Pablo Picasso’s Portrait of Gertude Stein has a fascinating history and so I was delighted to come across it at the recent Cubism exhibition at the Pompidou Centre in Paris, where it is on loan from the Metropolitan Museum of New York. Picasso first met Gertrude Stein in the early years of the twentieth century when he was still an ambitious but struggling young artist. Stein, for her part, was an American who had inherited enough money to allow her settle in Paris where she became, along with her brother Leo, an avid art collector as well as a writer. The Steins were not afraid to purchase the most daring works of art and the collection they amassed represented the cream of avant grade art emerging in Paris. The paintings lined the walls of their apartment at 27 Rue du Fleurus where Gertrude Stein’s legendary weekly salon attracted the good and the great of both the literary and artistic worlds and so acted like a showcase for the artists. Gertrude and Picasso developed a strong friendship and Stein became invaluable to Picasso not only for her financial aid but also for her belief in what he was doing.
Gertrude Stein was a larger than life character with a physical appearance to match. According to John Richardson in his Life of Picasso, Picasso was sofascinatedby her appearance and personality that he asked to paint her portrait. However, after more than 90 sittings he was dissatisfied with the result and painted out her head saying ‘I can’t see you any longer”. He put the painting aside in May 1906 when he left Paris to spend the summer in Gosol, a remote village in the Catalan Pyrenees. Here Picasso’s style went under a radical change. On his return from Gosol, it is said that he finished the portrait in one afternoon painting Stein’s face with mask like features suggesting an influence from Iberian sculptor. One wonders if his earlier frustrations with the portrait were bound up with an attempt to shake off his old style of painting in order to achieve a fresh pictorial vision. He certainly brought about a new vision in his art and Gertrude Stein’s painting, according to the exhibition ‘marked the end of the artist’s Rose Period and announced the advent of Cubism’.
Standing in front of the painting, the indomitable spirit of Gertrude Stein is tangible. Her image fills the canvas and she leans forward as if to draw you in to her presence. The painting is remarkable and when it was commented that Stein didn’t look like her portrait, Picasso allegedly stated, “Never mind, in the end she will manage to look just like it”. Apparently she did with Gertrude herself stating “For me, it is I.”
In 1900 Pablo Picasso was still only 18 years old but his prodigious talent was already acknowledged so much so that he was selected to represent Spain at the Universal Exhibition in Paris. This was also the year Picasso made his first trip to Paris and between 1900 and 1904 he moved between both Paris and Spain until in 1904 he finally decided to settle in Paris. These years, together with the subsequent two, saw many developments and changes in his style and the exhibition Picasso:Blue and Rose at the Musée D’Orsay is a unique opportunity to follow this evolution. The exhibition brings together a dazzling array of masterpieces from all around the globe giving the visitor a fascinating overview of Picasso’s experimental journey over this six year period.
The changes in styles over the period were radical and the exhibition cleverly presents at the outset three self portraits, below, each reflecting Picasso’s style at the time of their creation.
The first self portrait which he signed Yo, Picasso (I, Picasso), shows a confident, almost arrogant, Picasso at the time of his second trip to Paris in 1901 when he had his first exhibition at the gallery of the influential art dealer Ambrose Vollard and where this self portrait was presented. The second self portrait is clearly a product of his famous Blue Period. This period was influenced by the suicide of his friend Carlos Casagemas which began late in 1901 and lasted until 1904. Picasso’s Rose Period followed and by the end of 1906 he was working with a reduced ochre palette and creating more simplified forms where facial features were reduced to mask like shapes as reflected in his own self portrait of the same year.
