13 May 1965, the day Picasso painted Mangeuse de pastèque et homme écrivant, was only a few weeks shy of the mid-point of an already bountifully productive decade. Two years previously he had commenced his series of atelier paintings, which usually featured the artist and his model, both together, or less frequently she nude and alone, and occasionally only the artist by himself. On the face of it, one might suspect that this working arrangement, as intensely intimate as it would seem, may not promise much in the way of variety. But in fact the artist and model series within a few years spawned numerous corollary groups, most frequently in the manner of los mosqueteros, a term which, as John Richardson has pointed out, includes not only Picasso's celebrated Alexandre Dumas-style cavalier mousquetaires, but also a wider assortment of their camp followers--servants, musicians, girlfriends, prostitutes, procurers and other hangers-on.
One such offshoot of the artist and model series are les mangeuses de pastèque, the watermelon eaters, painted during three days in April and May 1965. This is a small group, comprising only five paintings: Zervos, vol. 25, nos. 113, 120, 127, 128--which Daix recorded (op. cit.)--plus another, no. 129, which he did not. "C'est un thème plein de gaieté en couleurs vives et claires," as he aptly described these pictures. He moreover pointed out that they stemmed from a previous group of Hommes et femmes nus, men and nude women, begun on 22 February 1965. The thread, as traced below, runs even further back in time.
One might imagine Picasso having caught sight of young lovers in or around Mougins enjoying a melon on the grass as a charming moment that possibly inspired these paintings. But one must also consider--not as a coincidence but more likely as an actual antecedent that Picasso had in mind--a painting by a fellow Spaniard, one of the great masters during the later years of El Siglo de Oro: Bartolomé Esteban Murillo. His painting Dos muchachos comiendo melon y uvas, circa 1645-1648, depicts two street waifs who have absconded with a basket of grapes and a yellow melon; the artist shows them enjoying their feast of opportunity (fig. 1).
The two Murillo boys have a rooster as company in Picasso's Coq et mangeurs de pastèque, the second of two paintings Picasso had done on 19 April when he debuted his subject of the watermelon eaters. But in the first painting that day (Zervos, vol. 25, no. 113; fig. 2) gand the remaining three done on 13 and 15 April, the figures are male and female, demonstrating, as Daix observed, they are in fact the pictorial progeny of the earlier Hommes et femmes nus (e.g., Zervos, vol. 25, no. 107; Sold, Christie's, New York, 9 November 1999, lot 548), which are themselves a development from Picasso's main line of artist and model paintings, to which he had devoted most of his efforts since 1963 (Zervos, vol. 23, no. 205; fig. 3). Only in the present watermelon eater painting is the young man clothed, and he appears to show little interest in either the young woman or a cool slice of watermelon on a warm spring day. Therein lies a tale--vide infra.
The idea for the artist and model paintings emerged at the conclusion of a ten-year period during which Picasso had taken sustained inspiration from the iconography and achievements of earlier masters whom he admired, chief among them Delacroix (in Picasso's Femmes d'Algers series, 1954-1955), Velázquez (Las Meninas, 1957), Manet (Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, 1959-1961), and lastly Poussin (L'enlèvement des sabines, late 1962-early 1963). He declared that he had nearly spent himself on his versions of Poussin's masterpiece, painting calamitous scenes out of classical antiquity filled with women in distress, rapacious warriors and rampaging horses. Turning away from these serial allusions to the past, Picasso sought to reinvigorate his painting by taking on a new theme, one which was as basic and immediate to the work of a painter as he could conceive. The subject of his research would henceforth be the direct and real relationship between the artist and his model.
The entry of Jacqueline Roque into Picasso's life, as his new lover and model, coincided with Matisse's passing in 1954. "When Matisse died," Picasso declared, "he left his odalisques to me as a legacy" (quoted in M.-L. Bernadac, Late Picasso, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1988, p. 55). Picasso worked through the most salient formal aspects of the Orientalist genre in the aforementioned Delacroix variations, and in the Jacqueline au costume turc paintings of late 1955. But he quickly dispensed with the Matissean habit of casting his model as a costumed role-player when he painted a series of portraits of Jacqueline during late 1962 and early 1963 (Zervos, vol. 23, nos. 72-94 and 110-117), probing her appearance and personality in a spontaneous and intimate manner. These pictures describe the excitement of rediscovery--and the sheer delectation--that Picasso took in gazing upon and depicting in paint a live, flesh-and-blood model, who was the very woman he loved and whom he had recently made his wife.
