Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Fillette à la corbeille fleurie
“This one always had something coming out of this one. This one was working. This one always had been working. This one was always having something that was coming out of this one that was a solid thing, a charming thing, a lovely thing, a perplexing thing, a disconcerting thing, a simple thing, a clear thing, a complicated thing, an interesting thing, a disturbing thing, a repellent thing, a very pretty thing. This one was one certainly being one having something coming out of him.”
Gertrude Stein, Picasso, 1909 (published in Camera Work, New York, August 1912, pp. 29-30)
The fall of 1905 marked the turning point in the careers of both the supreme artists of the 20th century. Henri Matisse, then in his mid-thirties, in the wake of the Fauves’ sensational debut at the 1905 Salon d’Automne, first achieved fame and finally met with a long-awaited and well-deserved improvement in his fortunes. At around the same time, Pablo Picasso, a dozen years younger, experienced the beginnings of his own success and enjoyed a welcome amelioration of his personal circumstances. Picasso arrived at this decisive moment in his own distinctive way, almost entirely, unlike Matisse, away from the gaze of the public eye.
During the early months of 1905, having put his “Blue” paintings behind him, Picasso was well into his Rose period; he nonetheless remained a typically penniless bohemian artist, one of many unknowns in Montmartre, who could not be sure when or how his next meal might materialize, and inwardly felt isolated and lonely despite an extensive circle of friends who shared his plight.
By the end of the year, however, Picasso had found a new love, Fernande Olivier, who moved in with him and became the first in a line of women who had a discernibly significant impact on his daily life and art. He moreover fell in with two perceptive and dedicated collectors—Gertrude and Leo Stein, sister and brother—whose acquisition of three Rose paintings in the fall of 1905, the second of which was Fillette à la corbeille fleurie, helped jumpstart his career and finally relieved him of the material stresses and wants that had long beset him. The Steins had also begun to collect Matisse.
During this momentous year, Picasso painted a series of important works in his Rose manner, marking the peak of this period. Among these paintings, Fillette à la corbeille fleurie is an especially “charming thing, a lovely thing, a perplexing thing...” as Gertrude Stein described Picasso’s early work (cited above). Accompanying this picture are stories that have contributed to its esteemed and celebrated status down through the decades, commencing from the time Picasso painted the canvas and extending through the tenures of the two famous families that have owned it—first the Steins, and thereafter Peggy and David Rockefeller.
From Blue to Rose, 1904-1905
The years of the Blue period had been unrelentingly hard on Picasso. The young artist lived the abject poverty, the lingering hunger, and the desperate sense of crushing alienation that he painted in his indigo dreams of gaunt, emaciated, indigent souls who barely subsisted at the margins of society. He never doubted, however, his talent and skills, and pursued his ambitions in a white heat, always firm in the belief that the right and timely opportunity would somehow present itself. He had already tasted success in his debut exhibition in Paris, a quickly painted showing of colorful and salably eclectic works at Ambroise Vollard’s gallery in the summer of 1901—it was an amazing accomplishment for an artist not yet twenty years old. “It pleased a lot of people,” Picasso recalled many years afterward. “It was only later when I set about to do blue paintings that things went really badly. This lasted for years” (quoted in P. Daix and G. Boudaille, op. cit., 1967, p. 154).
Following three abortive attempts to gain a foothold in Paris between late 1900 and early 1903, Picasso finally established himself in the capital during the spring of 1904, taking a studio at 13, rue Ravignan, on the top floor of a dilapidated artist’s building that his friend the poet Max Jacob had dubbed the “Bateau-Lavoir” (“Laundry-Barge”; Picasso annotated “Rue Ravignan” on the reverse of Fillette à la corbeille fleurie). He was making new friends in Paris outside his accustomed circle of Catalan transplants, especially the poets Jacob, Guillaume Apollinaire, and André Salmon, the Symbolist Jean Moréas, as well as the precocious playwright Alfred Jarry, forming relationships that led to a broadening of his intellectual interests and served to deepen his engagement with the cosmopolitan French culture in which he had chosen to live and work. Picasso placed a telling sign on his studio door: “Au rendez-vous des poètes.”
