‘[Picasso’s] portraits can be rated as masterpieces; they are all true embodiments of those pipe-smoking characters we have seen walking down the Ramblas, but this collection presents more than personalities, it is a portrait of the present age.’
(Review of Picasso’s exhibition at Els Quatre Gats, 1900, in M. McCully, ed., A Picasso Anthology: Documents, Criticism, Reminiscences, Princeton, 1981, p. 25)
Executed between 1899 and 1900, Pablo Picasso’s Portrait de Lluís Alemany is one of a large group of portraits that the young artist created for his first ever solo exhibition held at Els Quatre Gats in Barcelona in 1900. Most likely among the first of this groundbreaking series of portraits, Portrait de Lluís Alemany dates from a period of extraordinary productivity as the artist boldly forged his unique artistic style. The work depicts Lluís Alemany, an acquaintance of Picasso during this period. Born in Mallorca, he was in Barcelona studying law at the same time that Picasso was there. At the time that Picasso painted young Alemany, it would have been impossible to foretell the distinguished career that he would go on to have. A politician and lawyer, he was also, from 1910 until 1912, the Mayor of Mallorca. With the rapidly drawn lines of charcoal, Picasso has brought this young, well-dressed Catalan man to life, capturing not just a likeness, but conveying something of his character as he stands proudly against a vividly coloured rural background.
Having returned to Barcelona from Madrid in the spring of 1899, Picasso quickly found his way into a circle of bohemian artists and intellectuals known as the Quatre Gats group, so-called because they frequented a tavern of the same name. Founded in 1897 by a group of four artists, Pere Romeu, Santiago Rusiñol, Ramon Casas and Miguel Utrillo, Els Quatre Gats quickly became the intellectual and avant-garde centre of the city, a place for young artists to congregate and engage with progressive developments of literature, art, philosophy and politics. Amidst these young artists and writers, Ramon Reventós, Angel Fernández de Soto, Carlos Casagemas and Jaime Sabartés, among others, Picasso soon became a much admired figure, a ‘legendary hero’, in Sabartés’ words. The Quatre Gats group was vital in the early development of the artist, exposing him to the Catalan movement, modernisme, which was an assimilation of movements and styles including symbolism and art nouveau.
In October 1899, a member of the older generation of this group of modernistes, as they had become known, Ramon Casas, held a large exhibition primarily consisting of portraits executed in charcoal on paper at the Sala Parés, one of Barcelona’s most fashionable galleries. Depicting the city’s wealthy, bourgeois elite, this exhibition was enormously successful, commanding great attention and critical acclaim. It was this exhibition that inspired Picasso’s friends to suggest that he put on a rival show of his own featuring a similar group of charcoal portraits. Never one to shy away from attention, Picasso agreed to their idea and began to execute a group of portraits that were to be shown in a solo exhibition at Els Quatre Gats in February 1900. Instead of depicting the sophisticated circles of Barcelona, however, Picasso took as his subjects his own little-known group of friends and acquaintances – the Quatre Gats group, as well as a wide cross-section of Catalan bohemia: other painters, poets, musicians, students and performers. ‘If Casas had a monopoly of the distinguished people of the city,’ Sabartés recalled, ‘Picasso could attend to the rejects: us, for example’ (J. Sabartés, quoted in W. Rubin, ed., exh. cat., Picasso and Portraiture, New York & Paris, 1996-1997, p. 237).
Working with a feverish intensity, for the remaining months of 1899 Picasso threw himself into his new project, executing portraits in a variety of media, though predominantly in charcoal and often watercolour, at an incredibly rapid pace. ‘If he found no room for them on the table,’ Sabartés remembered, ‘he affixed them to the wall with one drawing-pin if he could not find two’ (Sabartés, quoted in ibid., p. 238). Portrait de Lluís Alemany was most likely one of the earliest of this ambitious group. At the beginning of the series, Picasso depicted his models against a simple yet anecdotal background, most commonly a landscape. As the series progressed, he gradually simplified the background, placing his subjects against a plane of uniform colour. In the present work, the smartly dressed Alemany stands against a rural backdrop divided into three distinct bands of colour. Picasso most frequently drew directly from the model, but invented these backgrounds, often designing them to complement the sitter’s identity or occupation.
By the time the exhibition opened at the beginning of February 1900, Picasso had created around fifty to a hundred of these charcoal portraits, though one visitor recalled seeing around one hundred and fifty. These works adorned the walls of Els Quatre Gats, hanging one atop the other, unframed and pinned straight onto the wall, creating an impressive ‘gallery of bohemians’ (J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso, vol. I, 1881-1906, London, 1991, p. 145). Though no catalogue exists from the show, there were also said to be three paintings included, one of which was Les derniers moments (later painted over with La vie of 1903), the work that was later selected to represent Spain in the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. Although Picasso’s exhibition did not garner the same attention as Casas’, there were a number of reviews that exhorted the young artist’s exceptional talent. ‘We had never seen so rich an exhibition, and seldom one with so many good things,’ one critic wrote. ‘Picasso is an artist from head to toe… In each stroke of the pencil or of charcoal, in each brushstroke, one can see a profound faith in the art he is making, and a kind of inspired fever reminiscent of the best works of El Greco and Goya… His portraits can be rated as masterpieces; they are all true embodiments of those pipe-smoking characters we have seen walking down the Ramblas, but this collection presents more than personalities, it is a portrait of the present age. This exhibition may become a special testimonial and historical document’ (Unidentified review, 1900, in M. McCully, ed., A Picasso Anthology: Documents, Criticism, Reminiscences, Princeton, 1981, pp. 24-25).
Portrait de Lluís Alemany demonstrates the emergence of Picasso’s innovative style as he broke away from the academic rules of his artistic education and started to adopt a freer, more instinctive and idiosyncratic style. With rapidly applied lines of charcoal, Picasso drew the most distinctive features of Alemany, capturing his deep-set eyes and angular profile. With his hands firmly in his pocket, and gaze set straight ahead of him, he appears self-assured and confident. Picasso’s perceptive, penetrating gaze would remain the central, defining feature of his prolific portraiture. He would continue to depict himself, his lovers and his circle of friends in the years that followed this breakthrough exhibition, though rarely with such intensity. Indeed, it was not until the late 1910s and early 1920s that he returned to this form of documentary portraiture, when he began to depict those around him in finely rendered, Ingres-esque line drawings.
We would like to thank Mr Eduard Vallès for his help with researching this work.