In early 1964 Picasso and his wife Jacqueline came across a small black cat as they were strolling the grounds of Notre-Dame-de-Vie, their villa in Mougins, a community situated on the hillside overlooking Cannes, which had been their home since 1961. Hélène Parmelin, a close friend of the Picassos and a frequent visitor to the artist's studio, has recounted that they took the kitten in (op. cit., p. 88), and it joined--uneasily, one should think--the Picassos' already extensive menagerie of several dogs, a goat, and a roost of doves. The frisky creature became Jacqueline's pet, at least for a while, and made its pictorial debut in a drawing dated 1 February, in which it is seen poised to scamper across the stomach of a nude reclining woman who has dozed off to sleep (Zervos, vol. 24, no. 84; fig. 1).
The petit chat noir then became a regular motif in a series of large paintings done between February and May, before suddenly disappearing from the scene--"gone back to the garden from which it came" (ibid.). Picasso painted these canvases in either a horizontal format, with a reclining nude as his subject, or as a vertical composition, with the nude seated, viewed frontally and filling the canvas. Femme au chat assise dans un fauteuil, together with Jacqueline assise avec son chat (Z. vol. 24, no. 101; fig; 2), are arguably the most exquisitely painted of the entire series; the present picture was included an exhibition held in honor of the great French poet René Char, the important Paris show of late Picasso in 1988, and has been illustrated in major compendiums of the artist's work.
Picasso, who would often complete a large painting during a single day or night, worked on this picture during seven days in May 1964, twice breaking off for a day or more and then resuming his efforts, before bringing the canvas to a conclusion. It was around this time that Françoise Gilot's Life with Picasso was published in New York, and Picasso angrily took measures to prevent publication of the French edition, without success. Whatever the cause may have been for these interruptions to his daily painting routine, the rewarding outcome of Picasso's prolonged engagement with this picture is that the surface displays a particular richness in the inter-weaving and layering of forms. He appears to have gone at this canvas with exceptional relish and virtuosity--even by his own remarkable standards--in the varied handling of his brushes and pigment. Embedded within the oil paint is a foreign element not normally encountered in such abundant amounts in a major finished picture, as will be revealed anon.
The advent of Jacqueline in Picasso's life during 1954, as his new lover and model, coincided with the death of Matisse. "When Matisse died," Picasso declared, "he left his odalisques to me as a legacy" (quoted in M.-L. Bernadac, Late Picasso, exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, London, 1988, p. 55). Indeed, Picasso had worked through the some of the most important aspects of this Orientalist genre in his fifteen variations on Delacroix's Les Femmes d'Alger in late 1954-1955, and in the Jacqueline au costume turc paintings of late 1955. But he dispensed with the Matissean proclivity to engage the model in role-playing when he painted a series of portraits of Jacqueline in late 1962 and early 1963 (Z., vol. 23, nos. 72-94 and 110-117), probing her appearance and personality in a more intimate manner. These paintings may be seen as a prologue to the artist and model series, which Picasso commenced in February 1963 and continued through 1965 (fig. 3; see lot 43). The artist and model paintings are the key works in the development of Picasso's late style, they are, of course, an allegory of art-making, and moreover reveal the artist's insightful enjoyment in all manner of human relationships. For Matisse the very essence of painting had been the reciprocity between the artist and his model, and this became the foundation of his art. Picasso, in his final decade, after all that gone before, decided it had come down to the very same thing. The synergy of artist and model, he concluded, lay at the very heart of his creativity, and this mutual interaction became the vital pulse of his daily life as a man and a painter. Parmelin has written:
"This nude, so beautiful and nonchalant, who lounges naturally on her couch or chaise longue; this nude so overwhelmingly for the Artist, full of arrogance, supremely disdainful of him; growing in the studio like a tree in the earth--with no problems, whereas the artist has so many--this nude that Picasso paints for his poor Artist in her multiple poses and solutions, is for him the double-edged major subject on which his Artist's life torments itself. The Artist's favorite reality is this woman, spirited, double in nature, whose body lends itself to the thousand elaborations of the mind, as it does to the thousand imaginations of the body and to infinite scrutiny" (op. cit., p. 15).
