The present picture depicts the view over the street from 130, boulevard de Clichy, the building where Picasso lived from May 1901 until January 1902, during his second trip to Paris. It is part of an important group of more than thirty paintings that the nineteen-year-old artist made within a month of his arrival at the capital, in preparation for a watershed exhibition of his work at Ambroise Vollard's gallery on the Rue Laffitte. The exhibition had been arranged by Pere Mañach, Picasso's friend from Barcelona, who shared the apartment on the Boulevard de Clichy and acted as the young painter's dealer and agent (fig. 1). The Vollard show was the first major exhibition of Picasso's work outside Spain and marks a critical juncture in his career. Vollard was well-known as a dealer in works by Cézanne, Gauguin, and other leading French artists, and attracted a progressive clientele from all over Europe and America. Vollard's exhibition of Picasso's work brought the artist widespread recognition and acclaim. To quote John Richardson, it was "a stunning bravura performance for a neophyte," which included "some brilliant tours de force" (op. cit., p. 199). Of the sixty-four paintings and pastels on display, Boulevard de Clichy is one of just seven that the scholar Pierre Daix has identified with certainty (op. cit., p. 154), and Josep Palau i Fabre agrees, "This is one of the pictures that seem most clearly identifiable" (op. cit., p. 252).
Picasso had brought only fifteen or twenty canvases with him from Barcelona and had to work at a furious pace to prepare more pictures for the Vollard show, which opened on June 24th. The critic Gustave Coquiot, whom Mañach enlisted to write the catalogue preface, claimed that Picasso painted as many as ten pictures a day in late May and early June. More plausible is a rate of two or three per day, still an impressive feat. The paintings encompass a wide range of subjects, from the prostitutes and low-life motifs that Picasso had traditionally favored, to more popular genres such as views of Paris, racetrack scenes (fig. 2), and floral still-lifes. Stylistically, they are characterized by broad, broken brushwork and a bright palette emphasizing primary hues. Forms are no longer outlined, as in the artist's earlier work, but are defined entirely by means of contrasting colors. When Picasso's friend Jaime Sabartès (later the artist's long-time secretary) arrived in Paris in October 1901, he was stunned by the novelty of these recent paintings: "The pictures Picasso showed me had violent tonalities and the colors at first sight reminded me of the shades of playing cards. What he had done in Madrid and Barcelona, before he returned here, was so different from what I had before me" (quoted in P. Daix et al., op. cit., p. 154).
With vivid colors and impetuous handling, the present painting exemplifies this period in Picasso's oeuvre. It was probably painted from one of his neighbors' windows at 130, boulevard de Clichy, since the top-floor apartment that he shared with Mañach did not overlook the street. The aerial view over a busy boulevard has firm Impressionist precedents, particularly in the art of Camille Pissarro (fig. 3). Picasso uses a higher-keyed palette, however, to convey the energy of the French capital. Particularly noteworthy is the diagonal band of trees across the center of the composition, with their leaves like multi-colored fireworks. Coquiot may well have paintings such as Boulevard de Clichy in mind when he wrote in his catalogue preface for the Vollard show, "This very young Spanish painter, who has been here for only a short time, is wildly enamored of modern life. It is easy to imagine him--wide awake, with a searching eye, keen to record everything happening in the street, all the adventures of life. He does not need to contemplate his subject matter for long; so it is that we see him covering his canvases quickly, as if in a fury, impatient at the slowness of his hand, which holds long brushes laden with color. Here, then, we have an artist who has created a new harmony of light colors, making use of striking yellows, reds, greens and blues" (quoted in J. Palau i Fabre, op. cit., p. 514).
The Vollard exhibition was a great success, both critically and commercially. The walls of the small gallery were hung from floor to ceiling with paintings, pastels, and watercolors (sixty-four in all), plus an unspecified number of drawings. In mid-July, Picasso wrote to his friend Joan Vidal Ventosa in Barcelona, "My exhibition in Paris has been fairly successful; almost all the newspapers have given it favorable reviews, which is something" (quoted in ibid., p. 258). Well over half the works found buyers, at least fifteen of these before the exhibition even opened. The present picture was sold to Mme Besnard, the wife of Picasso's color merchant and one of the artist's most faithful early patrons. Other purchasers included the Parisian Conseilleur d'Etat Olivier Sainsère, the Spanish consul Emmanuel Virenque, the German artist Käthe Kollwitz, and a prominent collector of Gauguin's work named Maurice Fabre. Coquiot's catalogue preface was re-printed in the newspaper Le Journal, and Mañach arranged for several other critics to write laudatory reviews (rewarding them, in certain cases, with a painting from the show). Pere Coll, the critic for La Veu de Catalunya, declared, "Picasso is very young  and there can be few of his age who have done so much. Anyone who can do the drawings and paintings we have seen is capable of a great deal" (quoted in ibid., p. 514). Likewise, Félicien Fagus (a pseudonym for the critic and Symbolist poet Georges Faillet) wrote an appreciative review in the highly regarded periodical, La Revue Blanche, in which he praised Picasso as a "brilliant newcomer";
"He is the painter, utterly and beautifully the painter; he has the power of divining the essence of things. Like all pure painters he adores the use of color for its own sake. He is enamored of all subjects, and every subject is his. Besides the great ancestral masters, many likely influences can be distinguished--Delacroix, Manet (everything points to him, whose painting is a little Spanish), Monet, Van Gogh, Pissarro, Toulouse-Lautrec, Degas, Forain, Rops. Picasso's passionate surge forward has not yet left him the leisure to forge a personal style; personality is embodied in this hastiness, this youthful impetuous spontaneity. The danger lies in this very impetuosity, which could easily lead to facile virtuosity and easy success. That would be profoundly regrettable since we are in the presence of such brilliant virility" (quoted in J. Richardson, op. cit., p. 199).
On the strength of the Vollard exhibition, Picasso received several commissions for posters and magazine illustrations, and was also enlisted by Coquiot to make a series of portrait drawings of entertainers and demi-mondaines. By the fall of 1901, however, when the initial flush of success began to wear off, the artist again turned to darker subjects, such as the death of his close friend Carlos Casagemas and the poor inmates of the women's prison of Saint-Lazare. His style changed as well, into the monochrome figures with heavy black outlines of the Blue Period. Years later, Picasso would recall both the success of the Vollard exhibition and the subsequent changes in his work: "It went very well. It pleased a lot of people. It was only later when I set about to do blue paintings that things went really badly. This lasted for years. It's always been like this with me. Very good and then suddenly very bad" (quoted in P. Daix et al., op. cit., p. 154).
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, Pere Mañach, and Torres Fuster in the Boulevard de Clichy studio, 1901. In the background is Picasso's portrait of the Basque painter Francisco Iturrino. Barcode 23670563
(fig. 2) Pablo Picasso, Les courses, 1901. Sold, Christie's, New York, 7 May 2002, lot 23. Barcode 23670570
(fig. 3) Camille Pissarro, Le Boulevard Montmartre, matin d'hiver, 1897. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Barcode 23670587