This work has been requested for the forthcoming exhibition Picasso et les maîtres anciens to be held at the Musée d'Orsay, Paris between October 6, 2008 and February 2, 2009.
Between 1959 and 1962, Picasso completed a series of oils, drawings, linoleum cuts, sculptures and ceramics inspired by Manet's seminal work of 1863, Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe in the Musée d'Orsay (see fig. 1). Picasso's early encounters with this picture were well documented: first in Paris in 1900 at the Universal Exposition, and later in 1907, while he was working on Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. As a young man, he was notably impressed with the iconoclasm and intelligence of Manet's composition, and readily acknowledged that any artistic investigation of it would be a monumental undertaking on his part. He once noted to himself on the back of an envelope when encountering it at Kahnweiler's Galerie Simon in 1929, "When I see the Déjeuner sur l'herbe, I tell myself, trouble for later on." Indeed, it was not until half a century later that the artist would begin rendering variations of Manet's masterwork. Among all the series of variations on the old masters that the artist completed during the 1950s and 1960s, this one was by far the most extensive and most time-consuming, occupying him at his three studios in Vauvenargues and Mougins.
With regard to Picasso's involvement with this series, Carste-Peter Warncke has written, "Manet's famous painting, which shocked its 19th century audience and prompted a scandal when first exhibited, shows two naked or near-naked women with two clothed men in a country setting. Manet had painted his work as something of a pastiche, drawing on Giorgione's Concert in the Country (in the Louvre) and a detail from a copper engraving by Raimondi after a design by Raphael. The figure group of Déjeuner had begun to interest Picasso in June 1954 because his own treatments of painters and models used a similar grouping. At that time he did a number of sketches after Manet, returning at the end of the Fifties to more concentrated work on the material. He did variations on the composition of Déjeuner in oils, graphics and drawings, emphasizing the contrast between the female nudes and the male figures, which he subjected to greater or lesser degrees of deconstruction (Carste-Peter Warncke, Pablo Picasso, 1881-1973, vol. II, Cologne, 1994, p. 579-580).
The present work is a reinterpretation of the central figures of Manet's composition: the nude, the crouching figure in the background and one of their male companions. In this picture, the male figure is clearly Picasso himself, whose strong profile and bulbous head are unmistakably represented. As for the female characters, they act more as provocations of sexuality than personifications of actual models. When Manet depicted his seated female figure - a portrait of his favorite model, Victorine Meurent - he dared to present her nudity with an unabashed candor that was highly uncharacteristic of the time. Picasso takes the figure's nudity to an even more confrontational level in the present picture, unfolding her body so that her torso is exposed. Like the original, this figure poses with the same bent knee and direct gaze, but the improbable contortions of her body abstract her form and identify her with a 20th century aesthetic.
Susan Grace Galassi has discussed the relationship between these two nudes, noting how Picasso has made this image distinctly his own: "For Picasso, as for Manet, the Déjeuner offered the opportunity to reassess the central theme of the nude and invest it with new life. Over the course of his transformations, he strips away Manet's overlay of realism, and takes the female figure back to something more timeless, enduring and primordial. The female nude was for Picasso, as it was in Manet's time, 'the very essence of art...its principle and its force, the mysterious armature that prevents its decomposition and dissolution.' She is equated with the originating impulse of art, eros, inspiration, and generativity, and is the link between generations" (Susan Grace Galassi, Picasso's Variations on the Masters, New York, 1996, p. 201).
Oil on canvas
Paris, Galerie Louise Leiris, Picasso Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe, 1960-1961, 1962, no. 22
51 1/4 by 38 1/4 in. 130 by 97 cm
Douglas Cooper, Pablo Picasso: Les Déjeuners, Paris, 1962, illustrated in color pl. 155
Christian Zervos, Pablo Picasso, oeuvres de 1961 à 1962, vol. 20, Paris, 1968, no. 114, illustrated pl. 59
The Picasso Project, Picasso's Paintings, Watercolors, Drawings and Sculpture, The Sixties I, 1960-1963, San Francisco, 2002, no. 61-182, illustrated p. 168
Galerie Louise Leiris, Paris
Private Collection, Switzerland (sold: Sotheby's, New York, May 14, 1985, lot 91)
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner