Between the third and twelfth days of August 1944 Picasso painted nine pictures of a tomato plant perched on a window sill, all on identically sized canvases, in vertical or horizontal formats (Zervos, vol. 14, nos. 21-29). The present version is the best-known of the series, and arguably the finest. Unlike the four others, it is entirely finished, and indeed, among the group as a whole, it most successfully plays off the contrast of colored organic arabesques against a background of grisaille architectural elements. This is in fact the fourth picture from this group to appear at auction since 1999, when Christie's sold one of its companion works painted on the same day (fig. 1). The appearance of these paintings in sales has focused increased interest on the significance of this subject in the late phase of Picasso's wartime output. Whereas the skulls and animal carcasses Picasso painted earlier during the war were starkly fitting emblems for the dire circumstances that Picasso and his fellow Parisians experienced during the darkest days of the German Occupation, the humble tomato plant, together with the magnificent sculpture L'homme au mouton, 1943 (Spies, no. 79; fig. 2), express the inner resilience of the human spirit, the anticipation of imminent liberation, and newfound hopes for the future.
Allied forces, including Free French units, landed in Normandy on 6 June 1944, and at the beginning of August were approaching the outskirts of Paris. In expectation of their arrival, the Resistance stepped up its activities in the city. On 10 August, French railroad workers went on strike, followed five days later by the Paris police force. The metro stopped running. By the 19th, intensive street fighting had become widespread, with Resistance fighters, now joined by ordinary civilians who had taken up arms and erected barricades, pitted against German troops and their collaborators. General von Cholitz, the German commandant of Paris, had orders to blow up key sites, including cultural buildings as well as bridges and utilities, if his forces had to abandon the city. A German tank was parked on the rue des Grands-Augustins, where Picasso had his studio. Françoise Gilot, the young art student who was now a regular visitor, recalled the final time she talked to Picasso before the Liberation: "he told me he had been looking out a window that morning and a bullet had passed just a few inches from his head and embedded itself in the wall. He was planning to spend the next few days with his nine-year old daughter Maya and her mother, Marie-Thérèse Walter, who lived in an apartment on the boulevard Henri-IV at the eastern end of the Ile Saint-Louis. There was a great deal of fighting in the city and he was concerned for their safety" (in Life with Picasso, with C. Lake, New York, 1964, p. 61).
Marie-Thérèse kept a tomato plant on her window sill. This was a common practice during the war, in occupied Europe as well as in countless "victory gardens" on the Allied home front, where such fresh produce was otherwise hard to come by. Picasso used this plant as his subject. He had already made a series of four blue crayon drawings of a tomato plant in his Grands-Augustins studio on 27 July (Zervos, vol. 14, nos. 13-14; fig. 3). In the entry of his Picasso memoirs dated 16 June 1944, the photographer Brassaï recalled, "A new 'motif' has made its appearance in the studio: two pots of tomatoes, no doubt a gift [possibly from Marie-Thérèse?]. On the long stalks, barely hidden by the leaves, a few tomatoes are beginning to ripen, turning from tender green to orange. The studio is already filled with drawings and rough gouaches depicting these plants" (in Conversations with Picasso, Chicago, 1999, p. 196). The gouaches to which Brassaï refers are not documented in the literature; in any case, it is clear that Picasso was already working towards a series of oil paintings of a tomato plant before he moved temporarily to Marie-Thérèse's apartment during the fighting in August. Picasso painted two small, geometric versions of his plants on 31 July (Zervos, vol. 14, nos. 18 and 20).
Arriving at Marie-Thérèse's apartment, Picasso was no doubt re-inspired by the presence of her hardy tomato plant, which perhaps also suggested the young woman's personal strength in the face of adversity--she was an unmarried mother trying to raise the artist's child in dangerous and frightening times. Picasso painted the first of the large canvases on this subject on 3 August (Zervos, vol. 14, no. 23). In this horizontal version, the gray stone architecture of the cubist cityscape seen in the background almost overwhelms the presence of the plant. A sequence of partially rendered versions followed on 3, 6, 7 and 9 August (Zervos, vol. 14, nos. 29, 24, 21, and 27 respectively), which focus more on the twisting forms of the plant itself. These led to a fully painted version, set against the closed frames of the French window, done on 9 August (Zervos, vol. 14, no. 25).
The present painting and two companions marked the completion of the series on 12 August (figs. 1 and 4). In the first version illustrated here (fig. 1), Picasso reverted to the horizontal format with which he initiated the group--the open window frames have been schematized into a few simple but massive planar elements. In the second version (fig. 3), only partly painted, the plant looks wilted under the August heat. In the present painting, however, the upward-reaching tomato plant twists vigorously in the sunlight and the fresh air streams through the opened window. Here, in the picture most often chosen to represent this group, Picasso's technique is seen in all its characteristic vitality, with energetically brushed surfaces, in which the artist has employed a broad palette of colors mixed straight on the canvas as he painted at a lightning yet surefire pace. Jean Sutherland Boggs has written about the present painting: "His tomatoes are heavy and full, most of them a handsome green promising the blush of pink, and then the brilliant vermillion of the ripe fruit. Picasso could not have helped admiring their readiness to grow toward the freely painted sunlight and sky, which he expressed in the movement of the vines and the shape of the leaves as well as in the fruits themselves. The tomato plants are an earthy and decorative metaphor for the human need to survive and flourish even within the constraints of war" (in exh. cat., op. cit.).
Paris was liberated on 25 August 1944, as the French General Leclerc's Second Armored Division entered the city, followed by American, British and Canadian forces. Picasso returned to his Grands-Augustins studio on the 28th, whereupon he was besieged by visitors in uniform, including his friends Ernest Hemingway and Lee Miller, as well as numerous other anonymous well-wishers who counted Picasso as one of the chief celebrities still resident in the capital. The present painting was included in Picasso's first solo exhibition in Paris following the end of the war, as one of 21 works shown at the Galerie Louis Carré (cited above) in conjunction with the Comité France-Espagne to benefit Spanish relief efforts.
The first owner of this painting was Vladimir Golschmann (1893-1972), an important orchestra conductor in Paris following the First World War. In 1919 he inaugurated his Concerts Golschmann, in which he presented contemporary music. He championed the works of Les Six, the young composers who emulated the example of Erik Satie. He traveled widely and guest-conducted many ensembles. He was offered the directorship of the Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra in 1931, and filled this position for the next 25 years. He made numerous recordings in the postwar period, some of which are still in circulation on the Vanguard label. He became an American citizen in 1947.
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, Plant de tomate, 12 August 1944. Sold, Christie's New York, 9 November 1999, lot 531. BARCODE 20628222
(fig. 2) Pablo Picasso in his studio, with L'homme au mouton at
left, following the Liberation, September 1944. BARCODE 20627959
(fig. 3) Pablo Picasso, Plant de tomate 27 July 1944. Private collection. BARCODE 20628215
(fig. 4) Pablo Picasso, Plant de tomate, 12 August 1944. Sold, Sotheby's, New York, 5 May 2004, lot 27.BARCODE 20627966