This large and playful still-life not only offers a glimpse into the private world of Pablo Picasso and his idyllic final home, Notre-Dame-de-Vie, in the hills of Mougins, but encapsulates the abiding themes and stylistic qualities of the artist’s work in what has become known as his late, great period. Painted on 22 October 1962, just a few days before the artist celebrated his 81st birthday, Nature morte au chien captures the moment that Picasso's beloved dog, the Afghan hound, Kaboul, is mischievously reaching his snout up to an extravagantly bedecked, white-clothed table, on top of which a bright red lobster remains just out of reach from its canine pursuer. With a plateful of tumbling grapes – a motif reminiscent of the artist’s cubist compositions – set beneath the undulating, abstracted form of a lamp, this painting demonstrates how Picasso constantly used the genre of the still-life to explore the boundaries of representation. Creating a pictorial space that is at once flattened and yet legible, and placing the objects upon a surface that dissolves into myriad painted planes, Picasso’s indomitable creative force once again comes to the fore in this magnificent still-life painting.
Kaboul had become a frequent protagonist of Picasso’s work at this time. This large, characterful dog had joined Picasso and his wife, Jacqueline’s large menagerie of animals, which included another dog, their dachshund, Lump, in October 1961, exactly a year before the present work was painted. The art historian, Jean Leymarie wrote that Kaboul was a gift from him. 'In June 1961, Picasso moved into a farmhouse at Notre-Dame-de-Vie, in Mougins,' he recalled. 'In October, for his eightieth birthday, I gave him an Afghan hound named Kaboul, whose thin muzzle would sometimes be found right next to Jacqueline's pure face' (J. Leymarie, 'Preface', in B. Léal, C. Piot & M.L.Bernadac, The Ultimate Picasso, New York, 2003, p. 16).
Picasso had always adored dogs, and had, since his earliest days as a poverty stricken young artist in Paris, kept a canine companion. Picasso acquired his first Afghan hound, called Kazbek, during the dark days of the Occupation of Paris. Known for their stately appearance, large, elegant stature and unfailing loyalty, this breed was relatively rare in France at the time, and as a result, Kazbek remained a keen source of interest for visitors and those who passed him in the street. Indeed, in a conversation with Brassaï, Picasso explained that he was exasperated by the interest shown by people in his unusual dog – telling his chauffeur Marcel, who was often questioned by these curious onlookers, 'Marcel, once and for all, when someone asks you what breed my dog is, tell him it's a – Charente basset hound. That will give them such a shock that they won't ask any more questions' (Picasso, quoted in Brassaï, Conversations with Picasso, transl. J.M. Todd, Chicago & London, 2002, p. 123).
Kaboul, Picasso's second Afghan hound, soon became a central part of life in Notre-Dame-de-Vie, frequently featuring in a number of paintings and photographs of this peroid. Kaboul also appears flanking the artist’s final great love and muse of the time, Jacqueline Roque, in a series of portraits that Picasso painted between December 1961 and November 1962. Nobly seated next to her, or nuzzling into her lap, these works demonstrate the central presence that the faithful and affectionate dog held in the artist’s life. Kaboul ended up outliving Picasso, remaining at Notre-Dame-de-Vie with Jacqueline until his own death two years after his master, in 1975. The photographer and friend of the artist, David Douglas Duncan recalled, ‘Kaboul, the regal Afghan, spent his last days gazing at the villa as though remembering those early years when he was constantly at the side of Picasso and Jacqueline’ (D.D. Duncan, The Silent Studio, New York, 1976, p. 19).
While the humorous scene taking place in Nature morte au chien could very well have been inspired by a real moment in the artist’s life, the origins of this composition can also be found in a painting of the past: Jean-Siméon Chardin's Le buffet (1728, Musée du Louvre, Paris). Here, a similar long-snouted dog looks longingly up to a table laden with abundant piles of fruit and foods. Jean Sutherland-Boggs has noted this similarity, writing, ‘Instead of the handsome dog seen from behind we have the slightly woeful head of Picasso’s own dog looking up toward the lobster, caught between obedience and desire. It is painted with an almost caricatural abbreviation of forms that makes the fantasy of the whole convincing as humour. We can understand it as a very large joke’ (J. Sutherland Boggs, Picasso and Things, exh. cat., Cleveland, Philadelphia & Paris, 1992, p. 358).