The artist’s favorite entertainment—virtually the only one he could then afford—was the Cirque Médrano, permanently quartered in its own building at the foot of Montmartre, only a short walk from the Bateau-Lavoir. Previously known as the Cirque Fernando, the Médrano and its performers had earlier inspired Degas, Renoir, and Toulouse-Lautrec, and later would provide subjects for Van Dongen, Chagall, and Léger. Gertrude Stein wrote that Picasso and his friends “all met once or twice a week at the Cirque Médrano and there they felt very flattered because they could be intimate with the clowns, the jugglers, the horses and their riders. Picasso was little by little more and more French and this started the rose or harlequin period” (op. cit., 1938, p. 7).
Having conclusively passed through his dark, “blue” night of the soul, Picasso celebrated his 24th birthday in October 1904. During his earlier sojourns in Paris, the young man had rarely been without a girlfriend, occasional or steady; during the summer of 1904 he appears to have had a tender relationship with a young woman named Madeleine, about whom little is known. In August Picasso met Fernande Olivier, although it was not until the following spring that they began living together. This deeply romantic attachment fostered a more stable emotional environment that proved conducive to Picasso’s work. A newfound delight in physicality and sensual joy began to supplant the young man’s once grinding preoccupation with alienation and despair.
The presence of harlequins, saltimbanques, and their kin dominated Picasso’s output during the first phase of the Rose period, sometimes referred to as his “Circus period,” which lasted through the spring of 1905. In the early summer of that year, tagging along with a Dutch friend on holiday, Picasso spent six weeks in northern Holland drawing and painting the countryside and its inhabitants. “Picasso rediscovered in Holland his enjoyment of looking at and painting female bodies,” Pierre Daix wrote. “He renounced the long faces and sharp features full of anguish, poverty and despair. A new delight came out in these smooth, round faces, the rosy bodies, the happy expressions. In the works belonging to the final months of 1905, everything is conveyed in delicate curves and bathed in warm light” (op. cit., 1967, p. 274).
A Resurgence of Classicism
A new interest in classicism was everywhere in the air during 1905, to which Picasso, following his Dutch trip, had become especially receptive. “His interest in Classical art,” Elizabeth Cowling has pointed out, “enabled him to see three Dutch country girls as the Three Graces and predisposed Fernande to be the mistress and muse of the moment because she reminded him of a solidly planted Venus, a Raphaelesque Madonna and an Ingresque odalisque... In 1905 classicism was in the ascendant among the Parisian intelligentsia and during the course of the year Picasso became not just a bit-part but a leading player in this movement” (Picasso: Style and Meaning, London, 2002, pp. 132-133).
Amid rooms containing the most recent work by living artists, the Salon d’Automne typically featured retrospective exhibitions of earlier and departed masters. The 1904 Salon celebrated the work of Puvis de Chavannes, the paragon of allegorical classicism, who died in 1898. In 1905, while the new paintings of Matisse and his friends, quickly dubbed “fauve”, shocked Paris, retrospectives of Ingres and Manet were on view in nearby rooms. Maurice Denis declared Ingres to be “our newest master; we have only recently discovered him” (quoted in E. Cowling, op. cit., 2002, p. 134). Picasso, whose primary interest was the figure, was among those many painters smitten with Ingres, and drawn to the voluptuous nudes in Le bain turc. Years later, near the end of his life, Picasso declared, “One must paint like Ingres, we must be like Ingres” (quoted in J. Richardson, Late Picasso, exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, London, 1988, p. 36).
During the fall of 1905 Picasso completed his largest and most impressive Rose masterpiece, Les Bateleurs (Zervos, vol. 1, no. 285), as well as a related subject, Acrobate à la boule (Zervos, vol. 1, no. 290). An exquisite stillness, the profound silence of vast spaces, evoked a mysterious and elusive timelessness in his paintings, all hallmarks of the classical mindset that now prevailed in French painting. “During the second half of the year [Picasso’s] work began to assume a classic breadth and repose,” Alfred H. Barr, Jr., stated. “Such paintings…reveal the new style, more objective in feeling, more studied in pose, broadly and more solidly modeled, simpler in color. Picasso’s youthful classicism is informal, fresh, unacademic... During this brief moment in his youth he was able to hold in delicate, intuitive balance the human and the ideal, the personal and the traditional” (Picasso: Fifty Years of his Art, New York, 1946. p. 42).
