During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Picasso devoted hundreds of paintings, drawings, and prints to the depiction of his two youngest children, Claude and Paloma, born to his companion Françoise Gilot in 1947 and 1949, respectively. In contrast to the artist's pictures from the early 1920s of his first son, Paulo, which show the boy in formal poses and fancy dress, the paintings of Claude and Paloma reflect Picasso's immersion in the children's untrammeled world of play and fantasy. Kirk Varnedoe explains, "Whether in recognition of a new age of permissive thinking about early childhood or out of a greater concern to absorb for himself some of the budding vitality of their youth, Picasso in the early 1950s doted on the childishness of Paloma and Claude; rather than imposing premature adulthood on them in his work, he often let their games, their toys, their own creations--as well as the mercurial intensity of their emotional life--inform his art" (in Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996, p. 160). Likewise, Markus Müller has written:
"It is an unmistakable fact that when Picasso became a father again with the births of Claude in May 1947 and Paloma in April 1949, it left deep imprints on his pictorial language. A certain narrowing of his range of subjects can be detected in this period. The private family sphere becomes increasingly important in his art... Choosing his children as subjects is not to be seen primarily as a creative rearguard action of the now world-renowned Spaniard, however, for it harbored an unmistakable inspirational potential that Picasso exploited as a stylistic fountain of youth for his oeuvre" (in Pablo Picasso: The Time with Françoise Gilot, exh. cat., Graphikmuseum Pablo Picasso, Münster, 2002, pp. 12-13).
By the time that Claude and Paloma were born, the subject of childhood had preoccupied Picasso for nearly fifty years. From the huddled wraiths of the Blue Period through the chubby Cupids of his final decade, Picasso explored the theme in greater depth and with greater intensity than any other twentieth-century artist. Werner Spies has written, "Apart from depictions of the female body and variations on still-life, the subject of children constitutes the most extensive category in his oeuvre. There are hundreds of paintings and works on paper that reveal the artist's impassioned and, it would seem, crucial study of children and their behavior... In his prolific variations on the theme, he recapitulated certain iconographic models taken from the history of art, while at the same time continually searching for new approaches and formulations. Much of his work betokens a conscious exploitation of the subject's conventional charms, yet even more of it transgresses accepted notions of family life and childhood security... Taken as a whole, Picasso's pictures of children represent documents of major significance for the history of childhood in the twentieth century" (in exh. cat., op. cit., Düsseldorf, 1995, pp. 9-11).
Approximately three-quarters of Picasso's paintings of children depict his own offspring: Paulo, Maya, Claude, and Paloma. Spanning three decades, these works reveal a dramatic shift in the artist's response to childhood over the course of his career. The paintings of Paulo, born to Olga Khokhlova in 1921, are characterized by their courtly decorum and decidedly unchildlike bearing (fig. 1). Picasso's firstborn is repeatedly depicted in an elegant, neo-classical style, assuming a succession of different adult roles (harlequin, pierrot, torero, etc.). In contrast, the portraits of Maya, born to Marie-Thérèse Walter in 1935, show her with the pudgy proportions of a toddler, typically clutching a toy boat or a doll (fig. 2). Her full mouth and graceful profile, however, lend the paintings a suggestion of adult sensuality, while her fancy dress and grave expression recall the formal infanta portraits of Velázquez. It was not until the birth of Claude and Paloma that Picasso began to depict children in their own world, their actions and gestures wild, sometimes baffling, and wholly untamed by decorum. Spies explains:
"Instead of being members of a private retinue or charming child-women, his children now began to act their age. Especially in the compositions in which Claude and Paloma appear together, their activities are reminiscent of a Montessori kindergarten or of Summerhill School. The scenes are dominated by the 'enfant sauvage'. Not a trace of drill or 'good' behavior is found in the pictures of this period, which often show Claude and Paloma crawling across a floor on all fours... Seen in this light, Picasso's involvement with children reflects an exploration of uncharted formal territory. It was another of his countless explorations in search of freedom from aesthetic conventions and from the restraints placed by civilization on expression" (ibid., pp. 13, 46).
The present canvas is part of the very last group of paintings of Claude and Paloma that Picasso ever made. The artist's relationship with their mother, Françoise Gilot, had ended in September of the previous year, shortly after Picasso met Jacqueline Roque, who subsequently became his next mistress and later his second wife. Claude et Paloma dessinant is one of six canvases that Picasso painted during a visit by Françoise and the children to Vallauris in April and May of 1954, all of which show the youngsters in the act of drawing (Zervos, vol. 16, nos. 322-323; Duncan, p. 245; Picasso Project, no. 54-205; Sotheby's New York, 3 May 2006, Lot 48). The two children sit cross-legged on the floor, crouched over their drawing paper; in one version, Françoise looms above them, her arms encircling them in a protective embrace (fig. 3).
