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Live like a Rockefeller – Picasso’s Fillette à la corbeille fleurie

Marc Porter, the man who has orchestrated the sale of The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller, on a Rose Period masterpiece that represents ‘all that defines humanity’

‘Picasso, the greatest artist of the 20th century, saw our future in 1905 when he painted Fillette à la corbeille fleurie,’  says Marc Porter, Chairman of Christie’s America. ‘She represents the themes that Picasso would wrestle with for his life — love, sex, beauty, tenderness, violence — and all that defines humanity. In this masterpiece, Picasso reveals his singular brilliance in a timeless, mesmerising goddess gazing on the universe.’

In the early months of 1905 the 23-year-old Pablo Picasso was one of many unknown bohemians living and working in Montmartre who could not be sure where their next meal might come from. By the end of the year, however, he had found a new love — Fernande Olivier — and had fallen in with two perceptive and dedicated collectors — Gertrude and Leo Stein — whose acquisition of three ‘Rose’ paintings in late 1905, the second of which was Fillette à la corbeille fleurie, helped to jumpstart his career.

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Fillette à la corbeille fleurie, 1905. 60⅞ x 26  in (154.8 x 66.1  cm). Estimate on request. Offered in The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller 19th and 20th Century Art, Evening Sale on 8 May at Christie’s in New York © Succession PicassoDACS, London 2018

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), Fillette à la corbeille fleurie, 1905. 60⅞ x 26 in (154.8 x 66.1 cm). Estimate: on request. Offered in The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller: 19th and 20th Century Art, Evening Sale on 8 May at Christie’s in New York © Succession Picasso/DACS, London 2018

Picasso had put the hunger, poverty and sense of alienation that informed his ‘Blue’ paintings behind him, and was well into his Rose Period by this time. Among a series of important works he painted in his Rose manner is Fillette à la corbeille fleurie, which Gertrude Stein later described as ‘a charming thing, a lovely thing, a perplexing thing, a disconcerting thing, a simple thing, a clear thing, a complicated thing, an interesting thing’.

‘After a year of careful looking, I return again and again to her extraordinary face,’ agrees Marc Porter, who has led Christie’s global promotion of The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller, to which the painting was added in 1968. ‘She is beautiful and adorned only with a pink ribbon and a lustrous string of pearls. It is her knowing eye — at the very centre of the canvas — that captures me.’

When he painted this picture of ‘Linda la Bouquetière’, a teenage flower seller who also posed for Modigliani and Van Dongen, Picasso was working from a studio on the top floor of a dilapidated artist’s building known as the ‘Bateau Lavoir’. He had already tasted success in his debut exhibition in Paris in the summer of 1901, and was now making new friends — the poets Max Jacob, Guillaume Apollinaire and André Salmon, the Symbolist Jean Moréas, as well as the precocious playwright Alfred Jarry. These were relationships that broadened his intellectual interests and deepened his engagement with the cosmopolitan culture of the French capital.

In early summer of 1905 Picasso spent six weeks in northern Holland drawing and painting the countryside and its inhabitants, and rediscovering his enjoyment of looking at and painting female bodies. Picasso painted Fillette à la corbeille fleurie  following his return to Paris from Holland, probably during the early autumn of 1905. The painting was acquired by the dealer Clovis Sagot, a former baker and circus clown, who took advantage of the fact that Picasso was more broke than usual to knock him down from 500 francs to 75.

The dealer initially advertised Picasso’s flower seller in a newspaper as La fleur de pavé  (‘The Flower of the Cobblestones’ or ‘The Street’), a reference to the harsh reality of Linda’s life on the mean streets of Montmartre.

The classical treatment of Linda — manifested in the plain, simplified curves by which he drew the girl’s figure — is a veneer that he applied to provide an aura of innocence and purity

In a sketchbook Picasso used during 1905-06, there is a pen and black ink study of a young girl wearing a long white dress and holding a bouquet of flowers for her First Communion. This drawing probably represents the artist’s initial idea for the painting of Linda la Bouquetière. 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, constitute an important theme in Picasso’s Rose Period. The classical treatment of Linda — manifested in the plain, simplified curves by which he drew the girl’s figure — is a veneer that he applied to provide an aura of innocence and purity, outwardly masking but nonetheless inferring the harsh reality of her life.

Gertrude and Leo Stein had bought their first important Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings in 1904. In October of the following year they acquired their first Matisse at the Salon d’Automne, 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.

Not long afterwards, Leo stopped into Sagot’s gallery for the first time, purchasing a watercolour of a café scene by a Spanish painter. He 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). Leo immediately bought the picture, which became the first Picasso to enter the Steins’ collection.

According to Picasso’s biographer, John Richardson, shortly after his initial purchase of the Famille d’acrobates avec singe, Leo returned to Sagot’s gallery with his sister Gertrude, at which point they were shown the painting just recently advertised in Le Courrier Français. Leo bought the painting for the equivalent of $30.

‘At the collection’s core is the consistent examination of elements — man-made and natural — that surround us’ — Marc Porter, Chairman Christie’s America

The writer Henri-Pierre Roché would introduce Picasso first to Leo Stein, and soon afterwards to Gertrude. Before long, Picasso and Fernande became frequent visitors to the Stein residence at 27, rue du Fleurus.

In the spring of 1906 the dealer Vollard visited Picasso’s studio and bought 30 paintings for 2,000 francs. By the the end of 1906 Picasso’s friends noticed he was stuffing wads of 100-franc notes into the inside pocket of his jacket, which he kept fastened with a safety pin. The lean years of the Blue Period had become a memory.

For Marc Porter, it was Peggy and David Rockefeller’s enduring sense of curiosity that is the key to their collection. ‘At its core is the consistent examination of elements — man-made and natural — that surround us,’ says Porter, who admits he has taken guidance in ‘organising a complex and challenging moment in the art world’ from the words that appear above the entrance to his workplace at 30 Rockefeller Plaza: ‘Wisdom and knowledge shall be the stability of thy times’.

‘If you spend time with the collection in almost any category,’ Porter adds, ‘there is a revelation: sun, light, water, animals, plants, buildings, mountains, women, men, weather and human activity — from all cultures and across centuries,’ he says. ‘I am especially grateful that the Estate’s proceeds are destined for philanthropic organisations.’