Picasso completed three still-life compositions in early April 1934 in which he painted a handful of newly cut wildflowers in a glass pitcher, with some fruit grouped nearby, all laid out on a cloth-covered table-top and set before an open window of his chateau at Boisgeloup. The present painting was done on 5 April. It is the earliest of the three, and as such, typically for a series of this kind, it is also the most naturalistic. Two days later he painted similar objects in a geometrically compartmentalized cubist space (Zervos, vol. 8, no. 195), and shortly thereafter he executed a third still life, in which the contours of the objects have been transformed into twisting, ray-like, magnetic lines of force (Zervos, vol. 8, no. 234). Each painting in its way evokes the coming of spring to Boisgeloup. These canvases welcome the rebirth of nature, and herald the awakening of a excited and newly receptive state-of-mind. It was time for the denizens of Boisgeloup to open the windows, let in the light of the lengthening days, to breathe in the freshly scented air and allow it to clear out the stuffy and smoky air from the large rooms of this old mansion (fig. 1).
The casual and charming domesticity of this scene is nonetheless deceiving. Picasso's still life paintings are often akin to the private notations in a journal, in which references to ordinary objects and places may hint at subterranean and otherwise ineffable feelings. One can usually detect in a Picasso still life an undercurrent of emotion, and perhaps even find signs of a hidden personal drama. Indeed, it is usually the case that this artist has invested every object he has chosen to paint with some sort of personal significance. Picasso was fond of using everyday things to serve as a code, and he created visual metaphors by which he signified his involvement with the people and events that filled his life. He told Françoise Gilot in 1944 that "the objects that go into my paintings are common objects from anywhere a pitcher, a mug of beer, a bowl, a plain common table. I want to tell something by means of the most common object; for example, a casserole, the one everybody knows. For me it is a vessel in the metaphoric sense, just like Christ's use of parables" (in F. Gilot, with C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, p. 74).
The presence that hovers everywhere in this light-filled room is that of Marie-Thérèse Walter, Picasso's blonde mistress and muse, who was then 24 years old. She was still in her late teens when in January 1927 Picasso walked up to her outside the Galeries Lafayette where she had been shopping. He had one of the most memorable pick-up lines of all time: "Miss, you have an interesting face. I would like to do your portrait. I have a feeling we will do great things together I am Picasso" (quoted in M. FitzGerald, Picasso's Marie-Thérèse, exh. cat., Acquavella Galleries, Inc., New York, 2008). Picasso pulled off this moment of seduction as if he were Zeus descending from Olympus and carrying off a young nymph who had caught his fancy. They walked off together; Marie-Thérèse came to his studio the next day, posed for the artist, and soon afterwards they became lovers. This all had to be managed with strict discretion and the utmost secrecy--Picasso had a wife, Olga, whom he married in 1918. She was the mother of his young son, Paulo, whom he adored. He was not yet prepared to upset a marriage which had provided him with all the trappings of an haute-bourgeois domesticity he had come to enjoy. But at the same time Olga was difficult, demanding, even increasing unstable at times, and Picasso in his mid-forties was desperate for an outlet, an escape into a sexual adventure that would rejuvenate his life and, as or even more importantly, stimulate his art. The beautiful and acquiescently sensual Marie-Thérèse filled both these needs to perfection.
Picasso purchased Boisgeloup in 1930. The odd name of this property derives from bois-jaloux--it was in a hidden wooded area, as if screened off by a jalousie. The old house had neither electricity nor central heating, and Picasso did not undertake to modernize it. He prized Boisgeloup for its seclusion, and it was only about 40 miles from Paris, a quick jaunt in his chauffeured Hispano-Suiza motorcar. He set up a sculpture studio in his new country retreat, and there were large rooms in which to paint. Best of all, Boisgeloup was the perfect location for his trysts with Marie-Thérèse. Picasso would bring her to the chateau during the week, and she could easily slip away to nearby Gisors or back to Paris when Olga and Paulo showed up for the weekends. It is not clear when Olga learned about Marie-Thérèse. She could not help noticing the frequent appearance of a young blonde woman in his paintings, and she may well have known what was up by this spring of 1934, but she was not yet ready to force the issue with Picasso. The inevitable series of angry confrontations between Picasso and Olga, and then the final decisive scene would in fact take place the following year, after Marie-Thérèse had become pregnant. At that point point, Picasso and Olga separated, after seventeen years of marriage. Because Picasso could never agree to a division of property that included his paintings, they never divorced. Unfortunately for Picasso, Olga received Boisgeloup as part of their agreement.
