During the mid-1940s, while Paris was still under the burden of the Occupation, Pablo Picasso began a relationship with a young woman, Françoise Gilot, an artist in her own right. This would bring about an incredible, joyous liberation in his work. Painted in 1946, just after the end of the Second World War, Buste de Françoise is filled with a sense of celebration. The intense, rich colours and the sensuous flowing curves with which Picasso has so caressingly depicted Françoise's body and face speak of new-found freedoms, both with her and with the world at large. After the austerity of so much of Picasso's wartime output, for instance his melancholy, angular still life compositions and his tormented images of his lover Dora Maar, the lyrical, sensual form of Françoise made a bright, marked contrast. Looking at Buste de Françoise, the precedent of Marie-Thérèse Walter comes to mind, as the arcing forms which delineate Picasso's lover's body have been rendered with a similar sense of visual poetry. The intense palette and looping forms recall, say, Le rêve, Picasso's iconic image of Marie-Thérèse from just over a decade earlier. This is an effect that is heightened by his stained glass-like use of outlines to thrust the colour fields into more intense relief. However, where Marie-Thérèse was often shown asleep, Françoise has about her an intense vitality that is increased by Picasso's focus on her direct gaze, captured through the blue and red dots of her pupils.
Picasso had met Françoise several years before the present work was painted, when she had been eating with a friend and another mutual acquaintance in a restaurant in Paris. Picasso, who had been dining with Dora Maar, had clearly been intrigued by the two young women sitting with his friend and engineered an introduction. When he asked about them, and the two girls explained that they were artists, Picasso replied: 'Well... I'm a painter too. You must come to my studio and see some of my paintings' (F. Gilot & C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, Toronto & London, 1964, p. 15). Françoise became a frequent visitor to Picasso's studio on the rue des Grands-Augustins, and soon was the artist's lover.
With its green hair and blue face, Buste de Françoise clearly relates to an episode that was to have a huge impact on Françoise. It was in 1946, while she and Picasso were in the South of France, that the Spanish painter suggested that they make a trip to visit his friend Henri Matisse, who was living nearby. Françoise, a painter in her own right, who loved Matisse's work, jumped at the chance; while there, she bore witness to the conversations of these two titans of twentieth century painting and recorded them in some of her books in later years. One of the exchanges that would come to have an impact on Françoise's life occurred when Matisse began to say that he liked the idea of painting her portrait: 'He at once stated that he might very well make a portrait of me, in which my hair would be olive green, my complexion light blue, and in which of course he would not forget the angle of my eyebrows in relation to my nose' (F. Gilot, Matisse and Picasso: A Friendship in Art, London, 1990, p. 23). Elsewhere, she recalled the exchange between Matisse and Picasso. Once Matisse had explained that, 'if I made a portrait of Françoise, I would make her hair green,' Picasso retorted:
'"But why would you make a portrait of her?"
'"Because she has a head that interests me," Matisse said, "with her eyebrows sticking up like circumflex accents."
'[...] Up to that time Pablo had painted only two small gray-and-white portraits of me, but when he got back into the car, all of a sudden a proprietary instinct took possession of him.
'"Really, that's going pretty far," he said. "Do I make portraits of Lydia?' I said I didn't see any connection between the two things. "In any case," he said, "now I know how I should make your portrait"' (Gilot & Lake, op. cit., 1964, pp. 99-100).
Picasso's jealousy of Matisse's suggestion, which itself reflects the proprietary nature of his portraits of the women in his life, resulted in his asking Françoise to move in with him shortly afterwards. This would be the beginning of a relationship which lasted into the 1950s and which also resulted in the birth of two of Picasso's children, Paloma and Claude.
From an artistic point of view, Matisse's suggestion that he paint Françoise, a suggestion to which she doubtless would not have objected, resulted instead in a flurry of activity by Picasso. He began to look at her anew, creating a string of portraits. Some of these were works on paper in which he focussed entirely on her face, filled with the bloom of youth and her wide eyes; in others, he found that her breasts and entire air of fecundity pushed him towards depicting her as a flower, the Femme-fleur which features in two portraits painted only a little over a month before Buste de Françoise.