In the run up to the Vollard exhibition Picasso was producing a body of work dominated by vibrant colours. Much of his subject matter was taken from Parisian night life but he also harked back to the works of Spain’s Old Masters which he had studied as a teenager in Madrid. In his painting La Naine (or Dwarf Dancer), painted in 1901, Picasso shows his debt to Velazquez (1599-1660), by his choice of subject matter as Velazquez regularly painted the dwarfs at the Court of King Philip IV. However, by 1901, Picasso had freed himself from academic restraints and in La Naine one also sees the influences of the great artists of the modern era such as Degas, Van Gogh and Toulouse Lautrec. La Naine (or Dwarf Dancer) depicts a ballet dancer, a favourite theme of Degas, in a red tutu who Picasso has set against a dazzling background of yellows, greens and blues executed in broken brush strokes giving an energy to the image despite the somewhat static stance and harsh expression of the dancer.
Another reworked theme by Picasso around this time, and one which had previously been explored by Degas, Toulouse Lautrec and Van Gogh, is the café-goer, either alone or as a couple sitting at a table. In many of his paintings, Picasso showed the café-goer as an absinthe drinker such as the one below, absinthe being a very popular drink in France at the time. In The Absinthe Drinker, 1901, Picasso has chosen to depict the moment when this solitary looking drinker is about to add a cube of sugar to the absinthe drink which sits before her on the table. She appears all dressed up wearing a bright red scarf with matching coloured lipstick yet she cuts a lonely image as she sits alone appearing engrossed in her her own thoughts.
Above from left to right : The Absinthe Drinker, 1901, Private Collection and Seated Harlequin, 1901, The Metropolitan Museum, New York.
The Harlequin character was a well known figure in popular culture in Paris in 1901 and in Seated Harlequin, Picasso has placed him in the café going culture of the time. His Harlequin poses elegantly on a green couch with one hand resting on the seat and the other with elbow resting on the table with fingers posed on his face. His costume is painted in blue and black squares set off with white ruff-like cuffs and collar. Harlequin’s white painted face is turned away from both the table and the viewer and gazes pensively downwards giving a theatrical feel to the image.
Picasso’s exhibition at Vollard’s was considered a success with reviews such as the one in La Justice describing Picasso as ‘offering something novel’ and having ‘gifts of very rare originality’. However, all was not well with Picasso and the suicide of his friend Casagemas in the spring of 1901 haunted him until finally by the autumn he began painting in blue.
Picasso continued painting with a monochromatic palette of shades of blue and blue-green until 1904 reflecting his melancholy at Casagemas death and also the poverty stricken circumstances that he now found himself in. During his Blue Period, Picasso painted scenes of poverty, alienation and misery as is evidenced by the selection below of Blue Period works on show at the exhibition. The viewer cannot but be touched by the sadness of these evocative paintings which Picasso has brilliantly composed.
blind mans meal
Above from left to right, 1. The Crouching Woman, Art Gallery Of Ontario, Canada, 2. TheBlind Man’s Meal, Metropolitan Museum Of Art, New York, 3. Mother and Child by the Sea, Palo Museum of Art, Japan, and 4. The Soup, Art Gallery of Ontario, Canada.
The culmination of the Blue Period brings us to the monumental canvas of La Vie, painted by Picasso in 1903 in Barcelona. X-rays have shown that it was painted over Last Moments, the painting Picasso exhibited in 1900 at the Universal Exhibition in Paris. No one is sure of its meaning but it has been suggested that it represents the cycle of life with the pregnant woman portraying life and the crouching man in the centre portraying death. The standing man is Casagemas, who by now has been dead for two years, and the cloaked woman on the right appears in many blue period paintings. Does she hold the child that might have been Casagemas’? Whatever the meaning of the painting, it was well received and fortunately for Picasso, who was having little financial success, found an immediate buyer.
In early 1904 Picasso decided to settle in Paris and he took up residence in the Bateau Lavoir in Montmartre. The Bateau Lavoir was a run down ramshackle old building but it became an artistic hub attracting painters and poets alike. In this bohemian enclave, the clouds started to lift and Picasso’s palette began to expand to include shades of pink, hailing the dawn of the Rose Period. Also around this time he started a relationship with a model known as Madeline who is the subject matter of Girl in a Chemise, which although dated 1905 was begun in 1904.
