Claude Picasso has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
“Roosters, there have always been roosters,” Picasso declared, “but like everything else in life we must discover them—just as Corot discovered the morning and Renoir discovered girls” (quoted in W. Misfeldt, op. cit., 1968-1969, p. 152). The artist made good on this assertion, producing some twenty major paintings, sculptures, prints, and pastels of roosters, as well as dozens of drawings, over the course of roughly four decades. He exploited the image of the rooster for its broad range of iconographic associations, from herald of dawn to national symbol of France, from sacrificial victim to lusty barnyard Casanova. So strong was Picasso’s attachment to the handsome fowl that, along with the various dogs, goats, and caged birds that made up his domestic menagerie, the artist “always wanted a [pet] cock… somewhere near him,” as the photographer Brassaï recalled (Picasso and Company, New York, 1966, p. 196).
In the present sculpture, Picasso’s most majestic treatment of the rooster in three dimensions, he rendered the bird as the very epitome of swaggering machismo. “The French idiom ‘le coq du village,’ much like the British ‘cock of the walk,’ connotes a strutting, assertive type; Cock’s sense of proud animation would seem to give literal expression to the saying,” Luise Mahler and Virginie Perdrisot have written (Picasso Sculpture, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2015, p. 140). The proud bird here strides forward with a burly, swollen breast, twisting its head backward to preen its splendid tail feathers—an overt form of sexual display, intended to attract a mate. The sculpture has a dynamic, spiraling form, with the heavy central mass of the chest and rump providing the hub for the propeller-like configuration of lateral parts: the arching neck, the outstretched wings, the twisting legs, and—most conspicuously—the showy plumage. With its concerted display of masculine virility, the rooster surely represents a stand-in for Picasso himself, then in the throes of an amour fou with his young mistress Marie-Thérèse.
Picasso modeled Coq during 1932, at a triumphant, high-classical moment in his career—“a year of masterpieces that reach a new and unfamiliar summit in both his painting and his sculpture,” Robert Rosenblum wrote, “the peak of fever-pitch intensity and achievement” (Picasso and Portraiture, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996, p. 361). Two years earlier, the artist had purchased the secluded, 17th-century Château de Boisgeloup, some 45 miles northwest of Paris, as a secret haven where he could enjoy the company of Marie-Thérèse. In addition to plenty of space in the main house for painting, the property boasted a large stable block which Picasso quickly set about converting into his first-ever sculpture studio. Rather than relying on the facilities of other artist friends, as he had previously, he now had a dedicated place of his own to make statuary, on a large scale and in numerous quantity, giving free rein to his prolific sculptural imagination.
For much of 1931, Picasso worked primarily in sculpture, pursuing his ecstatic exploration of Marie-Thérèse’s physical form through a series of monumental heads and busts. Late in the year, he picked up his palette once again and began a now-iconic group of canvases that he intended as the jewel in the crown in his forthcoming retrospective at the Galeries Georges Petit, slated for six months hence. He returned to sculpture as soon as the exhibition opened in June 1932 and had completed Coq by December, when Brassaï—dispatched by the publisher Tériade to photograph the sculpture studio at Boisgeloup for the inaugural issue of the Surrealist journal Minotaure—reported seeing there “a magnificent cock, its head bent back toward the bristling plumes of its tail” (op. cit., 1966, p. 32).
The rural environs of Boisgeloup—a revelation for Picasso, who was city born and bred—provided the immediate inspiration for Coq and several smaller animal sculptures from the same period. These include a bull’s head (Spies, no. 127), a fluttering songbird (no. 125), and two stocky barnyard fowl, most likely a rooster and his female mate (nos. 154-155; Christie’s London, 8 February 2005, lot 398). “Picasso executed these sculptures to the accompaniment of squawks from the basse-cour, roucoulements from the doves in the dovecote behind the studio, and the lowing of cattle in the fields,” John Richardson has noted. “Painting the countryside would never be his thing, but he relished the sounds and the smells and the earthiness” (A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932, New York, 2007, vol. 3, p. 450).
With his quintessential wit and inventiveness, Picasso also riffed in Coq on the sculptures of Marie-Thérèse that he had created during the previous year, with their biomorphic, unabashedly sexualized forms. As the series progressed, the noses of the heads had become increasingly phallic and tumescent, an unmistakable proxy for male genitalia. In Coq, John Golding has written, “the metamorphosis becomes complete and the head becomes a crowing cock, symbol from time immemorial of rampant male sexuality” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1994, p. 28).
The Coq that Brassaï admired in December 1932 was modeled in white plaster, Picasso’s signature material at Boisgeloup, which could be shaped, incised, carved, and embellished over time as befitted the artist’s expansive, improvisatory approach to sculpture. The work was first cast in bronze in 1937 or 1939, in a single unnumbered example. In the early 1950s, Picasso commissioned Valsuani to cast an edition of six additional bronzes, of which only four were ever completed; one of these is the present sculpture, numbered ‘4/6’, which closely replicates the lively, rough-textured surface of the original plaster. “What makes Le Coq so successful,” Willard Misfeldt has written, “is not only the way in which the graceful curves swing through space and turn back on themselves, achieving thereby a remarkable unity of solid and space, but also the spontaneity of the technique of modeling in wet plaster which enhances and reinforces the sense of immediacy and action achieved in the design itself” (op. cit., 1968-1969, p. 148).
Picasso first exhibited Coq publicly at the Salon d’Automne in October 1944, rechristened the Salon de la Libération to commemorate the emancipation of Paris from Nazi oppression two months earlier. He was honored on this occasion by a special exhibition of his work, an accolade bestowed on one eminent artist at each Salon. Coq stood at the very center of the Picasso gallery, an emblem of national pride and the resurgent Republic. “After the Spanish bull appears the French rooster, always a symbol of vigor, of virile power, and bold action,” declared the newspaper Fraternité. “As if it sang, with open beak and total dedication: ‘Aux armes! Aux armes, encore et toujours!’” (quoted in G. Utley, Picasso: The Communist Years, New Haven, 2000, p. 61).
The present bronze Coq passed to the Galerie Louise Leiris after its casting in the 1950s and entered the collection of the present owners in 1965. Additional casts of the sculpture are housed today in the Tate Gallery, London and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.