The present picture, depicting a solitary woman stirring a glass of absinthe, was executed during Picasso's second trip to Paris, which lasted from May 1901 until January 1902. The painting is part of an important group of more than thirty works that the nineteen-year-old artist made within a month of his arrival in the capital, in preparation for a watershed exhibition of his art at Ambroise Vollard's gallery on the Rue Laffitte. The exhibition had been arranged by Pere Mañach, Picasso's friend from Barcelona, who shared an apartment with him on the Boulevard de Clichy and acted as the young painter's dealer and agent (fig. 1). The Vollard show was the first major exhibition of Picasso's work outside Spain and marks a crucial juncture in his career. Vollard was well-known as a dealer in works by Cézanne, Gauguin, and other leading French artists, and attracted a progressive clientele from all over Europe and America. Vollard's exhibition of Picasso's work brought the artist widespread recognition and acclaim. John Richardson called it "a stunning bravura performance for a neophyte," which included "some brilliant tours de force" (in A Life of Picasso, London, 1991, vol. I, p. 199). Of the sixty-four paintings and pastels on display, the present painting is one of just seven that the scholar Pierre Daix has identified with certainty (op. cit., 1967, p. 154), and Josep Palau i Fabre agrees: "The evident illustration of the subject stated in the title [L'Absinthe] makes this one of the easiest works to identify" (op. cit., p. 248).
Picasso had brought only fifteen or twenty canvases with him from Spain and had to work at a furious pace to prepare for the Vollard show, which opened on June 24th. The critic Gustave Coquiot, whom Mañach enlisted to write the catalogue preface, claimed that Picasso painted as many as ten pictures a day in late May and early June. More plausible is a rate of two or three, still an impressive feat. The paintings encompass a wide range of subjects, from the prostitutes and low-life motifs that Picasso had traditionally favored to more popular genres such as views of Paris, racetrack scenes, and floral still-lifes. Stylistically, they are characterized by impetuous, broken brushwork and a bold palette emphasizing primary hues. Forms are no longer outlined, as in the artist's earlier work, but are defined entirely by means of contrasting colors. When Picasso's friend Jaime Sabartès (later the artist's long-time secretary) arrived in Paris in October 1901, he was stunned by the novelty of these recent paintings: "The pictures Picasso showed me had violent tonalities and the colors at first sight reminded me of the shades of playing cards. What he had done in Madrid and Barcelona, before he returned here, was so different from what I had before me" (quoted in P. Daix, op. cit., 1967, p. 154).
Well over half of the paintings that Picasso included in the Vollard exhibition are depictions of women (fig. 2). Daix comments, "There are women of every sort: courtesans at the racetrack or at elegant suppers; stylish young creatures with a touch of 'Madrid' about them; naked prostitutes of the lower class; housewives and mothers of families at ease in a town square or tense with the miseries of poverty; and above all, women drinking on terraces or in bistros" (op. cit., 1993, pp. 23-24). The model for the present painting was probably one of the many prostitutes who frequented the cafés of Montmartre. The motif of the solitary female drinker had carried overtones of sexual availability since the days of the Impressionists. A prime example is Degas's L'absinthe of 1875-1876, whose hunched protagonist and glass of glowing green liquor anticipate Picasso's version of the theme (fig. 3). In Picasso's painting, the woman's garish make-up and hardened features mark her indelibly as a member of the Parisian demi-monde, recalling the eccentric-looking cabaret dancers of Toulouse-Lautrec. The woman's hands are bony and elongated in the tradition of El Greco, and the electric lights of the café give her skin an ashen, ghoulish glow. In the late summer or early autumn of 1901, Picasso painted another canvas of an absinthe drinker that makes the sitter's profession overt (fig. 4). In this version, the subject wears a so-called bonnet d'ordonnance, a soft peaked cap used to identify syphilitic prostitutes in the women's prison of Saint-Lazare. In both paintings, the sitter's choice of beverage adds to the sense of decadence and desperation. As a Parisian newspaper reported in June 1901, "The question of alcohol--and, above all, of absinthe--is the order of the day. The report of the Academy of Medicine, carried out by Dr. Laborde and aiming at the prohibition of all drinks based on toxic essences similar to absinthe, is now being discussed" (quoted in J. Palau i Fabre, op. cit., p. 235).
Daix has suggested that the present picture may also have been inspired by Picasso's reunion with Odette, his girlfriend from his first trip to Paris in late 1900 (op. cit., 1993, p. 23). Odette was part of a circle of young women that also included Germaine Gargallo, whose ill-fated love affair with Picasso's close friend, Carlos Casagemas, precipitated the latter's suicide in February 1901. In a letter that Casagemas wrote before his death, he described Odette as raucous and fun-loving, with "the good habit of getting drunk every night" (quoted in J. Richardson, op. cit., pp. 161-162). Upon his return to Paris in May 1901, Picasso took up with the alluring Germaine, but also may have resumed his liaison with Odette. In a sketch from the late spring or early summer of 1901, Picasso depicts himself and Germaine being caught in bed by an indignant Odette, and Daix identifies Odette as the subject of at least four other drawings from this period, three of which show her either drinking or drunk (op. cit., 1993, pp. 384-385, notes 2 and 18).
