Between 10 and 21 February 1963 Picasso filled the pages of a small carnet with more than two dozen sketches of a studio interior in which a painter is seen working at his easel in the presence of a reclining nude model (Musée Picasso, Carnet no. 59). On 2 March he executed the first of an extended series of oil paintings on this theme (Zervos,vol. 23, no. 154). Hélène Parmelin, the wife of painter Edouard Pignon, both of whom were close friends of the artist, recounted the excitement surrounding their inception in a breathless present tense: "Picasso lets loose. He paints The Painter and his Model. And from that moment on he paints like a madman, perhaps never before with such frenzy " (in Picasso: The Artist and His Model, New York, 1965, p. 10). Picasso acknowledged that he was in the grip of a new and compelling inspiration when he declared to Michel Leiris on 27 March: "Painting is stronger than I am. It makes me do what it wants" (quoted in P. Daix, Picasso: Life and Art, New York, 1993, p. 349).
From then until well into 1965 Picasso painted and drew mostly variations on this theme. The artist and model appear together, as seen here, or singly as male or female portraits and nude figure paintings. The male subjects are almost invariably surrogates for Picasso himself, and the models are always his wife Jacqueline (see note to lot 34.). He gave relatively little time to other subjects, and it was not until the musketeers made their appearance in April 1967 that his preoccupation with the artist and model theme appeared to have subsided, although it was still far from having run its course, and it continued to manifest itself in new guises.
Picasso had done numerous artist and model drawings in November 1953-February 1954, which were included in the Suite de 180 dessins published in Verve magazine. This theme in Picasso's work actually has its origin some three decades earlier, when the artist was at the midpoint of his career. In 1926 Picasso painted Peintre et son modele (fig. 1), which assembled the characters in Honoré de Balzac's story Le Chef d'oeuvre inconnu. The painter François Porbus, his protégé the young Nicolas Poussin and his girlfriend Gillette look on as the old painter Frenhofer reveals his masterwork, the painting of his late mistress Catherine Lescault, to which he referred as La belle noiseuse ("The Beautiful Pain in the Ass"). Porbus and Poussin can see nothing but an inchoate muddle of paint, with only a single beautifully rendered female foot at the bottom of the canvas. Inconsolable at his colleagues' inability to comprehend his life's masterwork, Frenhofer later destroys the painting and kills himself.
The 1926 painting was done around the time that the dealer and publisher Ambroise Vollard commissioned Picasso to illustrate an edition of Balzac's Le Chef d'oeuvre inconnu. Vollard published Picasso's series of thirteen Balzac etchings in 1931 (Geiser, nos. 123-135). Picasso was aware that Balzac's tale had held special meaning for Paul Cézanne, whom Emile Bernard had recounted as having identifed with the fictional Frenhofer. Picasso's artist and model paintings recall Cézanne's Une Olympia Moderne, 1873-1874 (Rewald, no. 225; coll. Musée d'Orsay). In the latter part of his life Picasso understood how the struggles of Frenhofer and Cézanne were the bane of all painters of genius. Marie-Laure Bernadac wrote, "The myth of the absolute masterpiece; the suicidal attitude of the painter Frenhofer, who by wanting perfection rendered his painting invisible; the opposition between the real model and its abstract pictorial transcription; the choice to be made between art and love, between creature and creation - all of these themes that form the fabric of Balzac's book would hereafter haunt Picasso to the point of obsession" (in The Ultimate Picasso, New York, 2000, p. 439).
(fig. 1.) Pablo Picasso, Le peintre et son modèle,1926, Musée Picasso, Paris.