Nature morte à cartes-à-jeu et pêches is an exquisite Cubist still life dating from Picasso's prolonged stay in Avignon during the summer of 1914. This was an important period for the artist both within the development of the Cubism that he had pioneered and because of the outbreak of the First World War which occurred at this time and which had lasting ramifications on the avant garde in France, of which Picasso had become such an important figure. It is a mark of the quality of Nature morte à cartes-à-jeu et pêches that it was acquired in 1937 by the eminent writer, curator and collector, Douglas Cooper, who would later become a close friend of Picasso.
Already, during the 1930s, Cooper had become a vociferous advocate of the developments in modern art. His collection, which he had begun on inheriting a trust fund in 1932, had grown apace, and featured many of the great trailblazers of the time. Alongside Picasso, artists such as Georges Braque, Juan Gris and Fernand Léger featured prominently. During the 1930s, Cooper had attempted to approach Picasso himself, to little avail - John Richardson, in his recollections of life with Picasso and Cooper, The Sorcerer's Apprentice, explained that Roland Penrose had jealously occupied the position of Picasso's English friend and guarded it zealously. It was mainly after the Second World War, in the South of France, that Cooper had become a friend of Picasso's, as had Richardson, who thereby gained the access that helps to make his authoritative biographies of the Spanish artist so insightful (see J. Richardson, The Sorcerer's Apprentice: Picasso, Provence, and Douglas Cooper, London, 1999). However, Cooper had already seen the validity of Cubism during the 1930s and had set about accumulating an impressive collection of works by various artists, not least Picasso himself. While he tried to promote their work and encourage institutions such as the Tate to pay attention to these developments, it was only in later years that many people appreciated the importance of Cubism, for instance in the exhibition that the London Gallery dedicated to Cooper in 1988, Douglas Cooper and the Masters of Cubism, in which Nature morte à cartes-à-jeu et pêches featured.
Nature morte à cartes-à-jeu et pêches dates from a period of change within Cubism. After the rigorous discipline of the Analytical Cubism that Picasso and Braque had pioneered over the previous years, which often featured a deliberately restrained palette and which was codified to such a degree that some of the works of each artist could be mistaken for the other's, a new change was coming about. This had in part been brought about by the emergence of collage as a technique within Cubist pictures, especially over the couple of years before Nature morte à cartes-à-jeu et pêches was executed. In this picture, the legacy of collage is clear to see in the flashes of colour and texture of the card whose back is showing, as well as the details in the background. These are made all the more intense by the vibrant contrast between these areas of colour and the rest of the sheet, so much of which has been left in reserve.
In a sense, Nature morte à cartes-à-jeu et pêches appears as a form of Cubistic sampler: while the ace of clubs in the foreground bears a distinctive Cubist feel with its five edges, the rest of the objects have only a lingering trace of the visual idiom that Braque and Picasso had pioneered. Instead, this picture breathes with the clarity that Juan Gris had helped to bring to Cubism. At the same time, the glass to the right has been presented as a flat element, a playful, deliberately two-dimensional rendering that is made all the more dramatic by its contrast with the delicately-modelled peaches, which recall the still life compositions of Paul Cézanne, the artist whose works had helped to inspire Cubism. In depicting those fruit, Picasso provides a showcase for his exquisite draughtsmanship, perfectly capturing the shading while managing to convey, despite his use of pencil and no colour, a sense of the vulnerable skin and flesh of the peaches in question. They provide an intriguingly organic presence that forms a marked contrast with the more geometric rigidity that informs so much of the rest of the picture. They add a sensuality that is heightened by the presence of the glass, which implies some sybaritic activity; meanwhile, the cards imply gambling, while the ace of clubs in particular, a card which features in several of Picasso's Cubist still life compositions, was associated with good luck.
Nature morte à cartes-à-jeu et pêches was made while Picasso was in Avignon in 1914. He had initially gone there during the summer with his lover, Eva Gouel, often considered the Muse of Synthetic Cubism after the more Analytical phase that had been ushered in during the days of Fernande Olivier, whom she had supplanted. In June, Picasso had arrived at Avignon and stayed in the Grand Nouvel Hôtel on rue Molière before trying to find accommodation in nearby Tarascon. On failing to find a place that suited his needs, he returned to Avignon where he found an apparently Spanish-seeming house at 14, rue Saint-Bernard.
Picasso's decision to stay either in Tarascon or Avignon showed a new change: having been inseparable from Braque over the previous years, when the artists would even holiday together, he was now placing some distance, albeit not a great one, between them, perhaps reasserting his own artistic independence. Soon, this distance would be made all the more dramatic with the outbreak of war. As a foreigner, Picasso, like his friend Juan Gris, was excluded from the action, but many of his friends either were mobilised or volunteered. This meant that Picasso was able to work on his own to a new degree, a factor that was seen by some to have had immediately beneficial effects. Indeed, Max Jacob wrote to the great Cubist art dealer, Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler to describe the whereabouts of various friends, saying, 'our friend Braque is a sergeant at Le Havre... Our friend Picasso is living at 14, rue Saint-Bernard and people say he's doing the most beautiful things he's ever done' (M. Jacob, quoted in W. Rubin, Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism, exh. cat., New York, 1989, p. 432). The old vanguard of Cubism had dissipated, and the field was left open for Picasso to develop in a new direction; when his friends returned from the War, they would themselves adopt their own new styles. As Picasso would recall to Kahnweiler, 'When mobilisation was decreed in August 1914, I accompanied Braque and Derain to the railway station at Avignon. We have never found each other again' (Picasso, quoted in D.H. Kahnweiler, Juan Gris: His Life and Work, trans. D. Cooper, London, 1969, p. 166).