The artist and model pictures, and especially those that focus on the nude sitter alone, are Picasso's paean to Jacqueline and the strength of his feelings for her. Parmelin observed Jacqueline's all powerful presence in Notre-Dame-de-Vie:
"All of Notre Dame de Vie is made up of Jacqueline, rests upon Jacqueline, signifies Jacqueline. And all of the paintings are of Jacqueline. This situation has been growing, becoming more pronounced, been multiplying for a dozen years. Jacqueline has the gift of becoming painting to an unimaginable degree. She has within her that wonderful power on which the painter feeds. She flows. She is made for it and gives of herself and devotes herself and dies in harness though living all the while and never posing. She harbors that multiplicity of herself. She peoples Notre Dame de Vie with her hundred thousand possibilities. She unfurls ad infinitum. She invades everything. She becomes all characters. She takes the place of all models of all the artists on all the canvases. All the portraits resemble her, even though they may not resemble each other. All the heads are hers and there are a thousand different ones. All the eyes are black, all the breasts are round, Jacquelines rain all through the house, wherever you turn she is looking at you. Sometimes it's almost a portrait. Sometimes not at all. She is that huge nude or that delicate nude, that abridgment of a woman or that long discourse on femininity... During these twelve extraordinary years of Picasso's life, painting and love have passionately mated, blended The painter's tremendous vitality feeds on that love, which is itself painting and vice versa. It is the Song of Songs of Notre Dame de Vie" (ibid., pp. 14-15).
Jacqueline is always the model, in as many guises as Picasso can invent for her; she is the ultimate and universal woman who is the sole object of the artist's obsessive attention and efforts. Bernadac has written "It is characteristic of Picasso, in contrast to Matisse and many other twentieth century painters, that he takes as his model--or as his Muse--the woman he loves and who lives with him, not a professional model. So what his paintings show is never a 'model' of a woman, but woman as model. This has its consequences for his emotional as well as his artistic life: for the beloved woman stands for 'painting', and the painted woman is the beloved; detachment is an impossibility" (op. cit., p. 78). This passionate affair with the model, acted out in the privacy of the studio and thereafter revealed to the world, had always been the motivating activity in Picasso's life: it gave intensity and meaning to his love life, and as importantly fueled his work. "No painter has ever gone so far in unveiling the feminine universe in all the complexity of its real and fantasy life. This intimate, passionate awareness is a constant source of renewal for his painting, which revels in the variety of the repertoire of forms that it affords, mineral and carnal by turns" (ibid., p. 80). Despite her omnipresence, Jacqueline never posed. There was no need for her to do so: Picasso merely required the stimulation of her proximity. He subjected her presence, however quotidian and domestic as it might be, to the lively play of his imagination and the abundance of his fantasies. He seized the moment, and the paintings sprang forth, day after day, filling his studio during this spectacular Indian summer of his career.
The new artist and model theme was broadly flexible in its parameters, and hospitable to the introduction of new elements, as the opportunity might present itself, and indeed this was the case in early months of 1964 when Picasso seized upon the serendipitous appearance of the little black cat. Commentators have referred to Picasso's interest in Goya's Maja desnuda, circa 1800 (Prado, Madrid) while he was painting his reclining nudes at this time. While there is indeed a nod toward Goya, the addition of the cat enabled Picasso to once again allude to Manet, this time to the once scandalous Olympia, 1863 (Wildenstein, no. 69; fig. 4), a far more erotically charged subject than the artist's Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, 1863 (W., no. 67; Musée d'Orsay, Paris), which had inspired Picasso to create numerous variations in homage during 1958-1960. A coal-black feline lurks at the edge of the courtesan's bed in Olympia. The introduction of the cat provided Picasso with a convenient pretext to initiate a playful visual game of sexual innuendo that further heightened the erotic mood in the canvases he painted between February and May 1964.
In contrast to the congenial qualities traditionally ascribed to dogs as domestic pets, less flattering attributes have been heaped upon cats over the centuries. While the ancient Egyptians revered them as minor deities, humankind has until recently considered cats as useful for rodent control only. Harping on the creature's mysterious, inscrutable temperament and its deeply ingrained predatory nature, people have tended to impute a sinister and devilish character to cats and their ways. As suggested in Manet's Olympia, men have also seen fit to associate cats and women with promiscuous behavior. In 1939, while speaking with the photographer Brassaï, Picasso declared, "I don't like high-class cats that purr of the couch in the parlor, but I adore cats that have turned wild, their hair standing on end. They hunt birds [Z., vol. 9. no. 297; fig. 5], prowl, roam the streets like demons. They cast their wild eyes at you, ready to pounce on your face. And have you noticed that female cats in the wild are always pregnant? Obviously they think of nothing but love" (quoted in Brassaï, Conversations with Picasso, Chicago, 1999, p. 60).
