Pablo Picasso painted Nature morte au pichet on 6 March 1937, an extraordinarily prolific day that saw the artist complete six other oils on canvas. Five of these paintings were dedicated to his beloved golden haired muse Marie-Thérèse, depicting her face and body in bold, radiant colour, including Femme assise aux bras croisés, which now resides in the Musée Picasso, Paris. Alongside these portraits, Picasso also painted a similarly composed still-life – Nature morte à la cruche (Sold, Christie’s, London, 4 February 2015, £1,202,500) – which depicts the same statuesque pitcher, plate of fruit and the playful ‘picture-within-a-picture’ that hangs above this simple domestic scene. Together these paintings, infused with rich colour and dominated by curving, sensuous lines, show no sign of the building angst and torment that had started to pervade Picasso’s psyche at this time: his native Spain was consumed by the brutal violence and terror of the Civil War, while France, his adopted home, was also sliding ever closer to war. Holed up in his new retreat, a picturesque farmhouse in Le Tremblay-sur-Mauldre, Picasso, accompanied by Marie-Thérèse and their baby daughter Maya, turned away from the political upheaval and immersed himself in a blissful secluded domestic idyll.
In the autumn of 1936 Picasso had been forced to give up his beloved château at Boisgeloup as part of the separation agreement he had come to with his wife Olga. In need of another retreat away from the cosmopolitan world of Paris, and heeding to Marie-Thérèse’s wish to live out of the city and in the countryside, the art dealer Amboise Vollard, a long-term friend of the artist, offered Picasso the use of an old farmhouse set in the rural countryside near Versailles. With Marie-Thérèse and Maya settled there, Picasso divided his time between Paris, where he spent the week with his new raven-haired, intensely enigmatic muse, the surrealist photographer Dora Maar, and the countryside, where he spent the weekend ensconced in family life. The artist was living a double persona; publicly seen in Paris with Dora Maar, while privately devoted to Marie-Thérèse and his child in the idyllic surroundings of Le Tremblay. Marie-Thérèse reminisced of these years: ‘Picasso came the Friday to Sunday evening; he worked and worked relentlessly. He was like an angel. That is how we lived those years. Alone. And we were happy’ (Marie-Thérèse, quoted in P. Cabanne, ‘Picasso et les joies de la paternité’, in L’Oeil, no. 226, May 1974, p. 7). Le Tremblay-sur-Mauldre remained a private solace for the artist; he rarely invited friends to visit and many of the paintings he created there remained in his personal collection, unknown and unseen for many years.
Settling into his new routine, Picasso painted an abundance of still-lifes throughout the spring of 1937. Brightly coloured canvases filled with blossoming flowers and ripe fruits, undulating pitchers and jugs, as well as candles filled his rural studio. As David Douglas Duncan has described, ‘A bowl of fruit, flowers in their vase, a loaf of bread – commonplace things in any French house – were painted by Picasso as though he had looked back, almost with surprise, upon finding them in this new home of his own’ (D.D. Duncan, Picasso’s Picassos, New York, 1961, p. 96). Characterised by an atmosphere of tranquil, rural charm, these paintings, including Nature morte au pichet encapsulate Picasso’s desire to detach himself from the disquieting political preoccupations of Paris.
For Picasso, painting, particularly the genre of still-life had always been deeply autobiographical. ‘I paint the way some people write their autobiography,’ he once declared. ‘The paintings, finished or not, are the pages of my journal, and as such they are valid’ (Picasso, quoted in F. Gilot & C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, p. 123). In the early 1930s, at the peak of his passionate but secret affair with Marie-Thérèse, Picasso had painted emotionally charged still-lifes that are steeped in eroticism. Ripe fruit and exaggeratedly anthropomorphised objects depicted with bold colour and rich, generous brushstrokes served as thinly veiled stand-ins for the sensual undulating curves and youthful vitality of his young muse. In the present work, the same curvilinear language can be seen; the two pieces of fruit and undulating silhouette of the pitcher reflecting the female form. The voluptuous, easy-going and sweet natured Marie-Thérèse contrasted completely with the enigmatic, intense and highly strung Dora Maar. Françoise Gilot recalls the differences between these two women, ‘The two women were completely opposite by nature and temperament. Marie-Thérèse was a sweet, gentle woman, very feminine, and very fully formed – all joy, light, and peace. Dora, by nature, was nervous, anxious, and tormented. Marie-Thérèse had no problems. With her, Pablo could throw off his intellectual life and follow his instinct. With Dora, he lived a life of the mind’ (F. Gilot & C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, p. 236). This contrast between Picasso’s lovers would come to define his art of the war years as he revelled in the endless inspiration that their contrasting looks and characters provided. Blue-eyed, blonde haired and voluptuous, Marie-Thérèse was the embodiment of femininity: gentle, passive and kind, her image rendered with luxuriant line and soft, harmonious colours. Intense, anxious and highly intelligent, Dora Maar was the antithesis: tumultuous and dark-featured, she sported the latest Parisian fashions, and is often pictured wearing scarlet lipstick and nail varnish, her image rendered with jagged, angular lines and intense, vivid colours.