A Girl off the Streets of Montmartre
Picasso painted Fillette à la corbeille fleurie following his return to Paris from Holland, probably during the early autumn of 1905. The dealer Clovis Sagot purchased this painting from Picasso not long after it was completed. Sagot had once worked as a baker and a clown, and learned the art business from his older brother Edmond, a well-known print dealer. He opened his Galerie du Vingtième Siècle a few doors down from Ambroise Vollard’s building on the Rue Laffitte. Sagot was shrewd, tight-fisted, and occasionally got lucky, all at the expense of the artists whose work he handled.
“Sagot, [Picasso] said, was a past master at assessing the exact degree of an artist’s desperation and squeezing maximum benefit from it,” Richardson has written. “After his return from Holland in the late summer of 1905, when he was more penniless than usual, Picasso asked Sagot to come and look at his work. The dealer picked out three things, the Girl with a Basket of Flowers and two of the Dutch gouaches, and offered seven hundred francs for them. Picasso refused this offer but a few days later concluded that he had better accept. No luck. Sagot had reduced his offer to five hundred francs. Outraged, Picasso turned this down. By the time he realized he had to give in or starve, the offer had shrunk to three hundred francs [in the end Sagot paid Picasso 75 francs for Fillette à la corbeille fleurie]... Sagot was one of the main reasons for Picasso’s lifelong distrust of dealers” (op. cit., 1991, p. 354).
The dealer advertised Picasso’s flower seller as La fleur de pavé on the cover Le Courrier Français, in the edition published on 2 November 1905. La fleur de pavé (“The Flower of the Cobblestones” [or “The Street”]) is perhaps the most apt title for this painting; it metaphorically identifies the girl with the flowers that she sells, suggesting her fragile existence as a waif struggling to survive on the mean streets of Montmartre. This early title for the painting also points to the girl’s true livelihood, as it would have been clearly understood at that time—the flowers were a come-on, she was actually a prostitute. We know the model’s identity, if only her first name—as Richardson reported—“‘Linda la Bouquetière,’ a teenage flower seller from the Place du Tertre, who sold her body as well as her roses outside the Moulin Rouge” (ibid., p. 340). Jean-Paul Crespelle, the source of Richardson’s information, noted that Linda “occasionally posed for the local artists. Van Dongen, Picasso, and Modigliani all painted her portrait. Max Jacob took an interest in the girl, whose mother, he felt, was leading her astray; he dreamt of enrolling her in the Children of Mary [a Catholic youth organization]” (op. cit., 1969, p. 68).
Young girls figure prominently in other Rose period paintings, and were usually—as was Linda—inspired by or based directly on local models. Richardson has pointed out that the small girl in Les Bateleurs was probably the daughter of the concierge at the Bateau-Lavoir. Marguerite (“Margot”) Luc, the step-daughter of Frédé Gérard—“Père Frédé”, the owner of the fabled tavern Le Lapin Agile, Picasso’s favorite watering hole—is the Femme à la corneille, 1904 (Zervos, vol. 1, no. 240). A skinny Montmartre girl named Juliette posed for Femme au bras levé, painted in late 1905 (Zervos, vol. 1, no. 308).
In a sketchbook Picasso used during 1905-1906, there is a pen and black ink study of a young girl, wearing for her First Communion a long white dress and holding a bouquet of flowers. This drawing probably represents the artist’s initial idea for the painting of Linda la Bouquetière (Musée Picasso, Carnet no. 6, 27R). In the completed picture, her basket holds red poppies, a symbol of bread and wine as the body and blood of Christ in the Sacrament of the Holy Eucharist. Such adolescent rites of passage, as a transition from innocence to experience, youth to early maturity—or in a larger sense, from sacred to profane—constitute an important theme in Picasso’s Rose period depictions of his young subjects, both female and male.
“Linda la Bouquetière,” as Richardson has pointed out, is “the female equivalent of ‘p’tit Louis’,” the handsome lad who modeled for Garçon à la pipe (Zervos, vol. 1, no. 274), in which he wears a garland of roses and is seated between two lavish floral decorations. “P’tit Louis” was an “evil angel,” as Picasso later described him, one of the “local types, actors, ladies, gentlemen, delinquents” who frequented the studios in the Bateau-Lavoir (quoted in op. cit., 1991, p. 340). Such was life on the streets that “p’tit Louis” died sadly young. We do not know what became of Linda, but the long-term odds of evading a similar fate were not in her favor.
