scenes that had resulted in significant sales at his exhibition at the gallery of Ambroise Vollard in 1901, this idiosyncratic stylisation received a cool reception at the time. This resulted in Picasso's lack of funds during the period, which itself doubtless fuelled the Blue Period's atmosphere, with its waifs and destitution. Sabartés suggested that the Blue Period came about thanks to Picasso's almost perverse stubbornness: 'Perhaps one of the reasons for the lack of sales was the change in Picasso's style. The fact that his earlier work had pleased the public was enough to put him against it' (Sabartès, quoted in ibid., p. 231). Certainly, during the period, Picasso's lack of sales and consequent shortage of funds saw him returning to Barcelona and even to Malaga to solicit funds from various family members. The Blue Period was therefore very much a product of Picasso's stays both in Paris and Barcelona, and indeed many of the greatest of the pictures associated with it were painted in Catalonia, not in France. This was particularly true of the 1903 visit, when he was staying with his parents in their home at Carrer de la Mercè 3: during this visit, he painted and soon sold La vie, which has often been considered one of the greatest masterpieces of the Blue Period, meaning that he had funds to buy better materials. It may be as a result of this change in circumstances that Portrait d'Angel Fernández de Soto has such a lush, painterly surface, especially in comparison to some of the earlier Blue Period works.
Thematically, a great deal of Picasso's subjects during this time were from the French capital, where the young artist had deliberately explored the lowest levels of deprivation that he could find, taking them as forms of extreme social realism and distilling them into something all the more striking and tragically poetic. Even during his previous stay in Barcelona in 1902, when he had created a significant number of Blue Period works, Picasso had been thinking back to the destitute, often diseased prostitutes he had seen in the women's prison of Saint-Lazare, to which he had gained access through a venereologist, Dr Louis Jullien (see ibid., p. 218). These extreme visions of misery and social commentary remained central to the Blue Period, as is evident when looking at La repasseuse (Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York), painted in 1904 after his return to Paris. However, the portraits formed another often highly autobiographical strand: through the deliberately restricted, understated palette and the expressionism of this emotional filter, Picasso was able to convey more of the character of his sitters - his friends. Portrait d'Angel Fernández de Soto is all the more striking as a Blue Period portrait because, showing his subject with his pipe and glass as he had also shown Junyer Vidal in a bar, Picasso was combining a strain of that social commentary, adding a narrative element and making this likeness all the more intriguing, informative and impressive.
Picasso's own life and experiences were central to the development of the Blue Period, which saw him looking back to the suicide in 1901 of his great friend and fellow artist, Carles Casagemas Coll. As Picasso himself explained: 'It was thinking about Casagemas's death that started me painting in blue' (Picasso, quoted in ibid., p. 182). Casagemas' influence on the Blue Period formed a sort of book-end for Picasso, marking both its inception and the beginning of its close. For the Blue had really seeped into Picasso's works in the portraits of the dead Casagemas (painted from the imagination, as Picasso arrived in Paris after the event, having been in Spain) and then in Evocation (L'enterrement de Casagemas) of 1901. Casagemas' death in Paris had in part ushered in this fascination with misery, perhaps reflecting Picasso's own feelings of guilt surrounding his treatment of his friend. These feelings did not, it seems, disappear, even over the space of a couple of years: in 1903, when he had returned to Barcelona, Picasso found himself sharing the same studio with Angel in the loft of 17 Riera Sant Joan that he had shared with Casagemas only a few years earlier. Picasso and Casagemas had together decorated it with witty and occasionally bawdy murals, which remained as reminders of that earlier time. Picasso now found himself once more working in the same surroundings, with the murals still intact; a notoriously superstitious man, he had also become increasingly interested in mysticism while in Paris through the influence of his friend Max Jacob, and one cannot help but feel that these decorations, these reverberations from a more hopeful moment in his career and his friend's life, must have had some impact. Certainly, Casagemas was still on Picasso's mind during this stay in Barcelona in 1903, as is clear from his presence in La vie.