The next step was to insert the artist into the picture, in the form of some surrogate for himself, which Picasso then accomplished to inaugurate the fully-fledged peintre et son modèle series on 2 March 1963, in four paintings (Zervos, vol. 23, nos. 154-157) which established the paradigm for the entire series to come. The artist and model paintings are the key works in the development of Picasso's late style: they are an allegory of art-making, and moreover reveal the artist's insightful research into all manner of human relationships. For Matisse the very essence of painting had been the reciprocity between the artist and his model, and this became the foundation of his art. Picasso, in his final decade, after all that had gone before, decided it had come down to the very same thing. The synergy of artist and model, he concluded, lay at the very heart of his creativity, and this mutual interaction became the vital pulse of his daily life, both as an artist and a man.
Coming at this juncture, Picasso's passionate affair with the model proclaimed his reaffirmation of a total commitment to the external world of reality and the presence of the "subject" in his painting, at a time when many artists were talking about and actively doing away with both. Picasso's intent, however, went well beyond the theoretical--the artist and model subjects were not just paintings about painting, or an inside commentary on his craft. Marie-Laure Bernadac has asserted that "The more Picasso painted this theme, the more he pushed the artist-model relationship towards its ultimate conclusion: the artist embraces his model, canceling out the barrier of the canvas and transforming the artist-model relationship into a man-woman relationship. Painting is an act of love, according to Gert Schiff, and John Richardson speaks of 'sex as a metaphor for art, and art as a metaphor for sex'" (exh. cat., op. cit., 1988, p. 77).
The paintings that focus on the nude sitter alone are Picasso's paean to the powerful presence of Jacqueline in his life and the strength of his feelings for her. Jacqueline is always the model, in as many guises as Picasso could invent for her, but most often nude; she is the ultimate and universal woman who is the sole object of the artist's obsessive attention and efforts. Jacqueline never posed. There was no need for her to do so; Picasso merely required the stimulation of her proximity. He subjected her presence, however quotidian and domestic it might be, to the lively play of his imagination and the abundance of his fantasies. He seized the moment, and the paintings sprang forth, day after day, filling his studio during this spectacular Indian summer of his career.
Backtracking beyond the Hommes et femmes nus paintings, the idea of the Watermelon Eaters may be seen as a postscript related to Picasso's series of riffs on Manet's Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, which occupied him for two years, from the first drawings he made in August 1959 to the final painting, among 27 in all, he completed on 19 August 1961 (Zervos, vol. 20, no. 119). Picasso had tackled Manet's subject not only on account of its status as the groundbreaking icon that premiered the modernist sensibility in painting, but also for such opportunities as this estimable precedent offered in encouraging him to move the nude out of Delacroix's Femmes d'Algers harem and into the landscape, taking on a theme--the harmonious idyll of humankind in nature--that had been a cornerstone of Western art since the Renaissance. Cézanne had carried forth this tradition in his monumental late bathers, Renoir in his late nudes, and Matisse gave it further modernist spin in his Joie de vivre, 1906 and the famous murals Danse I and II, and La Musique, 1910. The poses of the two women in Manet's painting proliferate on Picasso's canvases into "every conceivable posture," as Bernadac has written. "Working on Le Déjeuner brings Picasso to the point of inventing a new morphology" (ibid., p. 70).
