Painted in the winter of 1911-12, La carafe dates from the height of Picasso's Analytical Cubism, the movement with which he and Georges Braque changed the entire nature and direction of modern art. In this canvas, Picasso has rendered the forms of the carafe, bottle and glass through an assemblage of geometrical forms while lending a sense of substance to the shimmering background through an almost Pointillist application of dabs of paint in the deliberately restricted palette of grey, ochre, bitumen black and flashes of white. Meanwhile, Picasso has deftly used the unpainted spaces to convey the sense of the translucence of the glass, an effective technique that also introduces an ingenious visual pun, with the painted objects being captured through non-painted areas.
La carafe perfectly demonstrates the confluence of events and ideas that led to Picasso's full-blown Cubism. In this painting, it is clear to see the gradual evolution that had been initially prompted and suggested by the works of Cézanne and an interest in capturing a sense of volume through pictorial means. Picasso was interested, like Cézanne, in the sensation of seeing, and tried to dismantle and reassemble it in his Cubist works in order to convey a better sense of the objects depicted. 'Picasso's new method made it possible to 'represent' the form of objects and their position in space instead of attempting to imitate them through illusionistic means,' his famous early dealer Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler explained, later continuing: 'The painter no longer has to limit himself to depicting an object as it would appear from one given viewpoint, but wherever necessary for fuller comprehension, can show it from several sides, and from above and below' (D.-H. Kahnweiler, Der Weg zum Kubismus, 1920, reproduced in M. McCully (ed.), A Picasso Anthology: Documents, Criticism, Reminiscences, New Jersey, 1997, pp. 70-71).
The fractured perspectives from which this multifaceted view of the bottle, carafe and glass has been shown introduces some of the scientific and mathematical notions that were circulating at the time, including the notion of the Fourth Dimension, somehow including time into a two-dimensional representation of still life objects. Picasso would later deny any particular interest in the mathematics and science of the age, and yet Joseph Pla would later recall that Picasso, 'used to talk a lot then about the fourth dimension and he carried about the mathematics books of Henri Poincaré' (Pla, quoted in ibid., p. 69). But for Picasso, rules and restrictions were never as interesting as ideas, and he was not rigorously scientific in his Analytical Cubism, instead retaining much of the rawness, angularity, and interest in the representation of these objects in a new complete manner that point to his fascination for African art, which had initially led to his original proto-Cubist painting, Les demoiselles d'Avignon. Picasso's friend, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, cut to the heart of the driving force when he explained Cubism by writing:
'Everyone must agree that a chair, from whichever side it is viewed, never ceases to have four legs, a seat and a back, and that, if it is robbed of one of these elements, it is robbed of an important part. And the Primitives painted a town not as the people in the foreground would have been able to see it, but as it was in reality: that is, complete, with its gates, streets and towers. A great many novelties that have been introduced into pictures of this kind bear witness daily to this human and poetical quality' (G. Apollinaire, quoted in E.F. Fry (ed.), Cubism, London, 1969, p. 113).
During this time, Picasso and Braque were the great pioneers of this new method of viewing and depicting the world. They sought a visual language that combined the order and science of the modern age with the timeless truth of the objects depicted, creating archetypes that are recognisable, harnessing a notion of the reality of the objects beyond their mere appearance. The pair created Cubism in tandem, as can be seen in the similarities between some of their works La carafe, for instance, bears striking similarities to Braque's Bouteille et verre, now in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. It is telling, then, that Picasso would later recall:
'Just imagine. Almost every evening, either I went to Braque's studio or Braque came to mine. Each of us had to see what the other had done during the day. We criticised each other's work. A canvas wasn't finished unless both of us felt it was' (P. Picasso, quoted in F. Gilot & C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, Toronto and London, 1964, p. 76).
Braque had painted Bouteille et verre in Céret, where both artists had holidayed in the Summer of 1911. However, La carafe was painted after Picasso's hurried return to the French capital. For during that year, the Mona Lisa had been stolen from the Louvre. While this initially attracted only the most flippant attention on the part of the Spanish painter, an article that later anonymously appeared stating that theft from the Louvre was not difficult and that the author had himself taken some early Iberian figures some years earlier resulted in panic for Picasso. For he immediately realised that the writer was Géry Pieret, a friend of Apollinaire's-- from whom Picasso had earlier purchased two Iberian statuettes, fascinated as he was by these works from his native Spain which would come to influence his own Cubism to such an extent. Partly because there were no leads in the Mona Lisa investigation, the police investigated this avenue thoroughly and overzealously. Despite the anonymous return of the Iberian artefacts, Apollinaire found himself arrested for some days and Picasso was forced to testify in court; both men would feel that their reputation, certainly with regards to the French State, suffered for years to follow because of this scandal. Picasso's precipitous return to Paris resulted in more innovations in his paintings. In La carafe, only the vestige of the pyramid structure with which he had anchored some of his recent Cubist compositions remains, giving way to a freer exploration of the objects in space.
Picasso's relationship with his lover Fernande Olivier was already deteriorating by the time that La carafe was painted. During the scandal of the statuettes, she believed that he resented the fact that she had seen him at his most vulnerable and most paranoid. Certainly, the relationship already lacked the camaraderie that had characterised it during Picasso's poverty; later, when the painter had become more prosperous, the pair had lived in relatively chic luxury-- indeed, Gino Severini would attribute the number of still life pictures by Picasso at this time to the profusion of domestic objects around him. Soon, the restless Fernande ran away with an Italian artist to whom Severini had introduced her; Picasso lost little time in taking Marcelle Humbert, who from this point onwards went by the name of Eva Gouel, in part rechristened by the artist. Picasso began to encode his love for her in many of the pictures of this period, for instance placing the words 'ma jolie' in another canvas. He spent more time back in the ramshackle Bateau Lavoir in Montmartre, and created some of his most revolutionary masterpieces. La carafe has a lightness that perhaps already speaks of Eva's influence, while retaining the deliberately restricted palette which Picasso would imminently abandon. Here, the restrained colours are used to such effect to capture a sculptural sense of the forms of the bottle, glass and carafe, transformed into momumental, hieratic symbols.