The classical treatment of both Linda and young Louis is a veneer that Picasso applied to provide an aura of innocence and purity, outwardly masking but nonetheless inferring the harsh reality of their demi-mondaine lives. This is a more complex, equivocal conception of the world than the young artist had painted during his Blue period. The degree to which Linda and others of her kind—those “sultry looking gamins,” as Richardson described them (ibid.)—project a burgeoning adolescent sexual awareness lends these pictures their hauntingly mysterious but disquieting, suggestively erotic edge.
An Egyptian Flora
In the spirit of antiquity, Picasso may have envisioned his flower seller as a modern-day Flora, the mythical goddess of spring, flowers, and blossoming. His Flora, however, goes against the type—she is not in any sense the idealized, divine personification of these qualities as imagined in ancient times, but instead as Caravaggio might have conceived her, creating a realistic representation of a flesh-and-blood model who was in fact a working flower seller and prostitute, and plainly embodied the seediest side of contemporary bohemianism in Montmartre.
Picasso’s new classicism manifests itself in the plain, simplified curves by which he drew the girl’s figure, actually more archaic than classical, rendered with minimal modeling and detail, in contrast with the more carefully realistic treatment he specifically accorded Linda’s visage and expression. Picasso’s stylization of the flower seller shows evidence of elements in Egyptian art as the chief archaicizing agent in his work of the latter half of 1905. The Italian painter Ardengo Soffici recalled how in the Louvre “Picasso always returned to the ground-floor rooms, where he would pace around and around like a hound in search of game between the rooms of Egyptian and Phoenician antiquities--among the sphinxes, basalt idols and papyri, and the sarcophagi painted in vivid colors” (quoted in E. Cowling, op. cit., 2002, p. 137).
Now well into the classical phase of his Rose period subjects, Picasso was creating a strongly original and personal synthesis of diverse but interrelated pictorial influences. “With his mind filled with memories of the antiquities of the Louvre,” Cowling has noted, “he was acutely sensitive to the ‘primitive’ and ‘archaic’ echoes in Ingres’s personal interpretation of Classical sculpture. It came easily to him to see Ingres in terms of Egyptian art, Egyptian art in terms of Ingres, and in absorbing and blending elements from both he enrolled himself within the newly defined tradition of primitivist classicism” (ibid., 2002, pp. 138-139). Picasso would continue to pursue this tendency in his depiction of the figure during the subsequent Iberian period, culminating in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (Zervos, vol. 2*, no. 18). When he revealed the latter painting to interested artists and friends during the summer and fall of 1907, he received comments on the “Egyptian” appearance of the nude women.
Enter the Steins
Gertrude and Leo Stein had been sharing an apartment in Paris at 27, rue de Fleurus since 1903. They purchased from Ambroise Vollard in 1904 their first important Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings: three Cézannes, two Gauguins, two Renoirs, and a Denis. They bought two paintings, nudes by Manguin and Vallotton, out of the Salon des Indépendants in the spring of 1905. The Steins bravely acquired their first Matisse at the Salon d’Automne that October—the well-known Fauve canvas Femme au chapeau, which had been a lightning-rod for the withering criticism directed at the artist and his colleagues. Shortly thereafter Leo stopped into Sagot’s gallery for the first time. He balked at a Picasso that the dealer showed him, and instead purchased a watercolor of a café scene by another Spanish painter. Leo returned a few days later to learn more about Picasso, at which point Sagot pulled out a recent acquisition, Famille d’acrobates avec singe, 1905 (Zervos, vol. 1, no. 299). Leo immediately bought the picture, which became the first Picasso to enter the Steins’ collection.
Writing more than a quarter century later in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein is neither very clear nor accurate on details and chronology, and moreover gets one important fact wrong: she thought that Fillette à la corbeille fleurie was the first Picasso to go up on the walls at 27, rue de Fleurus. According to Richardson, shortly after his initial purchase of the Famille d’acrobates avec singe, Leo returned with Gertrude to Sagot’s gallery, at which point they were shown the painting just recently advertised in Le Courrier Français, the one titled La fleur de pavé—the present Fillette à la corbeille fleurie.
“It was about this time”—Gertrude Stein wrote, as told in the voice of her lifelong companion, Alice B. Toklas—“that Gertrude Stein’s brother happened one day to find the picture gallery of Sagot, and ex-circus clown who had a picture shop further up on the rue Laffitte… Sagot sent him to a little furniture store where there were some paintings being shown by Picasso. Gertrude Stein’s brother was interested and wanted to buy one and asked the price but the price asked was almost as expensive as a Cézanne. He went back to Sagot and told him. Sagot laughed. He said, that is alright, come back in a few days and I will have a big one. In a few days he did have a big one and it was very cheap. When Gertrude Stein and Picasso tell about those days they are not always in agreement as to what happened but I think in this case they agree the price asked was a hundred and fifty francs. The picture was the now well-known painting of a nude girl with a basket of red flowers.