This, then, is the drama behind the scene of this delightful vernal still life. Even the overall tonality betokens Marie-Thérèse, cast in "the lilac color Picasso associated with her," as John Richardson has pointed out (in A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932, New York, 2007, p.472). In a series of sketchbook drawings done in August 1932, Picasso mingled the profile of a seated Marie-Thérèse with a vase of flowers (Zervos, vol. 8, nos. 1-9); Brigitte Léal has written that "Marie-Thérèse incarnated a wild beauty, a sporty and healthy 'beautiful plant'" (in Picasso and Portraiture, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996, p. 387). Marie-Thérèse is the first femme-fleur image in Picasso's work, in 1946 the artist would later depict another young mistress, Françoise Gilot, in a similar manner (Zervos, vol. 14, no. 167). Marie-Thérèse's shapely and inviting figure appears on a divan among floral motifs in Nu couché aux fleurs (Zervos, vol. 7, no. 407; fig. 2). Picasso has incorporated the form of a reclining female nude within the folds of the tablecloth, most apparent at lower right, in the present Nature morte.
The juxtaposition of two still life subjects--the glass pitcher of flowers at left, and the banana and figs on the right--is more than a mere contrivance for compositional effect. The banana takes on a phallic significance (this should be no surprise coming from Picasso), especially when placed in the proximity of the sliced open figs; the interior of the latter fruit has traditionally born an allusion to female genitalia. Picasso makes his presence known in a second image in this painting: note the small outline of a head in the window pane at lower left, which is the artist's reflection as he peers over the top edge of his canvas and surveys the room. Picasso had introduced his profile into the palette-like white board in his Arlequin, 1915 (Zervos, vol. 2**, no. 555; see note to lot 42), and occasionally in other works thereafter. Picasso returned to this idea of a small cropped reflection of his image when in 1940 he took a self-portrait photograph in his Royan studio (fig. 3).
The paired aspect of this still life arrangement follows on a theme that had preoccupied Picasso during the final days of March, when he painted a series of compositions showing two girls reading at a table (Zervos, vol. 8, nos. 190-194). The blonde girl is of course Marie-Thérèse, her darker haired companion is her sister Jeanne, who occasionally accompanied her to Boisgeloup. In Deux personnages, a painting done on 10 April, five days after the present still life and on a canvas of the same large dimensions, Picasso effected a startling Ovidian metamorphosis by transforming the two young women into plant-like, biomorphic forms, seen--as in the present painting--against an open window (Zervos, vol. 8, no. 197; fig. 4). On this occasion the pane of glass reflects a budding branch, a sure sign that spring has arrived.
This Nature morte has an especially distinguished provenance: the first private owner was Picasso's good friend Douglas Cooper, a leading historian of the Cubist movement, and later on, the famous collector and dealer Justin K. Thannhauser. Following the end of the First World War, the conductor Vladimir Golschmann (1893-1972) founded his own series of concerts in Paris, in which he featured works by Stravinsky and the young avant-garde composers known as Les Six. He also conducted performances of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. He emigrated to the United States and from 1931 to 1958 served as the music director of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra. Some of his recordings are still available on the Vanguard classical label.
(fig. 1) Château de Boisgeloup, 1931. Photograph courtesy of the Musée Picasso Paris. BARCODE: 26530710
(fig. 2) Pablo Picasso, Nu couché aux fleurs, Boisgeloup, July 1932. Private collection. BARCODE: 26530727
(fig. 3) Pablo Picasso, Auto-portrait dans l'atelier, Royan, 1940. Photograph courtesy of the Musée Picasso, Paris. BARCODE: 26530734
(fig. 4) Pablo Picasso, Deux personages, 10 April 1934. Sold, Christie's New York, 6 November 2008, lot 58. BARCODE: 25017366