That picture, with its hieratic combination of figures, shows Casagemas near naked, embraced by a naked woman while conversing with another woman holding a child; in the background are what appear to be more Blue Period works. La vie has often been interpreted as an exorcism of the feelings of guilt that Picasso felt, regarding Casagemas. For the unstable artist, with whom Picasso had shared digs in Barcelona and in Paris and who had been his companion for some time, had shot himself in Paris when he had been spurned by his lover, Germaine. After they had left Paris and had travelled to Malaga, Picasso had seen that Casagemas appeared to be deteriorating psychologically and had put him on a boat for Barcelona; while Picasso had then headed briefly to Madrid, Casagemas had returned to Paris. There, after a short stay, he had arranged a farewell dinner for himself at which he tried to shoot Germaine and, believing he had killed her - in fact, she had not even been hit - turned the gun on himself. Casagemas' features and story threaded themselves through Picasso's Blue Period works, culminating in La vie, at which point the possible guilt that he felt about Casagemas' death - and his own subsequent affair with Germaine - appears to have been more or less expunged.
The first complex Blue Period composition, Evocation (L'enterrement de Casagemas), clearly owed a debt to El Greco's The Burial of the Count of Orgaz of 1586. At the time, the wider art establishment still regarded El Greco with disdain; it was only a few years later that Picasso's friend Miguel Utrillo, one of the founders of the legendary Barcelona meeting point for artists, Els Quatre Gats, wrote the first monograph on his work; within a short time, his fame would, albeit centuries late, have spread and he would become an intriguing inspiration to many Expressionist artists. However, within Picasso's small circle, El Greco was already considered a great precursor, combining mysticism and expressionism in his idiosyncratic paintings. Looking at Portrait d'Angel Fernández de Soto, and especially comparing it with his earlier homages from the dawn of the Blue Period and even before, it is clear that Picasso had now digested that influence in a new way. In the pallor of Angel's face, the mannerist pose that he has adopted, the way he has been depicted with attributes - the pipe, the glass - like some secular, contemporary saint, Picasso has taken El Greco's legacy and made it his own. He has distilled the plastic quality that is so vivid in the pictures by El Greco that he would have seen in the Prado and especially in Toledo and has channelled it here, granting Angel a sculptural quality that makes the painting all the more intense (this also reflects Picasso's increasing interest in sculpture, with which he had experimented, in part under the guidance of his friend Emili Fontbona, during this period; it is doubtless no coincidence that, during the 1903 stay, he also ended up subletting a studio from his friend, the sculptor Pablo Gargallo). The swirling brushwork of this portrait lends the painting a vortex-like internal energy that is a far cry from many of the earlier, more static Blue Period works which had taken sculpture, for instance Romanesque Catalan religious figures, as their inspiration.
Picasso was vying for position now as El Greco's heir; his sketchbooks from earlier years had included the ritualistic invocation, 'Yo El Greco, yo Greco'; now he was pushing this to a further level (ibid., pp. 290-91). For Cocquiot, it was at this moment that Picasso finally began to break new ground in his art, having formerly owed too much to the examples of Steinlen and Toulouse-Lautrec:
'while he is suddenly so smitten with El Greco that he hangs photographs of the Master's incredible paintings around his bedroom, he breaks new ground with the 'blue period'... It is the skeletal period of famished couples, transfixed before a glass of absinthe' (Cocquiot, quoted in R.J. Boardingham, 'Gustave Cocquiot and the Critical Origins of Picasso's 'Blue' and 'Rose' Periods', pp. 143-47, M. McCully (ed.), Picasso: The Early Years 1892-1906, exh. cat., Washington, D.C., 1997, p. 147).
The forlorn visionaries in the great paintings from the later stage of Picasso's Blue Period in Barcelona all clearly show their allegiance to El Greco, and likewise are all marked out by that originality that Cocquiot here identified, be it in Le repas de l'aveugle in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in Le vieux guitariste in the Art Institute of Chicago, or in Portrait d'Angel Fernández de Soto. Many of the great paintings from this late stage of his Blue period share the lush brushwork, the vacant, visionary stares, the cool blue tones and the mannered, exaggerated poses of the protagonists; they also often feature similar elongated hands as seen here, a detail which Picasso's friend Sabartés would discuss: '... the hands in Picasso's blue work seem to seek one another's warmth. Some are outstretched as if the finger tips wished to touch what they are reaching for, hands that denote fear and throb with anxiety; some timid, others frozen with cold, others astir as if to banish solitude' (Sabartés, quoted in W. Boeck & J. Sabartés, Picasso, London, 1961, p. 130). Crucially, providing an intriguing and engaging counterpoint to his clear ability to 'depict' human misery in these subjects, Picasso has imbued each of these characters with a fragile dignity. As Sabartés himself would later write, 'The blue which gave a unity of tone to his colour in this period came to be the gleam of a little illusion or hope. At times he speaks of this blue with great enthusiasm, describing it in a phrase like a prayer uttered in a sigh. Why? Because in his paintings blue shows itself as an aspiration to sublimity in the midst of desperation or sadness' (Sabartés, quoted in ibid., p. 36).
