Picasso was sixty-four years old and a public figure of world-wide renown in August 1946, when he chanced to visit an exhibition of local crafts at Vallauris, an industrial hamlet—somewhat down-at the-heels—immediately inland from the Mediterranean resort of Golfe-Juan, where he and his young mistress Françoise Gilot were on holiday. The ceramics from the Madoura pottery works in Vallauris caught his eye, and he asked Georges and Suzanne Ramié, who owned and operated the atelier, for the opportunity to try his hand at the medium. The next year he began to work intensively at the Madoura pottery, and in the summer of 1948 he made Vallauris his permanent base—the locus of his vision of a classical Mediterranean paradise. He set up house with Françoise and their toddler son Claude in a modest villa known as La Galloise in the hills above town; a second baby, Paloma, followed within the year. In a ramshackle former perfume factory, he established spacious studios for painting and sculpture, and he spent more and more time indulging his pleasure in making hand-decorated ceramics. In short order, his very presence transformed Vallauris into a thriving ville d’art.
La Galloise, the subject of the present landscape, was tucked away in a warren of narrow roads that wound uphill from the center of Vallauris. The house had a pale pink façade, a couple of acres of unkempt garden, and no other distinguishing features, which suited Picasso just fine. “La Galloise, the little bicoque [“shack”] where Picasso and Françoise set up house in Vallauris, was almost impossible to find,” John Richardson has recounted. “Blocking the entrance to the house was a garage, above which lived a crazy old lady who gave lessons in danse libre to hefty nymphs who could be glimpsed cavorting in the dusty shrubbery. The old lady was also a painter—a Rosicrucian one—and she loathed Picasso. A sign on the front door proclaimed, ‘This is where Madame Boissière lives. This is not where Monsieur Picasso lives.’ If these signs did not deter visitors, Madame Boissière would pace up and down on her balcony shouting that Picasso was a terrible painter and they should stay away. ‘The perfect concierge,’ Picasso said” (Picasso: The Mediterranean Years, exh. cat., Gagosian Gallery, London, 2010, p. 15).
Françoise offered to find Madame Boissière a house in town instead, with the hope that Picasso’s chauffeur Marcel, installed for the time being at a hotel in Golfe-Juan, might be able to take up residence above the garage. These efforts, however, were in vain. “Once I took her in the car to show her a very comfortable, roomy place I had found for her overlooking the market place in Vallauris,” Françoise recalled, “but she wasn’t in the least interested in its advantages. ‘You’ll never get me out,’ she said. ‘I plan on dying right where I am.’ From that day on she began to detest not me, but Pablo. She made up her mind that Pablo was the Antichrist. Whenever he passed by, she made cabalistic signs to exorcise the evil spirit. That delighted Pablo. We both felt sorry for her so we let her have her fun” (Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, pp. 233-234).
In La villa au palmier, Picasso depicted La Galloise nestled within the surrounding landscape, the jostling angles of the blush-colored structure contrasting with the rolling green hills that rise protectively behind it. Standing watch over the little house like a pair of benevolent patron deities—no evil spirits here!—are the tall, spiky palm tree of the painting’s title and, perched on a garden wall beneath it, a voluptuous terracotta vase. The anthropomorphically swelling belly of the vessel surely encodes Picasso’s mounting desire for another child, as does the orange tree in the foreground, conspicuously heavy with fruit. The trunk of the palmier is subtly phallic in form while the fronds burst forth against the sky with ejaculatory force. “I want to see my branches grow,” Picasso once claimed. “My trees are myself” (quoted in J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso: The Painter of Modern Life, New York, 1996, vol. 2, p. 93).
At Vallauris, Picasso gave free rein to his roving, restless powers of invention, now utterly unfettered by conventional boundaries of style and medium. He scavenged through fields and gutters for discarded material to use in his sculptures, experimented with commercial enamel paint alongside oil, and made portraits of Claude and Paloma with a whimsically naïve, child-like approach to form. In the present painting, flat fields of vivid color take their place beside bold black outlines and playful passages of graphic patterning, imbuing this lush Mediterranean idyll with a sense of effortless freedom and vitality. “His procedure was anti-hierarchical,” Werner Spies has written, “subordinating no one form to any other, but instead adding element to element to produce the pictorial continuum which was at the heart of Picasso’s concerns at the time” (Picasso’s World of Children, exh. cat., Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, 1995, p. 48).
Behind closed doors, however, Picasso’s relationship with Françoise was already showing signs of strain. The artist was increasingly preoccupied by his pro-peace activities, and Françoise consistently refused his entreaties to have another child, instead taking a renewed interest in furthering her own painting career. In the spring of 1951, just weeks after he painted La villa au palmier, Picasso took up with Geneviève Laporte, an art student in her mid-twenties. The definitive break came in September 1953, after a period of rancor and repeated infidelities, when Françoise left La Galloise and moved with Claude and Paloma back to Paris. “Right up to the last minute Pablo was convinced I would back down,” she recalled. “When the taxi pulled up and I got into it with the children and our bags, he was so angry he didn’t even say good-bye. He shouted ‘Merde!’ and went back into the house” (op. cit., 1964, p. 357).
Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler acquired La villa au palmier from Picasso just two months later, in November 1953. The artist spent that winter alone at La Galloise, the first time in many years that he had lived without dedicated female companionship. Although he saw the children on various occasions, he missed them sorely. The late spring and early summer, however, arrived to mark the next turning point in Picasso’s life, when he made his first paintings of Jacqueline Roque, a young divorcée who worked with the Ramiés. A new love necessitating a new abode, Picasso moved with Jacqueline in the summer of 1955 to an ornate, nineteenth-century villa (“La Californie”) in the hills above Cannes, leaving behind the humble charms of La Galloise.