When Picasso first observed his Femme-fleur rendering of Françoise, the rivalry that had helped to inspire the picture was clear, as he immediately declared, 'Matisse isn't the only one who can paint you with green hair' (Gilot & Lake, op.cit., 1964, p. 117). Although painted over a month after the Femme-fleur, looking at Buste de Françoise, the traces of her alter ego are clear. Picasso has shown her with the green hair which recalls foliage; indeed, the other colours are likewise reminiscent of flowers. At the same time, Picasso has depicted Françoise with an exaggeratedly slender waist, underscoring his own appreciation of her curvaceous figure and lending extra emphasis to her fulsome breasts while also reviving that concept of her body as a stem, as was the case in the Femme-fleur. Like those earlier pictures, Picasso has also placed a great focus on Françoise's facial features. While they are here presented as more angular than some of the earlier portraits, they nonetheless reveal an almost codified system of representation. The face appears to have been shown in a post-Cubist manner as though seen from several angles - the ears are shown at each end of the elliptical head which appears to have been unfolded, becoming two profiles. The eyes, nose, mouth and chin have become ciphers on the arena of her face, recalling ancient Egyptian art and indeed the 'Eye of Horus' amulets which would later reverberate through Picasso's portraits of his second wife, Jacqueline.
Looking at Buste de Françoise, it also becomes apparent that Matisse's words were still on Picasso's mind, as he has indeed rendered her with 'olive green' hair and 'light blue' complexion. In a way, both the sense of celebratory sensuality and the ardent, vivid palette of Buste de Françoise can be seen to echo Matisse's works, for instance his celebrated (though then scandalous) 1905 portrait of his wife, nick named La raie verte because of the bold green area that depicted a shadow on her face. It also relates to Matisse's more recent works such as Asia, a boldly-coloured image of erotic languor and glamour painted the same year as Buste de Françoise and now in the Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth.
Matisse and Picasso had been regarded as rivals for much of their lives and careers, even in the first decades of the twentieth century. Later, this rivalry evolved into friendship. Amazingly, Picasso, who seldom paid glowing tribute to his contemporaries, admitted that, 'No one has ever looked at Matisse's painting more carefully than I; and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he' (Picasso, quoted in J. Golding, 'Introduction', pp. 13-24, Cowling et al., ed., Matisse Picasso, exh. cat., London, 2002, p. 13). Likewise, Matisse was candid when he said, 'Only one person has the right to criticise me: Picasso' (Matisse, quoted ibid., p. 24). It was during the period that Picasso was with Françoise that he and Matisse became closer. The shift in their relationship was eagerly documented by Françoise, an enthusiastic witness to their conversations. The esteem in which each artist held the other was vast, although this did not stop them sometimes needling each other, as may well have been the case when Matisse voiced his interest in painting Françoise. Yet it is clearly in part as a tribute to the older artist that he created Buste de Françoise, taking his rival's description as a list of constituent parts which he himself has co-opted in his own style to create something that, while perhaps inspired by Matisse, is nonetheless definitively Picasso.
Buste de Françoise
Oil on board
Claude Picasso has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
PROPERTY FROM THE ESTATE OF ERNST BEYELER
Pablo Picasso , 1950s, Paintings, oil, Spain, Modern, portrait
New York, Museum of Modern Art, Picasso and Portraiture, April - September 1996, p. 425 (illustrated); this exhibition later travelled to Paris, Grand Palais, October 1996 - January 1997.
Saarbrücken, Saarlandmuseum, Pablo Picasso - die Malerei de fünfziger Jahre, November 2007 - February 2008.
IMPRESSIONIST & MODERN ART
39¼ x 31¾ in. (99.6 x 80.6 cm.)
The Picasso Project, ed., Picasso's Paintings, Watercolors, Drawings and Sculpture: Liberation and Post-War Years, 1944-1949, San Francisco, 2000, no. 46-059c, p. 78 (illustrated).
Maya Widmaier-Picasso, Paris.
Acquired by the late Ernst Beyeler, Basel, by 1997.
VAT rate of 5% is payable on hammer price and at 20% on the buyer's premium.