Sabartés recorded Picasso's ideas regarding the Blue Period in terms that explain firstly why, especially in the wake of Casagemas' suicide, the young artist would turn to misery for inspiration, and secondly to what extent Portrait d'Angel Fernández de Soto encapsulates these qualities:
'art emanates from Sadness and Pain... Sadness lends itself to meditation... grief is at the basis of life. We are passing through... a period of uncertainty that everyone regards from the viewpoint of his own misery... a period of grief, of sadness and of misery. Life with all its torments is at the core of [Picasso's] theory of art. If we demand sincerity of the artist, we must remember that sincerity is not to be found outside the realm of grief' (Sabartès, quoted in Richardson, op. cit., 1991, p. 217).
Sabartés' recollections of the time, when he knew Picasso and indeed was captured by him in several Blue Period portraits, reveal that the artist would accentuate this atmosphere of pain, heightening that notion of grief, by deliberately adopting an uncomfortable position while painting: 'I generally found him in the middle of the studio, not far from the stove, seated on a dilapidated chair, perhaps lower than an ordinary chair, because discomfort does not bother him and he seems even to prefer it as if he delighted in self-mortification and enjoyed subjecting his spirit to tortures so long as they spur him on. The canvas was placed on the lowest part of the easel, and this compelled him to paint in an almost kneeling position' (Sabartés, quoted in Boeck & Sabartés, op. cit., 1961, pp. 124-29). As he did with Angel in this portrait, Picasso was placing himself in the role of the visionary, as a martyr. It is in terms of that concept of sincerity being best located within the realm of grief and pain that Picasso's Blue Period portraits gain their incredible strength. Through the subjects, the deliberately restricted palette and Picasso's own experience - both in terms of his position while painting and his own near-poverty - the portraits of this time serve as records of familiar figures from the artist's own life, but it is precisely because of that familiarity that they also serve as perfect portals to the world of misery, and therefore of artistic truth, that the trailblazing young artist was exploring during this time.
Angel Fernandez de Soto's friendship with Picasso is entwined in the very fabric of the early part of his career, his reputation, his myth. It was towards the end of the Nineteenth Century that Angel, a painter, and his brother Mateu, a sculptor, had met Picasso at the Cabaret Edén Concert. From the time of that introduction until the end of the Blue Period, Picasso would spend a vast amount of his time with one or other of the Soto brothers. On the streets of Barcelona, Angel and Picasso seemed like two dandies: Picasso would even share a pair of gloves with Angel in order to look more elegant, each of them keeping the unclothed hand concealed in a pocket. Angel sometimes worked as an extra in the theatre and Picasso told Richardson that this, and his access to costume, led to his frequent depictions of his friend as an urbane flâneur (Richardson, op. cit., 1991, p. 115). While he met them when still a teenager, Picasso's charisma and talent had already marked him out as something special, and they all became within a short time frequent visitors to Els Quatre Gats, fraternising with the earlier generation of Modernista artists. Still in his teens at the end of the Nineteenth Century, Picasso designed menus and brochures for Els Quatre Gats, and indeed is thought to have painted the sign that hung outside it, and would return there on his subsequent visits to Barcelona.
The 'four cats' of the name were the founders of the establishment: the artists Ramón Casas i Carbó, Santiago Rusiñol i Prats, Miquel Utrillo and the main proprietor, Pere Romeu. Many of the interior decorations were created by Casas and his colleagues including the mural showing him and Pere Romeu on a tandem bicycle, while the furniture was designed by Josep Puig i Cadafalch, one of the great architects of the period and an active promoter of Catalan culture. Puig i Cadafalch had been the architect of the Casa Martí whose ground floor Els Quatre Gats occupied; due to his political activism, he was later elected to be second president of the Mancomunitat de Catalunya.