Here one can clearly see the blurring of the Blue and Rose Periods with the blue background including shades of brown and the model’s flesh and lips tinged with pink. Over the next two years not only would Picasso switch from predominantly painting in shades of blue to pink, he would also move away from the sombre themes of the Blue Period, to lighter ones mainly that of the circus. These circus scenes generally captured not the moment of performance but rather the private introspective moments of the lives of the performers as can be noted in the two images below Family Of Acrobats with Monkey and Young Acrobat balancing on a Ball.
As 1905 became 1906, there was a further shift in Picasso’s work with his figures becoming more sculptural. This nod to ‘classicism’ was probably inspired by Ingres whose work had appeared at the Salon d’Automne of 1905. Boy Leading a Horse is a wonderful example of this new shift to a modern vision of classicism, a painting whose meaning is unclear but whose impact is striking. Other influences began to pervade Picasso’s work such as the archaic Iberian sculpture he saw in the Louvre as well as his interest in primitive art. Cezanne’s influence also becomes apparent especially his stocky figures from his Bathers series. Picasso’s palette also began to shift with a move towards ochre tones particularly following his four month trip from May to August 1906 to Gosol, a remote village in the Catalan Pyrenees. Here, away from Paris, he began to truly experiment in a quest for a new pictorial vision and he drew on these influences to create a radical change in style. He also drew inspiration from his girlfriend Fernande Olivier who accompanied him on the trip and who appears in many of his paintings of this period.
The exhibition ends with Two Nudes which was painted in the autumn/winter of 1906 after Picasso’s return from Gosol and demonstrates the ground breaking results of Picasso’s experiments over the previous six years. Here the monumentality of the figures, inspired by the stocky figures of Cezanne’s bathers, compares sharply with the waif like figures of earlier works. The facial features of the nude on the left have taken on the form of a mask as inspired by Picasso’s interest in primitive art. The figure on the right is strange with her breast oddly positioned. Again, the meaning of the painting is not known but with it Picasso heralds his new pictorial vision and is on his way to becoming one of the greatest artist of the twentieth century. He is only 25 years old.
This truly is an amazing exhibition giving the viewer a rare opportunity to see some of Picasso’s best works over this six year period. The images included here do not do justice to the works and for a true appreciation of these masterpieces a visit to the exhibition is a must. It runs until the 6th January 2019 at the Musée D’Orsay, Paris and then it moves to Foundation Beyeler, Riehen, Switzerland from 3rd February until 26th May 2019.
Mary Cassatt, who has been described as one of ‘Les Trois Grandes Dames” of impressionism, has the distinction of being the only American to exhibit with the Impressionists in Paris. She was born in Pennsylvania in 1844 to a well off family but it was during an extended trip to Europe, including Paris, while still a child that she discovered art. Having decided to become a professional artist, she attended Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts but disappointed with the attitude and training here, she moved to Paris in 1866 to continue her studies, despite opposition from her parents As woman were still banned from attending the prestigious École des Beaux Arts, she studied privately with some of the leading artists of the day. Her first success with the Paris Salon was in 1868 when, A Mandoline Player, a painting executed in an academic style and on loan to the exhibition from a Private Collection, was accepted for exhibition by the jury. However, she eventually became disilliusioned with the Salon and the academic art they preferred and in 1875, when she first saw the work of Edgar Degas, she is quoted as saying ‘ It changed my life. I saw art then as I wanted to see it”. So in 1877 when she was invited by Degas to exhibit at the Impressionist exhibition, she jumped at the chance. One of her masterpieces from this period is LittleGirl in a Blue Armchair, 1878, National Gallery of Art Washington, a compelling piece of work which stood out in the first room of the exhibition. The blue of the four easy chairs which take up a large portion of the canvas is striking and captivating. The little girl is shown flopped on one of the chairs while a little dog sleeps on the one next to her, all depicting a cosy domestic interior. It has now come to light, following infrared photography, that Degas contributed to the painting.
