Artists generally practice still-life painting as an arrangement of various objects for descriptive or formal purposes; they may furthermore attach personal, symbolical and allegorical significance to their choice of objects. Picasso painted still-lifes as a coded form of autobiography--he personalized the still-life, holding up objects as the embodiment of thoughts and feelings, associating them with people and events in his life. Picasso revealed to Françoise Gilot in 1944, "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, 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 with C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, p. 74).
In the fall of 1936 the dealer Ambroise Vollard invited Picasso to stay at a house he purchased at Le Tremblay-sur-Mauldre, near Versailles. Picasso had recently abandoned his studio at Boisgeloup, having turned it over to his wife Olga as part of their separation agreement. Le Tremblay proved to be a convenient countryside retreat where Picasso, his young mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter and their infant daughter Maya could evade Olga's prying eye, and find peaceful seclusion from the distraction of meddlesome friends. Picasso installed Marie-Thérèse and Maya at Le Tremblay, where he visited them several days each week or on weekends. During December 1937, Picasso began in Le Tremblay a series of still-life paintings in which he depicted simple household objects, concentrating on two contrasting motifs: a vessel of some sort--a pitcher, decanter or glass--and a bowl of fruit (Zervos, vol. 8, nos. 325-328). In their treatment of everyday objects, these canvases recall the paintings of Chardin, the 18th century founder of the French tradition of the nature morte, and in their austerity, those of the 17th century Spanish painter Zurbarán.
Picasso continued these still-life paintings into the spring of 1937. He was working on two large canvases of this kind when he read news reports that German warplanes supporting the Nationalist forces of General Franco had bombed the defenseless Basque town of Guernica. Following the completion of his magnificent anti-war mural in early June, Picasso painted three small canvases of strawberries, grapes and dessert cakes, as if to reward himself for this maximum effort (Picasso Project, 1937-1939, nos. 37/159-161). Inspired by the expressive visage of Dora Maar, his new love interest, Picasso worked through his harrowing series of "Weeping Women" during the fall and early winter. He also painted portraits of Marie-Thérèse and occasional still-life paintings, a genre Picasso associated exclusively with her. These private pictures afforded welcome relief from the intense effort Picasso put into his more public, war-related canvases and drawings.
Painted in Paris during Christmas week of 1937, the present picture was the last nature morte that Picasso painted during that year. The basket of fruit, decorated with a festive ribbon, and the decanter of spirits may be holiday gifts. The decanter, like the pitcher in earlier works, is emblematic of a standing man, the artist himself: the long neck suggests his virility. The curvy basket of fruit is a reminder of the voluptuous Marie-Thérèse, sweet-natured and compliant, as if decked out in one of the pretty hats Picasso liked to portray her in. In its tenderly erotic overtones, expressed in the most humble, mundane objects, this still-life is metaphorically a snapshot portrait of the artist and his young mistress, one that Picasso would preserve as a reminder of happy times.