At the beginning of July 1938, Pablo Picasso headed South on the Train Bleue to stay on the Côte d'Azur with his lover Dora Maar, taking rooms in the Hôtel Vaste Horizon. Nature morte au pichet appears to have been painted shortly after his arrival there: on the same day that he painted Nature morte au pichet he also created a beach scene and Femme assise sur une chaise, a striking drawing in India ink showing the classic incarnation of Dora in his pictures of this period. By contrast, only a couple of days earlier he had created images of Marie-Thérèse Walter and his daughter Maya implying that he was still in their company before their departure for Royan, on the Atlantic coast.
Nature morte au pichet is a lyrical still life, showing fruit and a jug on a table. The deep blue of the background lends the work a nocturnal atmosphere. Against that night-like backdrop and the dark table top, the more brightly-coloured fruit, jug and cloth are all the more intensely ardent. The fruit are represented by swirling spirals of yellow, green and orange, dancing across the surface of the picture like paper lanterns, heightening the poetry of the image. This image of food and drink speaks of the sybaritic pleasures of life in the South of France, captured in several of Dora's photographs from her stay that year and also in 1937. This perhaps invokes the camaraderie that Picasso may have felt, holidaying not only with his photographer partner Dora, but also with his friend, the Surrealist poet Paul Eluard, who was staying in the same hotel with his wife Nusch. Nature morte au pichet was painted at the height of the age of Surrealism and, while Picasso's embracing of surreal aesthetics had largely passed, as this still life reveals, he remained a core part of the social group that surrounded the movement. This was further indicated by the fact that, while in the South of France during 1938, he and Dora rented a studio in Antibes recently used by their friend, the celebrated photographer and artist Man Ray.
Only a matter of days before Nature morte au pichet was painted, Picasso had created several images showing Marie-Thérèse which were filled with the more fluid forms that he so often used to render her. By contrast, several areas of Nature morte au pichet are characterised by a jutting angularity, especially the table and jug, recalling Picasso's depictions of Dora during this period, a comparison made all the more explicit by the fact that he had drawn Femme assise sur une chaise on the same day. In comparison to the Nordic health and glow and openness of Marie-Thérèse, Dora had a darkness to her personality that had already established her as a Surrealist Muse before she had met Picasso. When the Spanish Civil War had begun, Dora thus became the perfect vehicle for him to express his anxieties about his homeland and, subsequently, the worsening international situation. In this context, it may be telling that Nature morte au pichet was painted only months after the Anschluss, the German annexation of Austria which was one of the preludes to the Second World War. 'I have not painted the war because I am not the kind of painter who goes out like a photographer for something to depict,' Picasso would explain, before admitting: 'But I have no doubt that the war is in these paintings I have done. Later on perhaps the historians will find them and show that my style has changed under the war's influence. Myself, I do not know' (Picasso, in Picasso and the War Years 1937-1945, ed. Steven. A. Nash, exh. cat., New York, 1998, p. 13). In fact, the year before he painted Nature morte au pichet he had also declared that '... artists who live and work with spiritual values and should not remain indifferent to a conflict in which the highest values of humanity and civilization are at risk' (Picasso, to the American Artists' Congress, 1937, in ibid., p. 13).
Looking at this picture, the explosive bursts of colour which appear such a lively means of depicting the fruit within the still life composition may also indicate Picasso's concerns about the conflict that was tearing his homeland apart which he had commemorated the previous year in his epic painting Guernica, and the wider war which would later cause such turmoil throughout the world. Similarly, the manipulation of the textures of the surface adds a deliberate rawness to some areas of the picture while also creating several intriguing kaleidoscopic light effects, showing Picasso's vigorous creative process. In several of his paintings of this period, Picasso removed paint with, say, the tip of the handle of his paint-brush in order to create lines, or mixed the oils together in unorthodox ways, as is clear in the marbling effect that he has used to denote the decorative pattern of the jug. These techniques allowed him to create vivid, tactile effects that meant that the pictures bore his mark, his trace, on their surface. This effect was often heightened by the contrast with the richly-impastoed surfaces, the results of the lavish application of paint so evident in the lush brushwork that articulates so much of Nature morte au pichet. At the same time, these painterly manoeuvres display Picasso's enjoyment of the act of creation, adding a rich variety to his picture that underpins its lyrical content.
The still life was a theme to which Picasso would often return. Before the destruction of Guernica which had provided him with subject matter for his epic 1937 mural, Picasso had apparently explored the still life and the motif of the artist and his studio as potential themes for the Republican Spanish Pavilion at the Exposition Internationale held in Paris later that year. As the Second World War came about, Picasso returned to this genre, creating often austere images that incorporated human and animal skulls. While Nature morte au pichet is partly infused with the tensions of conflict, in comparison to those later works it becomes clear that this is also quite simply an image of release, of sensuality, a commemoration of life in the South of France in the company of friends and lover.