A noteworthy feature of all six paintings is their radically simplified pictorial language. The figures of the two children are reduced to the most elementary contours, presaging the series of folded, sheet-metal sculptures that Picasso would begin later the same year. The cut-out technique and simplification of silhouette also evoke a child-like approach to form, reflecting the subject matter of the paintings. The ebullient display of vegetal patterning in the background of the present canvas, which contrasts with the starkly linear rendering of the children themselves, also recalls the surface-bound, graphic quality of childish pictorial expression. As Müller has written, "In an unequalled symbiosis of subject and form, Picasso depicted the motifs of the child's world in a seemingly infantile, additively descriptive style. The autonomy of artistic creation, in which such parameters as space, color and proportions are selected by the artist with their own picture-immanent logic, corresponds to the insularity of the child's sphere of existence... For the first time, Picasso has now found the way to a formal language that is decidedly tailored to the modes of expression of a child" (op. cit., p. 13).
The depiction of Claude and Paloma drawing reinforces the parallel between artist and child. The theme of children's artistic production was one that Picasso had already explored earlier in his career. In 1923, he depicted his eldest son Paulo, then aged two, doodling at a small desk (Zervos, vol. 5, no. 177), a composition reminiscent of Rembrandt's pictures of his young son Titus at a writing table and Renoir's portraits of his children drawing. Picasso returned to the motif in 1951, painting a small portrait of Claude with a pencil clutched in his chubby hand (Picasso Project, no. 51-002a). The boy gazes intently at the viewer, implying that he has assumed his father's role as portraitist. Indeed, a photograph taken at Vallauris in 1953 shows Claude seated at an easel, hard at work on a pencil drawing of his father, who holds Paloma in his arms (fig. 4).
Picasso's own statements during this period also speak to his powerful identification with children's art. In 1949, during a visit to an exhibition of children's drawings in Paris, Picasso commented to Herbert Read, "When I was their age I could draw like Raphael, but it took me a lifetime to learn to draw like them" (quoted in ibid., p. 13). On another occasion, he remarked to Brassaï, "Unlike in music, there are no wunderkinder in painting. What you might consider a precocious genius is in reality the genius of childhood. It disappears at a certain age, leaving no trace. I, for example, didn't have this genius. Not even my very first drawings could have hung in a show of children's art. They lacked the childish awkwardness, the naïve quality, almost completely. At this young age I was drawing quite academically, so painstakingly and precisely that it horrifies me to think about it now" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., Dusseldorf, 1995, pp. 17-18). Already in his mid-60s when Claude and Paloma were born, Picasso's extended observation of the children gave the artist a belated opportunity to explore a child-like pictorial idiom. There are numerous photographs that record how Picasso played with his two youngest offspring, drew and painted with them (fig. 5), and joined in their masquerades; he even mined the domain of children for his work in three dimensions, transforming a set of Paloma's building blocks into chubby-cheeked wooden dolls.
After the visit by Claude and Paloma to Vallauris in the spring of 1954, Picasso never again painted his two youngest children. However, Susan Galassi has suggested that a group of six large canvases from 1957 (fig. 6), which form part of Picasso's series of variations on Velázquez's Las Meninas, may represent a wishful recreation of the artist's fractured family (in Picasso's Variations on the Masters: Confrontations with the Past, New York, 1996, p. 178). The six paintings focus on a pair of dwarves, one male and one female, at the right of Velázquez's masterpiece and are painted in a style of child-like simplicity that recalls the scenes of Claude and Paloma drawing.
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, Paulo en arlequin, 1924. Musée Picasso, Paris. BARCODE 26015170
(fig. 2) Pablo Picasso, Maya à la poupée, 16 January 1938. Musée Picasso, Paris. BARCODE 26015118
(fig. 3) Pablo Picasso, Claude dessinant, Françoise, et Paloma, 17 May 1954. Musée Picasso, Paris. BARCODE 26015187
(fig. 4) Claude drawing Picasso, Vallauris, 1953. Photograph by Edward Quinn. BARCODE 26015125
(fig. 5) Picasso drawing with Claude and Paloma, Vallauris, 1953. Photograph by Edward Quinn. BARCODE 26015132
(fig. 6) Pablo Picasso, Las Meninas, après Velázquez, 24 October 1957. Museu Picasso, Barcelona. BARCODE 26015156