The Vollard exhibition was a great success, both critically and commercially. The walls of the small gallery were hung from floor to ceiling with paintings, pastels, and watercolors (sixty-four in all), plus an unspecified number of drawings. In mid-July, Picasso wrote to his friend Joan Vidal Ventosa in Barcelona, "My exhibition in Paris has been fairly successful; almost all the newspapers have given it favorable reviews, which is something" (quoted in J. Palau i Fabre, op. cit., p. 258). Well over half the works found buyers, at least fifteen of these before the exhibition even opened. Coquiot's catalogue preface was re-printed in the newspaper Le Journal, and Mañach arranged for several other critics to write laudatory reviews (rewarding them, in many cases, with a painting from the show). Pere Coll, the critic for La Veu de Catalunya, declared, "Picasso is very young (19) and there can be few of his age who have done so much. Anyone who can do the drawings and paintings we have seen is capable of a great deal" (quoted in ibid., p. 514). Likewise, Félicien Fagus (a pseudonym for the critic and Symbolist poet Georges Faillet) wrote an appreciative review in the highly regarded periodical, La Revue Blanche, in which he praised Picasso as a "brilliant newcomer" and declared, "He is the painter, utterly and beautifully the painter; he has the power of divining the essence of things. Like all pure painters he adores the use of color for its own sake. He is enamored of all subjects, and every subject is his" (quoted in J. Richardson, op. cit., p. 199).
On the strength of the Vollard exhibition, Picasso received several commissions for posters and magazine illustrations, and was also enlisted by Coquiot to make a series of portrait drawings of entertainers and demi-mondaines. By the fall of 1901, however, when the initial flush of success began to wear off, the artist again turned to darker subjects, such as the death of Casagemas and the women of Saint-Lazare. His style changed as well, into the monochrome figures with heavy black outlines of the Blue Period. Years later, Picasso would recall both the success of the Vollard exhibition and the subsequent changes in his work: "It went very well. It pleased a lot of people. It was only later when I set about to do blue paintings that things went really badly. This lasted for years. It's always been like this with me. Very good and then suddenly very bad" (quoted in P. Daix, op. cit., 1967, p. 154).
(fig. 1) Picasso, Père Mañach, and Torres Fuster in the Boulevard de Clichy studio, 1901. BARCODE 23661929
(fig. 2) Pablo Picasso, Pierreuse, la main sur l'épaule, 1901. Museu Picasso, Barcelona. BARCODE 23661912
(fig. 3) Edgar Degas, Dans un café (L'absinthe), 1875-1876. Musée d'Orsay, Paris. BARCODE 23661905
(fig. 4) Pablo Picasso, La buveuse d'absinthe, 1901. Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg. BARCODE 23661899
Oil on board
Property from the Collection of Evelyn Annenberg Hall
Signed 'Picasso' (upper left)
Paris, Galerie Ambroise Vollard, F. Iturrino and P.R. Picasso, June 1901, no. 12.
New York, M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., Picasso before 1907, October-November 1947, no. 9.
New Haven, Yale University Art Gallery, Pictures Collected by Yale Alumni, May-June 1956, no. 132.
New York, M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., Picasso: An American Tribute, 1962.
Dallas Museum of Fine Art, Pablo Picasso: A Retrospective Exhibition, 1967.
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, Picasso: The Early Years, 1892-1906, March-July 1997, p. 355, no. 54 (illustrated in color, p. 153).
London, Royal Academy of Art and New York, The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, The Year 1900: Art at the Crossroads, January-September 2000, p. 438, no. 154 (illustrated in color, p. 223).
26½ x 20½ in. (67.3 x 52 cm.)
C. Zervos, Pablo Picasso, Paris, 1932, vol. I, no. 62 (illustrated, pl. 29).
Vanity Fair, March 1934, p. 33 (illustrated in color).
J. Merli, Picasso, Buenos Aires, 1942, p. 143.
W. Lieberman, Pablo Picasso, New York, 1954, pl. 10.
J. Rewald, "French Paintings in the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney," Connoisseur, April 1956, p. 138.
Life Magazine, 28 May 1956 (illustrated in color).
P. Daix and G. Boudaille, Picasso: The Blue and Rose Periods, A Catalogue Raisonné, 1900-1906, London, 1967, p. 164, (illustrated; illustrated again in color, p. 157).
J. Palau i Fabre, Picasso: The Early Years 1881-1907, Barcelona, 1981, p. 534, no. 596 (illustrated, p. 235).
Art news, February 1987, p. 99 (illustrated).
P. Daix, Picasso, Life and Art, New York, 1993, pp. 23 and 437.
E. Cowling, Picasso: Style and Meaning, London, 2002, p. 685, no. 54 (illustrated in color, p. 79).
Paul Guillaume, Paris.
George Gershwin, New York.
John Hay Whitney, New York (by 1951).
Wildenstein & Co, Inc., New York.
Acquired from the above by the late owner, 1 May 1958.