The antecedent for the pose of the young man writing in the present painting may be seen in sixteen Déjeuner drawings, in which he is reading a book, dated 9 and 10 July 1961 (Zervos, vol. 20, nos. 72-85) and a half-dozen more in which the book has disappeared as he simply looks up to gaze upon the two female nudes nearby, dated 11 July 1961 (nos. 92-97). He is there reading his book in the oil painting dated 10 July 1961 (Zervos, vol. 20, no. 88; fig. 4). The female watermelon eater is related to the seated nudes in Picasso's Déjeuner paintings and drawings, but her pose is actually closer to that which Victorine Meurent, Manet's model, assumed for the seated figure in the original painting (fig. 5), in Picasso's version flipped from right to left.
Now for the question: why does the young man in the present painting insist on keeping his clothes on, and attend to his writing, while the gorgeous, ripely figured young woman seated nearby is offering to share with him her slice of melon--a symbolic offering which could well stand for all the fruits of this earth--and very likely her lovely body as well? It appears that he has something more important on his mind: he wants to be a writer, an artist. His activity is a reminder that between 1935 and 1959 Picasso wrote page after page of freely associative poetry. The young man's dilemma is nothing new, it is as old as art itself; if the choice comes down to this, if at any moment he must choose between her and his book--that is, between life and art--some would then say that art, as his true calling, is the thing to which he must give his undivided attention and apply all his efforts.
Picasso is perhaps recalling an emotional quandary and rite of passage from his own youthful efforts at becoming an artist. That he has made this young fellow a surrogate for himself is clear from the striped pattern on his shirt, similar to the fisherman's vest the artist was fond of wearing in the studio and around his home in Mougins. This is, however, an odd lesson coming from Picasso, a man who managed the complexities of his love life and the needs of his art most adroitly, at times with astonishing cleverness--indeed, his life and art fed off of each other like a force of nature. There is a tongue-in-cheek quality to the situation Picasso has depicted here, as if he would like to say, "this art versus life thing is lot of talk, maybe it's something for you old-fashioned romantics, but not for me--I can do both, and more or less at the same time!"
Murillo's melon-eater turns up again in Picasso's works of the later 1960s. He is present as a seated boy holding a wedge of melon to his mouth in a series of drawings dated 20 and 22 January, 3 and 4 February, and in paintings dated 30 October (Zervos. vol. 27, no. 150; fig. 6) and 12 November (no. 151), and lastly a wash drawing of 14 November, all in 1967. "Bucolic imagery was to loom large in Picasso's work between 1966 and 1968," Gert Schiff has written. "There are more paintings, and especially drawings, of couples disporting themselves in the country; but in the latter, ideal nudity replaces all remnants of contemporary nudity... Picasso celebrates the life of a primeval Arcadia. There are hoary elders drinking wine or conversing with well-built youths, mothers tenderly receiving the caresses of their cupid sons; fishermen; children riding donkeys and goats or playing with tame hawks and buzzards; boys lolling on the beach, playing pipes and eating melons... Here the old artist revives one last time that dream which Paul Gauguin had impressed so forcibly upon his generation: the flight from civilization" (Picasso: The Last Years, 1963-1973, exh. cat., The Grey Art Gallery, New York University, 1983, pp. 26 and 28).
Pablo and Jacqueline Picasso in the front yard of Notre-Dame-de-Vie, their home in Mougins, August 1966. Photograph by Roberto Otero; Museo Picasso, Málaga. BARCODE: 28863243
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, Dos muchachos comiendo melon y uvas, circa 1645-1648. Staatsgemäldesammlungen, Alte Pinakothek, Münich. BARCODE: 28863182
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, Mangeurs de pastèque, Mougins, 19 April 1965 (I). Private collection. BARCODE: 28863199
(fig. 2) Pablo Picasso, Le peintre et son modèle dans l'atelier, Mougins, 9 April 1963. Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. BARCODE: 28863205
(fig. 3) Pablo Picasso, Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, d'après Manet, Mougins, 10 July 1961. Staatsgalerie Stuttgart. BARCODE: 28863212
(fig. 4) Edouard Manet, Le déjeuner sur l'herbe, 1863. Musée d'Orsay, Paris. BARCODE: 28863229
(fig. 5) Pablo Picasso, Homme et femme nus à la pastèque, Mougins, 30 November 1967. Museum Ludwig, Cologne. BARCODE: 28863236