The day after he completed the present work, Picasso began a second still-life scene, Nature morte au chat (Zervos, vol. 20, no. 356; The Hakone Open Air Museum, Japan). Bathed in yellow, in this painting the faithful head of Kaboul is replaced by a feline predator who prowls upon the table top moving towards the same flailing lobster, which is here accompanied by a group of aquatic companions who form a kind of plate of fruits de mer. This too has echoes of Chardin, the great 18th Century still-life painter, in particular the strange and enigmatic La raie (1725-1726), which is also housed in the Louvre, Paris. The same primed cat appears upon a table filled with sumptuous seafood. Unlike the playfulness of the present work, this second canvas is pervaded with a sense of violence; the cat ready to pounce upon the lobster, who in turn appears to flail in the face of this threat, its feelers waving and eyes wide with terror.
Picasso’s look back to one of the avowed and quintessential masters of the still-life genre was not an isolated act at this time. Indeed, in the period during which he painted Nature morte au chien, Picasso was nearing the end of an intense campaign that had seen him wage a series of battles against a number of revered artists and iconic masterpieces of the past. Starting in late 1954 with Eugène Delacroix and his Femmes d’Algers (1847-1849, Musée du Louvre, Paris), Picasso had moved onto his compatriot Diego Velázquez and Las Meninas, an unprecedented work that played with the act of painting and the act of seeing. After this, he trained his cannibalistic eye onto one of modern art’s paragons, Édouard Manet, and another inscrutable painting, Le Déjeuner sur l’Herbe of 1863, before turning, in the autumn of 1962, to Jacques-Louis David and Nicolas Poussin and their works on the theme of L'enlèvement des Sabines. Unlike his previous cycles, in which he took a single painting and reenvisaged it based upon his own distinctive, protean gaze, with these works, Picasso conflated two distinct paintings, completing L'enlèvement des Sabines (d'après Poussin et David) (Zervos, vol. 23, no. 69; Centre Pompidou, Paris) in the opening days of November 1962. In this painting, violence also pervades, perhaps a reflection of the building angst surrounding the contemporaneous Cuban missile crisis.
From Manet to Chardin, Poussin and David, throughout 1962 it is clear that Picasso was looking to the revered legacy of French art. There were a number of reasons that the artist turned so singularly to the art of the past at this time. Unceasingly competitive, Picasso was looking to prove his own indomitable artistic power next to these acknowledged masters of the art historical canon, challenging his predecessors and pitting himself against them. In addition, the artist was also keenly aware of the passing of time. Nearing what would turn out to be the last decade of his life, the need to look back to his artistic ancestors was also a reflection of his desire to create his legacy, positioning himself and his work as heir to this esteemed lineage. By choosing still-life – a genre which had remained central throughout his career, enabling him, in the early days of the century, to overturn the very nature of representation with his cubist works – Picasso was staking his claim to this legacy. Playfully parodying not only Chardin, but the entire tradition of the still-life in the 18th Century, with Nature morte au chien, Picasso created his own monumental and definitive painterly response to this genre.
At a time when abstraction, Minimalism and Pop art reigned supreme, in turning to look retrospectively Picasso was once again circumventing the mainstream, employing techniques of appropriation and pastiche, while at the same time, wholeheartedly embracing figuration and the art historical past at a moment in which these aspects were being decisively shunned by many artists. As a result, Picasso, as he had done throughout his career, remained as rebellious, daring and pioneering as ever. ‘Repeatedly I am asked to explain how my painting evolved’, the artist once described. ‘To me there is no past or future in art, if a work of art cannot live always in the present it must not be considered at all. The art of the Greeks, of the Egyptians, of the great painters who lived in other times, is not an art of the past; perhaps it is more alive today than it ever was’ (Picasso, quoted in D. Ashton, Picasso on Art: A Selection of Views, London, 1972, p. 4).