Pablo Picasso’s painting of Germaine is an historic early work which bears testimony to the turbulent early days of the artist’s life in Paris. The picture has sometimes been accorded different dates – either 1900 or 1901 - and therefore allocated to either Picasso’s first or second stay in Paris. While the photo-certificate that the artist himself made in 1966 bears the date of 1900, Pierre Daix and Josep Palau i Fabre both ascribed it to 1901. Looking at the signature, one could conclude that the latter date is more likely; however, if, as Daix has suggested, this picture was the portrait of Germaine known to have been included in the important early exhibition that Picasso shared with Francisco Iturrino at the gallery of the legendary dealer Ambroise Vollard, it could be that the picture was signed subsequent to its execution (see P. Daix, Picasso: Life and Art, New York, 1993, p. 24). Stylistically, Germaine can be seen to continue the provocative dialogue with Impressionism in which Picasso was involved during his first trips to Paris, bringing a fresh verve to the movement; in terms of composition, the picture could almost recall Pierre-Auguste Renoir, whom he revered. At the same time, there is a freer sense of brushwork in this picture which hints at the bravura of the works he was to show at Vollard’s. The composition itself can be seen to be echoed in his Femme en bleu, painted in Madrid in 1901, as well as other images of women both before and after his hiatus in Spain.
As was the case with all the avant garde artists in Barcelona, in whose circle Picasso had, at a startlingly young age, immersed himself, a visit to see the Exposition Universelle held in the French capital in 1900 was indispensible. All the more so as Picasso’s own painting, Les derniers moments, was exhibited in the Spanish section. Picasso travelled there with another young artist, Carles Casagemas. Within a short time, the two had taken over the studio of Isidre Nonell in Montmartre, at the rue Gabrielle. As well as inheriting Nonell’s studio, the pair appeared to inherit a trio of models, one of whom was Germaine Florentin, whose original name appears to have been Laure Gargallo and who could speak Spanish. The two artists were soon joined in Paris by Manuel Pallarès, and divided into three couples, taking a model each: Picasso was ostensibly partnered with Odette, who spoke no French; Casagemas became obsessed with Germaine, while Pallarès had an affair with her sister Antoinette, despite having a ‘novia’ in Spain (see J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso: Volume I: 1881-1906, London, 1991, pp. 160-61).
There followed a period of debauchery and productivity within the studio, which was large enough for the beds and furniture of these three couples. Picasso himself began painting, and completed the first work he was to sell in Paris, Moulin de la Galette, now in the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Like Germaine, that work was formerly owned by Justin K. Thannhauser; it has even been suggested that Germaine may be the figure to the left in that work. She also appeared in a humorous drawing that Picasso created showing himself with a group of Catalan artists leaving the Exposition Universelle - Germaine appears to be on the arm of Casagemas, while striding with them is Ramon Pichot, whom she would later marry.
An insight into life in the studio is provided by a letter that Casagemas and Picasso both wrote to Ramon Reventós in November 1900. Picasso boasted of his successes, amorous and professional: ‘Not only do we spend our lives “fondling”, but I’ve almost finished a painting - and, to be frank, I think I have it just about sold’ (Picasso, quoted in M. McCully, ed., A Picasso Anthology: Documents, Criticism, Reminiscences, New Jersey, 1997, p. 30). Picasso pointed out that there was no longer any need to visit brothels; Casagemas, by contrast, playfully discussed a new regime of discipline:
‘We’ve decided that we’ve been getting up too late and eating at improper hours and everything was going wrong. On top of this one of them, Odette, was beginning to get raucous because of alcohol - she had the good habit of getting drunk every night. So we arrived at the conclusion that neither they nor we will go to bed later than midnight and everyday we’ll finish lunch by one. After lunch we’ll dedicate ourselves to our paintings and they’ll do women’s work, that is, sew, clean up, kiss us, and let themselves be “fondled”. Well, this is a kind of Eden or dirty Arcadia’ (Casagemas, quoted in ibid., p. 31).
Even at this time, it has been speculated that Germaine was the focus of much of Picasso’s attention as well as his friend’s. This may have been complicated by the incongruity of the couple: Germaine appears to have been sexually demanding, whereas Casagemas, despite his frequent declarations of love, appeared unable to consummate the relationship (Picasso later stated that this was posthumously discovered to be due to a medical condition). Casagemas soon became depressed by the relationship, and was therefore taken by Picasso back to Spain for a change of environment, from where he wrote to Germaine every day.
This soon led to one of the most cataclysmic moments in Picasso’s life and career. Casagemas returned to Paris without Picasso; there, he was confronted by the disappointment that Germaine intended to return to her husband. Casagemas invited her, along with Odette, Pallarès, Manolo and a couple of others to a farewell lunch, declaring that he was going to return to Barcelona. Instead, while making a speech, he shouted, ‘Voilà pour toi!’ before pulling out a gun and trying to shoot Germaine, who managed to hide behind Pallarès. She nonetheless fell, leading Casagemas to believe that he had killed his beloved. Turning the gun on himself, he shouted, ‘Et voilà pour moi,’ and fired, wounding himself critically; he later died from the injury. He was found to have written suicide notes beforehand. The tragic death of Casagemas ushered in the melancholy of the Blue Period in Picasso’s works, not least in his imagined images of his friend’s funeral, as well as his enigmatic later depiction of the two lovers, La vie, which was painted over Les derniers moments, the picture which had first brought him to Paris.
Germaine remained in Picasso’s orbit over the coming years, appearing in a number of his paintings as well as this portrait, which he personally dedicated to her. This perhaps hints at their own intimacy. Certainly, in June 1901, Germaine appeared in an illustrated letter to Miquel Utrillo in Barcelona. In the playful drawings, Picasso showed himself in bed with Germaine, being discovered in flagrante by Odette; in the same letter, it appears that Germaine had until that point been involved with Manolo, an arrangement that now came to an undignified end, with the police apparently removing him from Picasso’s studio. This event coincided approximately with Picasso’s exhibition at Vollard’s, in which Germaine may have featured; their brief relationship helps explain the suggestions of the 1901 date for the picture. The following year, Germaine appeared in a picture painted in Barcelona, shown wearing a shawl on her head, and a few years later next to Picasso’s self-portrait as a harlequin in Au Lapin Agile, the picture requested from the artist by Frédé, the owner of the eponymous bar.
Germaine seems to have been a source of great fascination for many people over the years. Gertrude Stein would contrast her with the serene Alice Derain. In The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein writes that Germaine ‘was quiet and serious and Spanish, she had the square shoulders and the unseeing fixed eyes of a Spanish woman.
She was very gentle. She was married to a Spanish painter Pichot, who was rather a wonderful creature... She had many sisters, she and all of them had been born and bred in Montmartre and they were all of different fathers and married to different nationalities’ (G. Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, London, 2001, n.p.). In the 1940s, Françoise Gilot would be given a grim glimpse of Germaine during a visit to her bedside with Picasso. Gilot saw ‘a little old lady, toothless and sick,’ on whose table Picasso left some money. He then explained: ‘That woman’s name is Germaine Pichot. She’s old and toothless and poor and unfortunate now... But when she was young she was very pretty and she made a painter friend of mine suffer so much that he committed suicide... She turned a lot of heads. Now look at her’ (Picasso, quoted in F. Gilot & C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, Toronto & London, 1964, p. 82). In Germaine, that beauty, which had proven all too fleeting, is captured for posterity with the boldness which marked Picasso’s first entrance onto the international stage of art which he would soon come to redefine so dramatically.