Painted in the fall of 1918, around the time of the armistice that ended the First World War, this humble Pomme is small in scale but weighty in its gravitas, and displays Picasso's classicizing tendency in microcosm. The artist was now alternating between classical and cubist styles as a regular practice. He usually preferred to take a classical approach in his figure subjects, while he retained his cubist manner for still-life compositions. The present painting is a rare example of Picasso's Neoclassicism seen in application to a still-life subject.
The appearance of an apple in Picasso's painting often denotes an allusion to the work of Cézanne, to whom Picasso had turned for guidance while he was finding his way toward Cubism. Years later Picasso told his friend Brassaï, "As if I didn't know Cézanne! He was my one and only master! Don't you think I looked at his paintings? I spent years studying them... Cézanne! He was like the father of us all" (quoted in Brassaï, Conversations with Picasso, Chicago, 1999, p. 107).
Picasso treated the apple as if it were the basic unit of a Cézanne still-life. A sketch of an apple appears on a sheet of studies done during the first half of 1909 (Zervos, vol. 2**, no. 714; sold, Christie's New York, 11 May 1992, lot 7). Later that year he made a series of drawings and watercolors of apples (Z., vol. 2*, nos. 180 and 181; vol. 6, no. 1100; Palau i Fabre, Cubism, no. 452; and sale, Christie's New York, 3 May 2006, lot 152). These paved the way for a remarkable little plaster sculpture of an apple (Spies, no. 26; Musée Picasso, Paris). It suggested ways of breaking down and opening up a closed form on a much larger scale, which proved to be a critical step in the development of early Cubism.
It may seem ironic, then, that Picasso would again summon up Cézanne's apple at a time when he was moving away from Cubism in certain aspects of his work, and paint it more in the manner of Chardin, Courbet, or even Zurbarán. During the fall of 1918 the artist executed two other still-life paintings in this naturalistic vein, Compotier avec fruits and Corbeille de fruits (Z., vol. 3, no. 154; and Vol. 29, no. 336). There is also a pencil study, in simple outline with some shading, for the present painting (J. Palau i Fabre, op. cit., 1999, no. 237). Palau i Fabre has noted that these works are "entirely realist in appearance, whose optical volume is greater than anything else he had ever painted. It is as if the painter had rebelled against himself, or against the reticence of some of his Montparnasse colleagues, and was trying to tell us that everything he attempted to represent in a more or less cabbalistic or sublimated way could also be formulated realistically and tangibly" (op. cit., p. 93).
Almost all of Picasso's apples are a yellow or greenish-yellow fruit, instead of the red apple of Eden or those in Cézanne's still-lifes. He may be alluding to the precious golden apples of the Hesperides in Greek mythology. Picasso's conception of the apple as seen in the present painting takes on a more burnished form for its reappearance a year later in the artist's finest Neoclassical still-life, Nature morte au pichet at aux pommes (fig. 1), of which Elizabeth Cowling wrote, "Nothing reveals more forcefully Picasso's desire to achieve the spare, dignifed monumentality of great classical art" (in On Classic Ground, London, 1990, p. 209).
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, Nature morte au pichet et aux pommes, Paris, 1919. Musée Picasso, Paris. BARCODE 25010220