Picasso painted Femmes à la fontaine at the very outset of his Blue period. This would become his first original style, marked by a strongly personal vision, whose sudden emergence could only have stemmed from a momentous inner pathos and struggle, as the teenaged prodigy became a man. It was then the fall of 1901, and it was not merely an autumnal mood that had overtaken Picasso. He was about to turn twenty, and felt deeply unsettled and melancholy. How different it had been in May when he arrived in Paris! It was his second trip to the capital, and he was flush with excitement and anticipation, as he prepared for an exhibition of his work that his friend and agent Pere Mañach had arranged at Ambroise Vollard's gallery in late June.
That summer Picasso had every reason to be pleased with his recent accomplishments. The Vollard show closed in early July--it went very well indeed. John Richardson has written that "The Vollard exhibition was a stunning bravura performance for a neophyte, and it included some brilliant tours de force... The show was not only a succès d'estime; it was, in a modest way, a financial success. Well over half the items sold" (in op. cit., p. 199). This was the high point of his second trip to Paris. He was still in his teens and already had his first major exhibition at a prestigious gallery in the capital, the very locus of the European art world. Picasso soon began to take requests to do posters and magazine illustrations, and his friend the critic Gustave Coquiot, who had written the preface to the Vollard exhibition catalogue, asked the artist to execute a series of drawings of popular dance hall entertainers for publication (see sale of Impressionist and Modern Works on Paper, 9 November 2006, lot 119).
The money Picasso made from the sales during the Vollard exhibition quickly ran out. His prospects in the aftermath of the show had seemed so favorable that he had no thought of putting some cash aside for the future. He did some desultory hack work, which he disliked, and lost interest in other projects. A gloomy and uneasy feeling descended on the young man, which was further aggravated by an unrelenting preoccupation with the suicide of his best friend Carles Casagemas earlier in the year. It did not help matters that Picasso was seeing the young woman, Germaine Pichot, for whose sake Casagemas had killed himself.
Picasso began to draw and paint the inmates of Saint-Lazare, the women's prison and hospital in Montmartre run by Dominican nuns. Picasso has depicted two such women in Femme à la fontaine, as they sit at the fountain in the prison courtyard. Most of them were incarcerated for offenses related to prostitution; Magdalenian penitence was a requisite aspect of their daily prison regimen. The inmates wore a special head covering, often (but erroneously) referred to as a "Phrygian" bonnet; those who were diagnosed with venereal disease wore a white coif. Many lived there with their children, and some even timed their imprisonment to coincide with the delivery of their babies, in order to take advantage of the sanitary hospital facilities. Picasso could paint these poor women free-of-charge; other Montmartre artists, including Toulouse-Lautrec, had done this before him. Picasso had obtained permission to work there from Dr. Louis Jullien, who was affiliated with Saint-Lazare. Richardson suspects that Picasso was concerned that he had been infected with venereal disease, or was even receiving treatment. "This might explain the change in the mood of his work." The sad and gloomy halls of Saint-Lazare seemed to suit the artist's new outlook, for as Richardson has pointed out, "Where else could he find models that exemplified his equivocal view of sex as ecstatic and tender, but also guilt-inducing and bound up with suffering, even death?" (ibid., pp. 218 and 219).
Picasso now put aside the flashy colors and slapdash brushwork that he had employed in the pictures he showed at Vollard's gallery. He turned to a more somber palette, dominated by ultramarine and cobalt blues in various tints. "It was while thinking of Casagemas dead that I began to paint in blue," he later explained (quoted in B. Léal et al, op. cit., p. 47). Alberto Moravia believed that the choice of blue "confirms Picasso's wish to put himself forward, or rather to put his own generic vitality forward, without any judgment, without any moral choice, by using an all-embracing color, a demiurge" (quoted in ibid., p. 51). Picasso began in Femmes à la fontaine to wield his brush in a more serious and deliberate manner, using the strokes to describe in an almost tactile way the heavy folds of the women's gowns and the child's blanket. The portion of under-drawing in paint, visible at right, displays the vigor and assurance of Picasso's draftsmanship, and betokens the impassioned and impatient mood in which the artist undertook this picture.
After the heady and eclectic mix of styles he affected for the Vollard show, derived from Toulouse-Lautrec, Monet, Pissarro, van Gogh, and Forain among others, Richardson notes that here "Picasso seems once again to be following in Gauguin's footsteps. Even the Women at the Prison Fountain have a Breton or Arlesian look. Gauguin's brooding peasants helped Picasso arrive at a mythic image that would beautify and dignify his whores and enshrine them in a wider, more romantic context than a prison laundry" (op. cit., p. 221). Picasso's feelings towards the inmates of Saint-Lazare were complicated and ambivalent, as he mingled feelings of genuine compassion with a strongly subjective need to exploit their condition as a means of working through his own inner conflicts. Richardson has commented that these "victims of society...are also to some extent Picasso's victims. There is a hint of eroticism, even sadism, to their portrayal" (ibid., p. 222).
The presence of the infant in Femmes à la fontaine is especially significant. The child represents both spiritual innocence and the taint of original sin, in a physical sense as well, in the form of the disease that the child carried congenitally from its mother. The prison fountain may symbolize the baptismal font, which holds out the hope that some manner of grace may mitigate this pre-destined condition. Picasso no doubt felt the need for some ray of hope in his own life at this time, for which the child was an apt symbol, which led him to paint a series of pictures on the theme of maternity (fig. 1). Painted as the Christmas season neared, these maternities summon up the image of the Holy Mother and Child. Pierre Daix has written, "When one sees this sequence in its entirety, it becomes clear that the models for these nativities are venereal prostitutes. Although Picasso, through his painting, saluted these women in the depths of their degradation, there is no doubt that he thought as well about the fate that awaited their children" (op. cit., 1993, pp. 29-30).
By the end of 1901, in a space of less than eight months since Picasso's hopeful arrival in Paris that spring, the downturn in the young artist's fortunes was now complete (fig. 2). He later recalled, "It [the Vollard show] went very well. It pleased a lot of people. It was only later when I set about to do some blue paintings that things went badly. This lasted for years" (quoted in P. Daix and G. Boudaille, op. cit., p. 154). In January 1902 Picasso received some money from home, and used it to return to Barcelona, where he resumed working, picking up with the melancholy blue subjects he had been painting in Paris. He painted a portrait of his ex-girlfriend Germaine, whose memory continued to nag him, placing her in a vaulted room in Saint-Lazare (fig. 3). While he found his new subjects among the poor and dispossessed on the streets of Barcelona, the women of Saint-Lazare, those archetypes of female suffering, continued to cast their spell on him.
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, Maternité, Paris, fall 1901; formerly in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. William Goetz, Los Angeles. Sold, Christie's, New York, 14 November 1988, lot 20. BARCODE 20627256.
(fig. 2) Pablo Picasso, Auto portrait, Paris, winter 1901. Musée Picasso, Paris. BARCODE 20627232.
(fig. 3) Pablo Picasso, Portrait de Germaine, Barcelona, 1902. Sold, Christie's, New York, 2 May 2006, lot 29. BARCODE 20627249.