While the Suite Vollard takes its name from the famous French art patron and publisher, Ambroise Vollard, the initial impetus for the project was more Picasso's than Vollard's. By the 1930s the two men must have been on familiar terms, having already collaborated in 1913 on the Suite des Saltimbanques (see Lot 542) as well as an illustrated edition of Balzac's Le chef-d'oeuvre inconnu in 1927. In 1934, Picasso approached Vollard about purchasing two paintings, a Renoir and a Czanne, from the publisher's collection. Vollard responded by suggesting that, in exchange for the paintings, the 56-year-old Picasso give him 100 copper plates along with the rights to publish them in an edition. Picasso agreed, and in 1937, presented Vollard with 97 plates executed between 1930 and 1936 from his inventory. He diplomatically rounded out the package with three new, specially etched portraits of Vollard (S.V. 98-100).
For several decades the Suite Vollard was to be the largest set of Picasso's prints ever issued. It also heralded important developments in Picasso's printmaking, due in large measure to the alliance he had formed, beginning in 1934, with the highly skilled master printer, Roger Lacourire. Within the suite there is a noticable shift toward more technically complex plates in those dated from 1934 onward. Most significant is Picasso's increased use and understanding of aquatint, specifically sugar-lift aquatint, to achieve everything from subtle tonal variations to velvety black surfaces. Minotaure aveugle guid par une fillette dans la nuit (S.V. 97) is one of the stunning examples of Picasso's use of this medium. By 1939, Lacourire had completed the printing of a total edtion of 300 sets on specially watermarked paper and three deluxe sets on vellum.
That same year, Ambroise Vollard was killed in an automobile accident and never witnessed the final publication of this magnificent suite. With Vollard's sudden death and the upheavals of World War II, the compilation and sale of complete suites was sporadic. The Parisian dealer, Henri Petiet, purchased most of the edition from Vollard's estate shortly after his death. Petiet arranged for Picasso to sign some, although not all, of these impressions. Today the exact number of complete extant suites is not known, however, given the large number of individual plates which appear regularly on the market, they are certainly very rare.
If the influence of Picasso's associations with Vollard and Lacourire is to be seen in the production and publication of the Suite Vollard, it is the artist's own life that is reflected in the prints themsevles. Nearly half of the etchings depict scenes in an artist's studio. Typically the artist is shown working on classical-style sculptures and canvases or happily relaxing as he contemplates the fruits of his labors. In almost every scene the artist is joined by at least one curvaceous woman, often garlanded or only half-draped. The connection has often been seen between the predominance of these studio settings in the Suite Vollard and the fact that during this same period Picasso was developing a number of important sculptural projects, such as those created at Boisgeloup. The features of the women in the etchings are often likened to those of Marie-Thrse, a beautiful young woman who had recently entered Picasso's life and soon became both his model and mistress.
The other prominent theme within the Suite Vollard is that of the Minotaur. This ancient, mythological man-bull who dominates Picasso's most famous print, La Minotauromachie (1935), makes one of his very earliest appearances in the Suite Vollard. For the most part, Picasso's Minotaur is a gentle, inquisitive, even helpless creature in the 15 plates in which he appears. A few of the images reveal a more beastly, sexual side of his personality as he rapes women or joins the artist and/or models in drunken orgies. In several plates Picasso calls upon his Spanish heritage by casting his Minotaur in the role of the doomed bull of the bullfighting arena.
Taken together, the 100 etchings of the Suite Vollard serve as both a time capsule of Picasso's professional and personal contacts during the 1930s and a presaging of subjects and techniques to which he would return throughout the remainder of his creative life.