These 'Quatre Gats', bastions of the Modernista style, held a huge sway over younger artists such as the Soto brothers, Casagemas and Picasso at the end of the Nineteenth Century. However, within the space of the year 1900, Picasso began to rail against the pedestals upon which he had placed Casas in particular. Picasso had two exhibitions in Els Quatre Gats that year, and while the first was clearly indebted to Casas, the second already brought a new breath of artistic air to the art scene there. It was following this, spurred on by his thirst for innovation, for modern life and for new worlds to conquer, that Picasso had made his first trip to Paris, the city to which several of the Gats themselves had made their pilgrimages in prior years. The Blue Period which followed, and which included works such as Portrait d'Angel Fernández de Soto, marked out the strides that Picasso took, advancing by leaps and bounds and becoming the tireless innovator whose influence and importance is stills so keenly felt today.
Before his first journey to the French capital, and for much of his return visits to Barcelona over the following three years, Els Quatre Gats would remain a crucial centre of gravity for Picasso and his young friends, a social hub and place of sustenance - perhaps influenced in part by the fact that these artists, familiar with the place, had more chance of eating on credit there. The importance of Els Quatre Gats to these friends and to Picasso in particular is perhaps most evident from the design he created for a flyer in 1902, which showed him outside the venue, sitting with Pere Romeu, the artist Josep Rocarol, Angel and Sabartés. However, this new generation of artists was not keeping the place alive in the same way as before. Pere Romeu aside, the other 'Cats' no longer frequented it as much, and it was in July of 1903, the year that Portrait d'Angel Fernández de Soto was painted, that Els Quatre Gats closed.
While Picasso was in Paris, he saw a great deal of Angel's brother, Mateu. Indeed, in the winter of 1901, Mateu had shared rooms with him; similarly, when Picasso returned to Barcelona in 1902, he shared a studio with Angel, who lived in the rooms at 10 Carrer Nov de la Rambla, next to the Edén Concert, as well as sharing the Riera Sant Joan studio the following year. It is a telling tribute to the importance of the brothers Soto to Picasso during this period that his frontal 1901 portrait of Mateu was one of the few Blue Period works which he retained in his own private collection until the end of his life. The brothers likewise appeared in a range of saucy and amusing vignettes from these early years, showing them in an array of poses in the brothels and bars that they would frequent; in them, Angel usually has his pipe in his mouth, rather than in his hand as in Portrait d'Angel Fernández de Soto, a difference that accentuates the contemplative air of this depiction rather than the more caution-to-the-wind decadence and frolics of the others.
There were several differences between the two brothers: Angel was tall while Mateu was shorter. It was in part for this reason that while Angel was known as 'Patas arriba' Mateu was 'Patas abajo' (Angel's nickname 'Patas', meaning paws, legs or feet, was also due to his preference for walking everywhere - going a pata; 'Patas arriba' means upside-down and is used to denote a mess, while 'Patas abajo' appears to play on that: 'boca abajo,' or 'face down,' also means upside-down (see ibid., p. 492n)). Mateu, the sculptor, worked hard, and managed to maintain a modest career through his art for the rest of his life; Angel, during this period, was 'an amusing wastrel,' as Picasso himself recalled (ibid., p. 115); in fact, despite the possibly ill-auguring activities during these years, Angel would later come to be a significant political figure in the cultural scene in Spain, serving as 'comisario artistico' to the painters' union; John Richardson has pointed out that, after the painters had drifted apart, there was a poetic synchronicity when the Republican government during the Civil War appointed Picasso director of the Prado and Angel a deputy of the arts. Sadly, the same Civil War would claim Angel's life when he was knocked down by an ambulance going through the darkened streets of Barcelona during a bombardment in 1938. Conxa Rodriguez has written a biography of Angel, for which his portrait served as a cover illustration, El Ángel de Picasso: historia de un bebedor de absenta, Barcelona, 2003.
These distinctions, though, were far in the future at this time. During his stay in Barcelona in 1903, Picasso was distracted by the endless festivities in the studio that he shared with Angel. All too often Picasso was tempted into the sort of activity that he captured in his vignettes, be it drinking, eating or visiting brothels, and soon found that he needed to escape this indulgent influence in order to concentrate more on his artistic developments. He therefore moved out to a studio at 28 Carrer del Commerç sublet from his friend, the sculptor Pablo Gargallo. While the subject may imply that this painting predates Picasso's move to Gargallo's studio, the picture's richness and its similarity to those other full masterpieces of this period may indicate that it dates, as Richardson has said, to the end of his stay in Barcelona. Intriguinglu, almost two decades later, Gargallo, who had so famously sculpted a bust of Picasso, also created one of Angel; it was created alongside a sculpture of Angel's hand holding a pipe, a tribute both to his own trademark prop and, perhaps, as Josep Palau i Fabre has posited, to this very painting.