Picasso thought of the black kitten as Jacqueline's plaything (fig. 6), and the animal is in fact mentioned as being hers in the titles of several paintings in this series. In the present picture, the cat leaps into Jacqueline's lap, occupying the very place where the artist might have rendered his sitter's pubic hair and genitalia. Picasso was certainly calling attention to the double entendre in the French use of chatte for a female cat, and as street slang for a woman's pudenda, as it exists in English as well. Brassaï recalled that Picasso once revealed to him how he transformed the figure of a standing woman in to a cat (Le chat accroupi, 1943; Spies, no. 278). Picasso was unabashed and unfailingly direct when it came to the expression of sexuality in his paintings. Parmelin has observed:
"For Matisse, the sex slid, disappeared in the thighs of the odalisque. It existed primarily in harmonies, colors and arabesques... The admirable nudes of Matisse have no sex, just as they have no glances. The nudes of Picasso have a glance and a sex. The sex of a nude is for him an essential part of the body whose reality he seeks... For Picasso, the sex of painting and of reality is a mark as ubiquitous as the eye, it is the eye of the body, its crucial point; it is a flower of paint that expands in lines, in spots, or in colors at the tip of the stem which rises from where the legs join. It is that of a lover or a poet, without hindrance and without misunderstanding... If Picasso praises love, he makes no bones about it" (op. cit., p. 158).
This sexual reference may account for the unusual presence of a foreign element in the paint film--upon close inspection numerous paintbrush bristles are visible in certain areas of the canvas, including the black silhouette of the cat. Brushes occasionally shed bristles, which fastidious painters normally pluck from the surface of the canvas before the pigment dries. An old, often-used brush might come apart altogether if it has been handled too roughly, and Picasso may have capitalized on an accident of this kind to disperse the bristles in various parts of the canvas, as if they were shed cat fur or fetishistic cuttings of pubic hair. One revelation of Los Mosqueteros, the exhibition of late Picasso paintings held last year at the Gagosian Gallery in New York, was the many astonishing ways in which Picasso applied his paints on the canvas; he seemed to come up with some novel twist each time he began a new picture. Among the many younger painters active in the 60s, only De Kooning managed to create a painterly surface as freewheeling, tactile and varied as that which Picasso effortlessly realized in his late but perennially youthful and vigorous pictures.
Jacqueline's "glance"--to apply Parmelin's term--is especially riveting in Femme au chat assise dans un fauteuil. She sits en majesté, enthroned in her wrought-iron chair. There are various dislocated elements in the composition of Jacqueline's face and figure. Using a favorite pictorial device, Picasso has dovetailed light and dark profiles to form a beaming lunar visage for Jacqueline, and a white breast and nipple in profile extend incongruously from her right shoulder. The complexity of facture in Mme Picasso's upper body stems from the layering of light and dark patches of color, attesting to the additive process to which Picasso subjected this canvas during the seven sessions he spent on it. As final touches, Picasso applied several linear arabesques in black to denote the shape of his wife's breasts. Most intriguing of all--to this viewer's eye--is a vertical, thread-like line of white paint, running down from Jacqueline's hair and alongside her right breast. It articulates a straight plumb-line that magically stabilizes the vast sea-like tumult of paint.
(fig. A - Artist) Picasso and Jacqueline at the entrance of Notre-Dame-de-Vie, with their Afghan hound Kabul, and dachshund Lump. Photograph by Edward Quinn.
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, Nu couché et chat, Mougins, 1 February 1964. Private collection.
(fig. 2) Pablo Picasso, Jacqueline assise avec son chat, Mougins, 26 February/3 March 1964. Private collection.
(fig. 3) Pablo Picasso, Le peintre et son modèle, Mougins, 16 April 1963/4 May 1964. Sold Christie's New York, 4 May 2004, lot 37.
(fig. 4) Edouard Manet, Olympia, 1863. Musée d'Orsay, Paris.
(fig. 5) Pablo Picasso, Chat à l'oiseau, Le Tremblay-sur-Mauldre, April 1939. Victor and Sally Ganz Collection; sold Christie's New York, 10 November 97, lot 7.
(fig. 6) Pablo Picasso, Femme couchée, jouant avec un chat, Mougins, 17 February/7 March 1964. Sold Christie's London, 1 July 1998, lot 42.