“Gertrude Stein did not like the picture, she found something rather appalling in the drawing of the legs and feet, something that repelled and shocked her. She and her brother almost quarreled about this picture. He wanted it and she did not want it in the house. Sagot gathering a little of the discussion said, but that is alright if you do not like the legs and feet it is very easy to guillotine her and only take the head. No that would not do, everybody agreed, and nothing was decided.
“Gertrude Stein and her brother continued to be very divided in this matter and they were very angry with each other. Finally it was agreed that since he, the brother, wanted it so badly they would buy it” (op. cit., 1933, pp. 42-43).
Leo’s account, written after the Second World War, gives the impression that he went ahead and purchased the flower seller without Gertrude’s agreement: “That day I came home to dinner, and Gertrude was already eating. When I told her I had bought the picture she threw down her knife and fork and said, ‘Now you’ve spoiled my appetite. I hate that picture with feet like a monkey’s’. Some years later, when we were offered an absurd sum for the picture and I wanted to sell it—since for that money one could get much better things—Gertrude would not agree to sell, and I believe she always kept it” (Appreciation: Painting, Poetry and Prose, New York, 1947, p. 173).
Gertrude eventually came to appreciate the painting that Leo brought home that day, and in fact she always held on to it. When she next wrote about the little flower seller, in her slim book on Picasso published in 1938, she did not mention her initial reservations, and stated, “The Young Girl with a Basket of Flowers...was painted at the great moment of the harlequin period, full of grace and delicacy and charm” (op. cit., 1938, p. 7). When she needed to sell an important Picasso in 1929 to finance the new Plain Edition of her writings, Gertrude decided not to part with Fillette à la corbeille fleurie, for which she had received numerous offers, but after consulting with Picasso, chose instead to sell Femme au bras levé.
Picasso Meets the Steins
Soon after the Steins’ acquisition from Sagot of Fillette à la corbeille fleurie, the writer Henri-Pierre Roché—much later in his long career the author of Jules et Jim—introduced Picasso first to Leo, and soon afterward to Gertrude Stein, who was initially reluctant to meet the painter of the girl “with feet like a monkey.” (As Richardson has commented, “Not that the girl’s feet are the least like a monkey’s: the ape in Leo’s first Picasso must have played havoc with Gertrude’s visual memory” [op. cit., 1991, p. 398].)
Leo was astonished at what he saw during his first visit to Picasso’s studio in the Bateau-Lavoir. Picasso and Fernande soon became become frequent visitors to the Stein residence at 27, rue du Fleurus. The Steins purchased Femme au bras levé straight off the easel in late 1905, by which time Picasso was already at work on a portrait of Gertrude, which he completed some ten months later, following the Iberian summer in Gósol (Zervos, vol. 1, no. 352). As he began Gertrude’s portrait, Picasso was finally “emptying himself” of Harlequin, who took his final bow, in suitably melodramatic style, in La mort d’Arlequin, begun during the final days of 1905 and completed in early 1906 (Zervos, vol. 1, no. 302). “He had the corpse clasp his hands together as in prayer,” Richardson has written, “like a recumbent figure on a tomb, in effigy. Is he really dead? the two androgynous watchers seem to wonder. The trickster could well be faking. Harlequin is reincarnated again and again in Picasso’s work” (ibid., p. 387).
By the end of 1905, the lean years of the Blue period had for Picasso become a memory. “The rose manner brought him luck,” Jean-Paul Crespelle has written. “Very soon more and more collectors were calling on him. One day [in the spring of 1906] André Salmon and Max Jacob were astounded to witness a visit by Vollard...This time the dealer bought thirty paintings for which he paid the princely sum of two thousand francs... Poverty abandoned the Bateau-Lavoir, even if bohemian life continued; henceforth, there would no longer be any lack of money. At the end of 1906 Picasso’s friends noticed he was stuffing wads of hundred-franc notes into the inside pocket of his jacket, which he kept fastened with a safety pin: he had not yet discovered the existence of banks” (op. cit., 1969, pp. 68-69).