Often, Portrait d'Angel Fernández de Soto has been given an additional title: The Absinthe Drinker. Certainly, the serpentine wisp of green that Picasso has painted in the glass implies that this may indeed show Angel drinking 'La Fée Verte,' as absinthe was known. To some people at the end of the Nineteenth Century and beginning of the Twentieth, the 'Green Fairy' was considered a scourge, to others a means of heightened awareness, or at least heightened entertainment. Art Nouveaux posters promoted the drink, while artists either celebrated or commiserated with those who enjoyed it. Edouard Manet and Edgar Degas both captured it in a sombre and contemplative manner in their pictures: the latter's Dans un café (or simply Absinthe), which was one of the first Impressionist pictures ever to be sold at Christie's in 1892, appears to be a forlorn chronicle of the fall of a woman. Indeed, the picture was considered scandalous enough that there was hissing in the auction and it caused a further outcry when exhibited the following year.
The ambience in Degas Absinthe was in marked contrast to the jollity and joviality of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's Monsieur Boileau or to Vincent van Gogh's deeply personal, solitary shimmering vision of the drink in which he himself so famously sought solace or inspiration. Where Degas and Manet seemed to disapprove, to present cautionary tales of the lure and destructive power of absinthe, both Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh indulged in it with great frequency; the fact that each was subsequently incarcerated due to mental illness was considered by some no coincidence, and helped create the myth of the madman artistic visionary which the Portrait d'Angel Fernández de Soto appears to invoke. It was thought to be Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso's early hero, who had introduced Van Gogh to absinthe. Indeed, in an 1887 portrait of Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec even shows a glass with tell-tale green contents in front of the Dutch artist.
It was doubtless in part through the influence of figures such as Toulouse-Lautrec and the poets to whose work Picasso was being introduced by his friend in Paris, Max Jacob, that the theme of absinthe appeared in Picasso's own work again and again during the first decade and a half of the Twentieth Century, the period during which he changed the entire landscape of Western art. Many of his own acquaintances during this hedonistic period indulged in the Fée verte. Tellingly, Picasso chose not to celebrate it in the exuberant manner of Toulouse-Lautrec's pictures, but instead to mine a different quality from this subject: one of Picasso's most famous images of this subject is his 1901 painting, La buveuse d'absinthe, now in the Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, which in atmosphere though not in colour appears linked to the Blue Period. Comparing it with the Degas, one understands Wilhelm Boeck's declaration that, 'A Degas absinthe drinker is a sensual woman who finds a measure of happiness in her addiction; a Picasso absinthe drinker is a sufferer surrendered to mysterious powers, who cannot be judged by earthly standards' (Boeck & Sabartés, op. cit., 1961, p. 123). That work was filled with poetic, contemplative atmosphere, accentuated by the planar method with which Picasso has captured the scene. By contrast, the brushwork and stylisation in Portrait d'Angel Fernández de Soto already lends it a swirling energy that itself invokes intoxication.
Was it this intoxication that made absinthe such a perfect subject for Picasso as he pushed back the boundaries of artistic representation? First with the Blue Period, and then to a greater extent with the Cubism that he pioneered, Picasso returned to the theme of absinthe while creating works that explored the world through what was then considered distortion. Thus, in his 1911 Cubist still life, Le verre d'absinthe, now in the Allen Memorial Art Museum in Oberlin, Ohio, the apparatus for drinking absinthe - the glass and the spoon - is shown at the centre of the work through the accumulation of refracted planes and other elements. The haze of Cubistic forms through which Picasso was attempting to render the forms of the real world in two dimensions are curiously, even playfully, suited to the theme of absinthe, implying that to drink in this picture is itself to partake of this altered perception of reality. Similarly, in his celebrated 1914 bronze, one of his rare Cubist sculptures, hand-painted examples of which are held by several prestigious museums, Picasso showed the towering paraphernalia pierced and punctuated with negative space, an impossible Babel-like contraption that nonetheless is so strikingly vivid in its communication of its subject that the viewer immediately recognises the subject, regardless of the stylistic manoeuvres. That sculpture continues to explore the new ways of representing the world in a manner that far surpasses illustration, reflecting Picasso's further journeying down a path on which the Blue Period, and indeed Portrait d'Angel Fernández de Soto, marked such a vital milestone.
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