Picasso inscribed on the reverse of this delectably rendered, trompe-l’oeil apple “Souvenir pour Gertrude et Alice Picasso Noel 1914”, in a Christmas dedication to Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas. It was a kind and thoughtful gesture following a difficult period for the two women. Earlier that year Gertrude and her brother Leo walked away from each other. Since the autumn of 1903 they had shared a pavilion at 27, rue de Fleurus, Paris, where they installed their large, now fabled collection of Impressionist and modern paintings. Leo, however, decided he could no longer tolerate the presence of Alice, his sister’s constant companion and lover.
Leo’s outright disapproval of Gertrude’s current taste in collecting had moreover compelled him to move out of their shared abode. Leo continued to favor Matisse, whose work he and Gertrude had bought together in earlier years, while Gertrude had become a passionate devotee of Picasso’s recent Cubist paintings. “As for Picasso’s latest work,” Leo wrote to a friend, “it is for me an utter abomination. Somebody asked me whether I didn’t think it mad. I said sadly, ‘No, it isn’t as interesting as that. It’s only stupid’” (quoted in J. Richardson, op. cit., 1996, p. 294). Leo was just as averse to the idiosyncratic, experimental direction Gertrude had taken in her writing. “Mutual admiration and love had turned not so much to hate as to intense irritation,” as John Richardson has observed. “They should have gone their separate ways long before” (ibid.).
Parting required the division of their extraordinary art collection. “Gertrude was in one room, and Leo in another,” Alice much later recounted to James Lord. “They weren’t speaking at the time. I went from one room to the other with the paintings until the selection had been made” (quoted in J. Lord, Six Exceptional Women, New York, 1994, p. 24). It was agreed that Gertrude would keep nearly all the Cézannes, and the Picassos as well, except for some early drawings of which her brother had long been fond. Leo would take with him to his new residence in Settignano, near Florence, the Renoirs and Matisses, except for the latter’s Fauve La femme au chapeau (San Francisco Museum of Modern Art). “I am glad that the Renoirs were sufficiently indifferent to you so that you were ready to give them up,” Leo wrote to his sister, “so I am glad that Pablo is sufficiently indifferent to me so that I am willing to let you have all you want of it” (quoted in L. Madeline, ed., op. cit., 2008, p. 173).
Brother and sister, however, bitterly contested one small painting—a Cézanne still-life of five apples (Rewald, no. 334), which they bought at Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in 1907. Each of them refused to part with it. Leo informed his sister that “The Cézanne apples have a unique importance to me that nothing can replace” (in Leo Stein’s correspondence: E. Fuller, ed., Journey into the Self, New York, 1980, p. 57). “Gertrude finally let it go,” Alice recalled, “because Leo was absolutely adamant, and when Gertrude didn’t know what to do, he sent word that she should think of it as an act of God” (quoted in J. Lord, op. cit., 1994, p. 24). “It is indeed astonishing,” Richardson has commented, “that they managed to split up their magnificent collection without annihilating each other” (op. cit., 1996, p. 294).
According to Alice, Picasso painted the present watercolor of the solitary apple to console Gertrude over the loss of the beloved Cézanne. “‘Don’t worry Gertrude, I am going to paint a Cézanne for you right away.’ A few hours he returned bringing her [a gouache of] an apple” (quoted in D. Aime-Azam, op. cit., 1968, pp. 46 and 51). John Rewald questioned the speedy timing that Alice inferred in this anecdote: “It seems unlikely that Miss Stein would have been weeping over the Cézannes so long after her brother had left with them. It may be true, however, that she occasionally lamented their loss, especially to such an admirer of Cézanne as Picasso, who could have thus been inspired to paint this exquisite Christmas gift for her in which he endeavored, in his own way, to achieve the monumentality so frequently found in Cézanne’s by-then legendary apples” (The Paintings of Paul Cézanne: A Catalogue Raisonné, New York, 1996, vol. 1, p. 226).
The finely detailed naturalism of this subject, the illusion of which at even a slight distance is so delightfully convincing to the eye, may appear out-of-character at a time when Picasso was well into the synthetic phase of his Cubist painting and use of collage. It is actually a revealing moment in the ongoing dialogue that Picasso had been holding with the master of Aix since he had first seen the latter’s paintings in Vollard’s gallery during 1901, and especially after the revelation of Cézanne’s watercolors in a commemorative show at Bernheim-Jeune in June 1907, as well as the paintings in the special memorial exhibition organized as part of the Salon d’Automne that year.
Cézanne’s ideas on painting became known through the publication of Emile Bernard’s Souvenirs of his visits to Aix, in two parts, including nine letters from the elderly master, which Mercure de France published in October 1907. “Render nature with the cylinder, the sphere and the cone,” Cézanne famously wrote to Bernard. “He had no conception of beauty,” Bernard explained to his readers, “he possessed only the idea of truth” (M. Doran, ed., Conversations with Cézanne, Berkeley, 2001, pp. 29 and 59). Cézanne, the man and his art, soon held in thrall nearly every painter of modernist bent in Paris, Matisse and Picasso chief among them. “He was my one and only master!” Picasso declared to his friend the photographer Brassaï in 1943. “Cézanne! He was like the father of us all” (quoted in Brassaï, Conversations with Picasso, Chicago, 1999, p. 107).
In 1909 Picasso had made deep cuts into a spherical chunk of plaster, “having ruthlessly explored and penetrated that surface,” as Jean S. Boggs has written, to create a Cubist apple, “not a comforting object” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1992, p. 75). Here now is the apple, restored to its rotund, natural wholeness. Recognizably contoured, but nonetheless flattened in the synthetic Cubist mode, a halved apple and pear are focal points in Compotier et verre, 1914-1915 (Zervos, vol. 2**, no. 537)—its mix of stylistic idioms withstanding, as sumptuously Cézannian a still-life as Picasso ever painted. A profound understanding of Cézanne had once helped Picasso to analyze and deconstruct the object, fostering the Cubist conception of pictorial reality. Now Cézanne the classicist, who had sought to remake Poussin from nature, again emerged for Picasso as his guiding light.