Degas and Cassatt developed a close friendship and they could often be seen at the Louvre studying art together. They had a lot in common, both being from affluent backgrounds, well educated, both interested in figurative painting and both remaining unmarried. They had studios near each other and they advised and encouraged each other. Degas painted Cassatt’s portrait (left) in 1877, now in the National Gallery, Washington, and although she hung it in her studio she found the painting ‘repugnant’. Degas paints her leaning over looking at the cards she holds in her hands and this painting contrasts sharply with the pose she adopts for her own self portrait, (which were rare), which she painted around the same time and in which she appears to wear the same outfit. In her self portrait (right) from the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, which is sketchily executed, she sits upright and presents herself as a professional artist and elegantly dressed woman.
Mary Cassatt came from a francophile family, her father being descended from a French Huguenot family who settled in America in 1642 and her mother spoke fluent French. So it was no surprise then that, three years after Mary settled in Paris, her parents together with her sister Lydia moved to join her in 1877. Mary was very close to her sister Lydia and she became the subject of many of her paintings. The Cup of Tea, c 1880/1881, on loan from the Metropolitan Museum, New York, depicts Lydia dressed in fashionable clothes celebrating both sisters love of fashion. In the painting, Lydia wears a stunning pink dress whose magnificent white ruff matches the cuffs of her dress and long gloves. Here Lydia is taking part in the very fashionable social ritual of tea drinking and she is depicted elegantly holding a cup. Unfortunately, Lydia suffered from a kidney disease and died prematurely in 1882 aged 45 leaving Mary deeply affected.
The exhibit also displays a portrait, from the Philadelphia Museum of Art, of her older brother, Alexander J. Cassat with his son Robert, which was executed whilst on a trip to Paris in 1884. Cassat shows the sitters with serious expressions and dressed in black but she softens the view by depicting her nephew sitting casually on the arm of his fathers chair with his arm around his neck. Alexander was a very successful business man becoming president of the Pennsylvania Railroad and on his death was one of the richest man in America. He was proud of his sisters success and due to her influence he became a collector of impressionist work.
By 1894 Cassatt had bought Chateau de Beaufresne, a cottage about 50 miles north west of Paris where she was visited by many of her artist friends and where she would remain until her death in 1926. There was a small pond on the grounds and it is probably this pond that features in the painting Summertime, 1894, Terra Foundation for the Arts, Chicago, which shows a woman and young girl on a boat in the lake. Equal importance is given both to the figures and the landscape, unusual for Cassat who liked to concentrate on her figures. Cassatt uses red, orange, blue and green brushstrokes to create a rippling effect on the water and the result is stunning. The two figures on the boat gaze at the duck passing by and the whole scene evokes the image of a leisurely peaceful summer’s day.
Mary Cassatt’s became famous for her figure paintings, particularly of woman in domestic scenes and especially mothers with their children. The last room of the exhibition displays several works with this signature theme of ‘Mother and Child’ which Cassatt is so identified with and which can be seen as modern versions of the Virgin Mary and Child. Seated Woman with a Child in Her Arms, c 1890, Bilbao Museum of Fine Arts, is extremely tender in its depiction of a boy in his mothers arms as he rests his head on his arm which in turn rests on her shoulder. The mother, who is seated at a table with a pitcher and washbasin, has her back is to us and she seems preoccupied with some task. The tenderness of the scene is accentuated by the beautiful tones of pink and blue used by Cassatt.
This last room also displays Mother and Child (The Oval Mirror),c 1899, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, which was purchased by the Havemeyers, and who referred to it as ‘The Florentine Madonna”. The reference to the Virgin Mary and Child is clear from the the contrapposto stance of the young boy and in the oval mirror behind him which acts as a halo.
The exhibition is a great tribute to Mary Cassatt and as well as the works referred to above, it also highlights her interest in the creative process and the experimental nature of her work. It shows her as a modern independent woman who advocated equal rights for women and she was a revelation to me.
