Picasso painted this ardent yet tender scene of two young lovers embracing in the street during his first stay in Paris during the fall of 1900. When he arrived at the newly opened Gare d'Orsay around the middle of October, he was a week or so shy of his nineteenth birthday, which would fall on the 25th. He had taken the train from Barcelona with his Catalan friend Carles Casagemas. Manuel Pallarès, another companion, planned to join them shortly. Picasso ostensibly wanted to visit Paris to attend the Exposition Universelle before it closed on 12 November. Coming at the momentous beginning of a new century, the Exposition that year was an especially eye-stopping showcase of international art, culture and industry. The paintings of the Impressionists were being shown for the first time in an official exhibition. Picasso wanted to see his recent painting Last Moments, which had been accepted for display in the Spanish pavilion. Still, his friends in Barcelona were surprised to see him take off so suddenly. Jaime Sabartès later recalled the trip as "An enterprise we could not explain. He just gave up his studio, parted with his family, and said good-bye to us all" (quoted in P. Daix and G. Boudaille, op. cit., p.118). The teenaged artist was eager to expand his horizons; Pierre Daix stated that in his work "He suddenly seemed confident of himself, ambitious to tackle high themes, and impatient of lessons imposed on him" (ibid). Picasso wanted to live and paint in the very center of the art world, Paris.
Picasso and Casagemas quickly found a small studio in Montparnasse, but their compatriot Isidre Nonell offered them the use of his larger quarters in Montmartre while he was away. The two young men carted their belongings across town and up the Butte de Montmartre, where they settled in at 49, rue Gabrielle. There they could enjoy the comradeship of the main Catalan ex-patriate community in Paris, and the famous attractions of genuine Bohemian nightlife. Daix has written, "Montmartre was still the border country of Paris, with fields and vines surrounding the windmills van Gogh had painted thirteen years earlier. It was dangerous terrain, where pimps and cutthroats settled their accounts with swift finality. The middle classes thought of it as a place to go for a taste of the lowlife..." (in Picasso: Life and Art, New York, 1993, p. 20).
On 25 October, the day Picasso turned nineteen, Casagemas dispatched a long and chatty letter, whose margins Picasso had embellished with sketches, to his friend Ramon Reventós in Barcelona. He wrote, "We have already launched into work. Now we have a model. Tomorrow we'll light the heater and we'll have to work furiously for we're already thinking about the painting we're going to send to the next Salon. Also we're painting for exhibitions in Barcelona and Madrid. We're working hard. Whenever there is light...we are in the studio painting and drawing. So you'll see if we make it!" (quoted in M. McCully, ed., A Picasso Anthology, Princeton, 1981, p. 27).
The two young painters played hard and enjoyed themselves, too. They soon fell in with a trio of girls, friends of Nonell, who called themselves "models." Germaine Florentin (née Gargallo) and Antoinette Fornerod were half-sisters. Germaine may have been all or part Spanish; in any case, she spoke Spanish well, which made her popular among the artists of the Catalan colony, most of whom, like Picasso, spoke little if any French. The third girl was Louise Lenoir; she called herself Odette. Although she spoke no Spanish, she became Picasso's girlfriend. Casagemas quickly fell deeply in love with Germaine. When Pallarès arrived he too was drawn to Germaine, but settled for Antoinette. John Richardson has described the scene:
"For most of the next two months or so the three couples lived on top of one another, in an admittedly large studio. Picasso's contribution to another joint letter to Reventós describes how the businesslike Pallarès nailed up a schedule for working and eating and even grapejar (for fucking). Otherwise this 'dirty arcadia,' as Casagemas called it, would not have functioned, and no painting would have been done. Now that each of the trio had a mistress, they decided to 'say goodbye to the bachelor life: as of today we are going to bed at 10 and we are not going out anymore to the [brothels of the] calle de Londres'" (in A Life of Picasso: Vol. 1, The Early Years 1881-1906 New York, 1991, p. 162).
