Maya Widmaier-Picasso has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
Claude Picasso has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
This watercolour is a study for Arlequin, the large oil painting that Picasso completed in late 1915 (Zervos, vol. 2**, no. 555; fig. 1), which has been widely acknowledged as his masterwork of the period of the First World War, and is today one of the best-known paintings in the collection of the The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Indeed, Picasso thought highly of it, writing to Gertrude Stein in December 1915: "I have made a picture of a Harlequin that, to my way of thinking, is the best thing I have ever done. M. Rosenberg has it" (quoted in Pablo Picasso: A Retrospective, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1972, p. 179). The dealer Léonce Rosenberg reported to Picasso that Matisse had come by to see it: "The master of Poissons rouges ["The Goldfish Bowl", also in MoMA] was like me, taken aback. After looking at your picture--and looking again--he honestly felt it was better than anything else you've done; that it was the picture he preferred above all others" (in P. Daix, Picasso Life and Art, New York, 1993, p. 228).
Picasso began his studies for Arlequin while Eva Gouel, his lover since late 1911, was in the final stage of a prolonged illness, which claimed her life on 14 December 1915. These preliminary drawings and watercolours (see also Zervos, vol. 2**, nos. 554 and 556-559 [the latter sold Christie's, New York, 11 May 1992, lot 27]) reveal that Picasso's conception of Arlequin originally comprised a couple engaged in a somberly intimate "dance of life." In the present study the heads of the two dancers are clearly apparent--harlequin, in his characteristic lozenge-patterned costume, stands in front of a woman in red. They cast eerie shadows on a curtain behind them. The initial impetus for this subject came from Jean Cocteau, who was eager to have Picasso paint him in the artist's new neo-classical figure style. To this end, the flamboyant young poet showed up at Picasso's studio wearing under his coat a harlequin costume, which the painter insisted he leave behind. Cocteau was delighted to learn that Picasso soon had a painting of Harlequin underway, although it ended up becoming instead a portrait of Picasso himself. John Richardson has described the result:
"When he tackled the large canvas, Picasso merged the dancing couple (himself with Gaby [., his new girlfriend]? or with Eva?) into a single harlequin. All that is left of the girl is two or three layers of shadow, each on a slightly skewed axis, onto which harlequin's motley rocket of a body has been superimposed...Harlequin's hands are hardly visible: miniscule paws, one white, one black, holding a white rectangle, which has been left mysteriously blank--seemingly a canvas or a mirror or a variation on Veronica's veil. No one has ever remarked (at least in print) that his rectangle contains a vital clue to the painting's meaning: the unpainted area to the right is unmistakably a self-portrait in profile. Picasso hides yet draws attention to himself, spotlit against the blackness of Eva's mortal illness and the blackness of war. And how typical of him to use motley to suggest mourning and leave in the dark as to where we are--Golgotha, no-man's-land, or the [cabaret] Bal Bullier" (in A Life of Picasso, Volume II: 1907-1917, New York, 1996, p. 387).
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, Arlequin, Paris, late 1915. The Museum of Modern Art, New York.