Nature morte aux poissons et poêle is one of a small group of still life pictures that Picasso painted in December 1936, two of which are now in museum collections in Paris (one in the Musée d'Art Moderne, another in the Musée Picasso). These works date from a period of introspection and turmoil both in Picasso's personal life and in history as a whole. 'I paint the same way some people write their autobiography,' Picasso once explained (P. Picasso, quoted in J. Richardson, 'L'Epoque Jacqueline,' pp. 17-48, Late Picasso: Paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints 1953-1972, exh.cat., London & Paris, 1988, p. 28). It is therefore to the artist's life that one looks in order to discover the rationale behind their chosen subjects. At the time the present work was painted, Picasso had recently separated from his wife, Olga, and had established a home with his lover Marie-Thérèse Walter and their daughter; but his relationship with the enigmatic and intellectual Dora Maar was also coming increasingly to the fore. Does the still life of fish and a pan imply some moment of domestic stability in his home in Le-Tremblay-sur-Mauldre with Marie-Thérèse? Certainly, life with Dora, of whom he created myriad images during this period, was less homely, and his relationship with Marie-Thérèse continued relatively untroubled for some time after this period; she kept living in Le-Tremblay-sur-Mauldre until 1940. Perhaps the oysters and lemon that are on the surface add a hint of eroticism and romance to the picture, regardless of which relationship it represents, while the faces of the fish introduce a humorous element of whimsy.
The autobiographical dimension to Picasso's paintings may also mean that his anxieties about the Civil War that had broken out in his native Spain informed, to some degree, this nature morte, with its goggle-eyed fish corpses strewn about in disarray. The still life has long been associated with the tradition of the memento mori; here, Picasso has brought the fish to life to some degree through his playful use of colour; however, their jagged, blade-like forms add a deliberately discomfiting angularity to the painting. '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 later stated. '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' (P. Picasso, in Picasso and the War Years 1937-1945, S.A. Nash (ed.), exh. cat., New York, 1998, p. 13).