Picasso, who, like most young men of the time, learned about sex from encounters with prostitutes as he came of age, was amazed at the easygoing and wayward behavior of Parisian women--not only those of a certain profession, but elsewhere among the lower classes, even outside a declassé neighborhood like Montmartre. Richardson has written:
"That raw sexuality could be harnassed to art was one of the major revelations of Paris. Accustomed as he was to Spanish constraint, Picasso was surprised to see couples not only embracing in public but depicted doing this in the works of artists like Steinlen... In Barcelona people did not publicly display sexual attraction for another outside the Barri Xino [a red-light district]. In Paris they did so all over the place. All of a sudden Picasso's work abounds with embracing couples. A case in point is the series of black chalk drawings, pastels (fig. 1) and paintings (figs. 2 and 3) of a working-class man and woman locked in such close embrace that they melt into a single mass" (ibid., p. 168).
Chief among the painters who influenced Picasso's work during his first Paris trip were Steinlen, George Bottini--a little-known artist today who specialized in scenes with pimps, prostitutes and other demi-mondaines--and, of course, Toulouse-Lautrec, who was the acknowledged master of this territory at the periphery of Parisian society. Picasso's finest painting of his first Paris trip is Moulin de la Galette (Zervos, vol. 1, no. 41; The The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum of Art, New York), which owes an obvious debt to Toulouse-Lautrec. Both Moulin de la Galette and the present painting have in their provenance the distinguished collection of Justin K. Thannhauser.
In regard to the scenes of "vulgar lovers embracing on the ramparts," as Maurice Le Sieutre called them in his introduction to the 1904 Berthe Weill exhibition (op. cit.), Richardson has cited the likelihood of Picasso's familiarity with Edvard Munch's Der Kuss (fig. 4), probably through one of the widely disseminated variants as a woodcut print. Sabartès noted that "Both Munch and Picasso subordinate form and color to symbolic expression Picasso could scarcely be entirely unacquainted with the works of Munch, who was in close contact with Paris artists. Ciricer Pellicer in his book on Picasso's early years shows in detail that northern literature and art were well known in Picasso's milieu in Barcelona" (in Picasso, New York, 1957, p. 117). Another Munch-like element in this painting is the expression of all-powerful eros in the presence of all-conquering death--a funeral procession makes it way downhill in the distance. This is hardly an idyll in the classical sense of the term. This gloomy tendency in Picasso's imagination had been earlier manifest in his Last Moments, the painting he had sent to the Exposition Universelle, which depicted a priest at the bedside of a dying woman (he later painted over it). The setting in the present painting is the Butte de Montmartre, a fact that Picasso confirmed to Daix while the latter was in the process of compiling his catalogue of the early, Blue and Rose periods works (op. cit.).
The facial features in Les Amants are too vague to provide any clue to the identity of the couple. While Picasso probably intended that they be everyman and everywoman, he might well have imagined Odette and himself huddled in this embrace, or perhaps Casagemas and Germaine, whose affair had assumed an unruly and disturbing intensity. Because of a congenital deformity that might have been easily corrected with surgery, Casagemas was impotent, while Germaine was a woman with strong sexual feelings. Casagemas grew increasingly frustrated and depressed over his inadequacy as a lover. By the end of the year his behavior had become insufferable, and to help him snap out of it, Picasso took his friend with him on a trip during the New Year 1901 holiday to Málaga, the warm, seaside city in Andalusia where Picasso grew up and had relatives. Their departure marked the end of Picasso's first trip to Paris. Casagemas spent the most of the time he was in Málaga getting drunk, visiting brothels, and possibly taking drugs. He soon returned to Paris to resume his ill-fated liaison with Germaine. He killed himself over her in February 1901 while Picasso was in Madrid. In this light, Picasso's interest in the love-death theme in Les amants dans la rue is eerily prescient, and adds a further haunting dimension to this powerful and moving work.
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, Amants dans la rue, pastel, Paris, 1900. Museu Picasso, Barcelona. BARCODE 25010114
(fig. 2) Pablo Picasso, L'Étreinte, Paris, 1900. The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow. BARCODE 25010121
(fig. 3) Pablo Picasso, The Brutal Embrace, Paris, 1900. Beyeler Collection, Basel. BARCODE 25010138
(fig. 4) Edvard Munch, Der Kuss, 1897. Munch-Museum, Oslo. BARCODE 25010107