It is fascinating to think, that at age 74, Camille Corot (1796-1875), renowned for his landscape paintings, created ‘Interrupted Reading’ left, a masterpiece of figure painting. Corot was single minded about painting, declaring as a young man that ‘I have only one goal…in life : to make landscapes. This firm resolution keeps me from a serious attachment…. marriage..’. Indeed, Corot remained true to his word – he never married and he went on to specialise in landscapes, the real hallmark of his career. Yet, as he grew older, he produced more and more figure paintings which he almost never exhibited but many of which were found in his studio on his death. It is this aspect of his work that the exhibition at the Musée Marmottan Monet explores and demonstrates, how in the last years of his career, Corot’s figures gained ‘in freedom and ambition’.
Of course, he did produce figure paintings early on in his career but these were mainly small portraits for an intimate circle of family and friends and not for exhibition. He also undertook figure painting on his various educational trips to Italy but again these were more as models to be used in his landscape paintings. In fact, whilst in Italy in 1843, he painted ‘Marietta’, below, a nude painting which he was very proud of and kept hanging
in his studio. In the mid 1850s, when the artist was in his sixties, he went on to create several more nudes in an effort to show that he was capable of painting more than just landscapes. One such painting, ‘Repose’, on loan from the National Gallery of Art, Washington was exhibited by Corot at the Salon of 1861. It depicts a nude woman lying on the grass with her head turned towards the viewer. Although there is a classical feel to the setting, like ‘Marietta’, the model herself is painted in a realist manner giving the painting a more modern feel.
Starting in the mid to late 1850s, Corot started to paint several series of figure paintings such as women at fountains, women in Greek or Italian dress, women reading and even a series of monks, a rare inclusion of the male figure in his figure paintings.
Above left, is an example from Corot’s series of woman depicted in greek costumes and is entitled ‘Greek Girl’, 1870, and on loan from the The Shelburne Museum, Vermont. It is a tender portrayal of a young girl whose pale costume is enlivened by a red belt and a red headscarf which hangs down her back. Her dark eyes are hypnotic and like so many of Corot’s figure paintings, she appears melancholic. Another popular subject matter for Corot were women reading, an example of which is shown above right, ‘Woman reading in the Countryside’, 1869-1870 which is on loan from the Metropolitan Museum New York. This was one of the few figure paintings that Corot exhibited at the Salon and here Corot combines figure painting with landscape painting. Although this is a small painting the figure has a monumental feel to it.
Corot started sketching monks as far back as his first visit to Italy in 1824-1826 and it was a theme he continued right throughout his life. Corot did not usually include men in his figure paintings so his series of monk paintings together with his men in armour series, are an exception in his oeuvre. The monk is usually depicted as a solitary figure often reading or as in the painting above left, playing the cello. This painting, on loan from the Hamburger Kunsthalle, was Corot’s last painting. The painting on the right, ‘Sitting Monk Reading’1850-1855, Louvre, shows a monk totally absorbed in his reading and the painting is executed in a mixture of silvery whites and greys. Corot’s monks appear detached from the world and it has been suggested that they represent the solitary road Corot chose when he resolved to stay single for the sake of his art.
Leonardo da Vinci was Corot’s favourite painter and it is clear to see that Corot’s “Woman with a Pearl’ 1868-70, Louvre, is his take on the Mona Lisa. Corot’s model takes up the same three quarter profile as the Mona Lisa with her hands crossed and resting on her lap. Corot does leave the background blank unlike the Mona Lisa who is set against a landscape.
The exhibition ends with what it describes as Corot’s supreme masterpiece ‘Lady in Blue’, 1874 and on loan from the Louvre. It shows a lady dressed in a magnificent blue dress leaning on a luxurious cushion whose pose allows us to admire the back of her dress with its fashionable bustle. This was Corot’s final figure painting and was, like most of his figure paintings, never exhibited during his life. It was finally presented to the public at the 1900 Universelle Exhibition, 25 years after Corot’s death where it caused a sensation. It is true that Corot didn’t give as much importance, certainly in his younger years, to figure paintings but despite this his output of figure painting is now considered to be the most modern of his oeuvre. The exhibition brings together about 60 of these works and is a great opportunity to see the more private side of Corot and his remarkable figure paintings.