Picasso’s Goats

Symbolic of freedom and independence, reinvented in ceramic

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Vase aux chèvres (A. R. 156)

Animal themes arise frequently in Picasso’s work, with multiple possible sources and meanings, often aligning themselves to themes present in classical mythology. These animal motifs are particularly present within the ceramic work he created at the Madoura pottery studio from 1947 in Vallauris, in the South of France, where he was aided in this new medium by the expertise of master potters Suzanne and Georges Ramié. It proved to be an enormously creative, synergistic partnership.

As they’ve been since antiquity, animals appear within Picasso’s oeuvre with potential for allegory—an expression of the trials of human existence, including its more bestial, primal side. Animals were also celebrated in myth and legend throughout Antiquity and beyond—particularly in Medieval art—for their beauty, and for their ceremonial and metaphorical importance, adorning plates, vases, cloth and a variety of other artforms present in daily life. What Picasso achieved at Madoura revolutionized both a traditional medium and traditional subject matter in his own Modern style.

It is equally important to note, as was remarked by Patrick O’Brian in his 1994 book, Picasso: A Biography, that: "Picasso did not shift his animals to a semi-human plane–he met them on their own." For Picasso, these motifs also, undoubtedly, were very direct renderings of his immediate environment and the animals he kept, observed and admired without need for excess interpretation. He was known to depict the animals within his domestic environment throughout the range of media he was using at the time: Paintings set in his villa, La Californie, in Cannes, reference turtle doves and pigeons; his famous She-Goat (1950) sculpture depicts his beloved pet Esmerelda, and is now housed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Often Picasso would recruit his domestic animals to help him joke around with people, sometimes reportedly playing his animals against those close to him. Indeed, he apparently once told his partner Francoise Gilot that he loved his pet goat more than he loved her, according to Gilot’s autobiography, Life With Picasso.

Picasso appears to have enjoyed a kind of rebellious purity he found in certain animals; to some degree, he seems to have derived inspiration from their base expression of what humans tend to conceal. Perhaps this honesty and directness spoke to something of the artist’s own existence, which straddled both the primal and the intellectual, the historical and the immediately present.

One his favorite animal motifs was the goat, and it is a delight to reflect on its colour, form, and characterization as it appears in the goat-themed works in our online-only sale, running from 24 October to 7 November 2014.

— Edited from an interview with Imogen Kerr, Head of Sale, Picasso Ceramics