Although it was painted in March 1947, nearly three years after the Liberation of Paris, Nature morte au citron is profoundly indebted to the austere still-lifes of foodstuffs and household objects that Picasso produced during the Nazi Occupation. Picasso and Françoise Gilot had spent much of 1946 in the south of France, first at Golfe-Juan and then at Antibes. Jean Sutherland Boggs has described these months as a period of "rare hedonism" and "personal liberation" for Picasso, which culminated in the creation of La joie de vivre (Antipolis), a mural-sized idyll of frolicking maenads and centaurs (Zervos, vol. 14, no. 289; Musée Picasso, Antibes; for quotes, see Picasso and Things, exh.cat., Cleveland Museum of Art, 1992, pp. 296-297). Their return to Paris in November 1946 must have been quite a shock. France was shaken by the bombing of the Vietnamese port of Haiphong, which marked the beginning of a protracted colonial war-a brutal awakening from the illusions of peace produced by the Allied victory in 1945. This was followed closely by a private tragedy for Picasso: the unexpected death of his dear friend Nusch Éluard, who collapsed in the street on November 28th. Pierre Daix has written, "Returning to Paris from Antibes in late November 1946 was to leave an oasis of poetic calm and re-enter a world of tensions, disputes, and war" (Picasso: Life and Art, New York, 1993, p. 295).
Upon returning to Paris, moreover, Picasso and Françoise took up residence in the apartment on the rue des Grands-Augustins where the artist had lived and worked during the war years. On Françoise's first visit to the apartment, which had once been Balzac's home, Picasso had told her, "The whole place is full of historical and literary ghosts" (quoted in F. Gilot, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, p. 18). Boggs has noted, "It must also have had some place for the ghost of Picasso himself when he painted Guernica in the large room with the high beamed ceilingand even for the figures in the painting. In addition, there must have been the ghosts of those to whom his Charnel House and his paintings of skulls were a tribute. Besides these specters there were his memories of the well-documented discomforts of life within that apartment during the war, particularly the unforgettable cold" (op. cit., p. 296).
Under these circumstances, it is little surprise that the themes of Picasso's wartime work re-surface in his paintings from late 1946 and early 1947. Just days after his return to Paris, Picasso painted a mournful grisaille still-life of a skull and lamp set alongside a plate of urchins (Z., vol. 14, no. 290; Musée Picasso, Paris). Boggs has declared, "Picasso seems to have thrown off the élan of his Antibes works and to have descended into a tomb like his paintings of skulls and leeks from the spring of 1945" (ibid., p. 310). Painted four months later, the present still-life eschews such memento mori allusions in favor of more life-affirming imagery; the open, rounded vessel serves as a metaphor for fecundity, anticipating the birth of Picasso and Françoise's son Claude in May 1947, while the lemon embodies the seductions of the Midi, where the family would return in June for an extended sojourn. Yet the austerity of the composition and the quotidian simplicity of the still-life elements remain a palpable reminder of wartime still-lifes such as Nature morte au crâne et au pot, 1943 (Z., vol. 13, no. 89)--works about which Picasso declared, "I have no doubt that the war is in these paintings I have done" (quoted in Picasso and the War Years, exh. cat., Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1998, p. 13).
Picasso's statements attest to the expressive power that he accorded to his still-life objects. In 1944, he confided to Françoise, "The objects that go into my paintings are common objects from anywhere: a pitcher, a mug of beer, a pipe, a package of tobacco, a bowl, a kitchen chair, a plain common table--the object at its most ordinary. I want to tell something by means of the most common object; for example, a casserole, any old casserole, the one everybody knows. For me it is a vessel in the metaphoric sense, just like Christ's use of parables" (quoted in F. Gilot, op. cit., p. 74). And he declared to Pierre Daix, "You see, a casserole too can scream" (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., San Francisco, 1998, p. 14). Marie-Laure Bernadac has concluded, "Picasso was particularly attentive to the domestic and utilitarian aspect of objects, their familiar beauty, their humble yet necessary existence. In his view, things participated in their own way in the universal laws, the biological processes of life and death, the circulation of energy between objects and beings. His animistic concept of the world made him give a human status to whatever he saw and touched; all of these homely objects--and the rooms in which they were used-lived, moved, and expressed feelings" (exh. cat., op. cit., Cleveland, 1992, pp. 25-26).