The blue European lobster, homarus gammarus, is the most visually elaborate and significantly characterful of all the marine creatures that appear in Picasso’s late still lifes, in works painted while he lived by the Mediterranean following the end of the Second World War. The artist may well have identified with this feisty crustacean’s natural traits, known from science and local folklore. The lobster is remarkable for its longevity; some claims attribute to these creatures a lifespan upwards of seventy years. They continue to grow for as long they periodically shed their exoskeletons–like the artist his styles, if you will. Picasso would have been pleased to know that the lobster does not experience typical senescence, and actually grows more fertile as it ages. The lobster’s vision is so acute that scientists have copied the reflective structure of its eyes to design x-ray telescopes for viewing outer space.
Picasso could study the presence of the lobster in 17th century Dutch still-life painting, or closer to his own time, as he had done for his Femmes d’Alger series of 1954-1955, he could refer to Delacroix, in the latter’s mysterious inclusion of two lobsters in a hunting and game scene, Nature morte aux homards, 1827 (Musée du Louvre, Paris). Picasso’s initial post-war version of this subject is Nature morte à la langouste, 1946 (Zervos, vol. 14, no. 343). Four more canvases on this theme followed during the winter of 1948-1949, painted in Paris (Zervos, vol. 15, nos. 96, 113, 114, and 116). Picasso had depicted Françoise Gilot as a flower, a bowl of cherries, “and where there’s a lobster,” she claimed, “that’s me, too, because he always said I had the bones outside to protect myself” (quoted in D. Kazanjian, “Life after Picasso: Françoise Gilot,” Vogue, April 2012).
The most famous of Picasso’s lobster paintings is Nature morte, chat et homard, 23 October-1 November 1962 (Zervos, vol. 20, no. 356; Hakone Open-Air Museum, Japan), which, as Malcolm H. Wiener has explained, is Picasso’s response to the most perilous crisis of the Cold War era (“Picasso and the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Apollo Magazine, October 2001, pp. 3-9). The claws of the red (boiled) lobster may be likened to the long-range missiles that President John F. Kennedy learned the Soviet government had secretly installed in Cuba, the island nation itself manifest in the painting as a panoply of table-top seafood. The menacing cat–an idea Picasso likely borrowed from Chardin’s La raie, 1728 (Musée du Louvre, Paris)–represents the American threat to invade Cuba if the Russians did not remove the weapons. The display of American military might reminded Picasso, like many of his generation in Spain, of the American take-over of colonial Cuba and his nation’s humiliating defeat in the Spanish-American War of 1898.
The present Le homard dans un panier, painted 10 January 1965, set the stage for a revival of the lobster and cat confrontation. The tomcat reappeared in the very next painting, dated 11 January 1965 (Zervos, vol. 25, no. 10); the two creatures continued their battle of wills in the following four canvases, painted 13 and 14 January (Zervos, nos. 12-15), the latter two on a rocky beach. The artist did not reveal the outcome of this struggle between primitive crustacean defensive fortitude and more evolved feline wiliness and ferocity. As much as Picasso loved cats–especially the feral kind–he may have admired even more the lobster’s steely resolve for self-preservation.
Pablo Picasso, Le homard et le chat, Mougins, 11 January 1965. Thannhauser Collection; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York.