Picasso's enchanting depiction of a mother and child, rendered in alternating tones of deep and smoky blues, captures the dark beauty of the Parisian demi-monde at the turn of the century. It was during this period that Picasso and fellow Spaniard Carlos Casagemas spent their days exploring the capital city, visiting the Louvre and galleries of the rue Laffitte and frequenting the many cafés, dancehalls and brothels that featured in many of the works of Toulouse-Lautrec. Like the French post-Impressionist, Picasso was enthralled by the decadence of Parisian nightlife, and his compositions during this introductory period in France capture the mysticism and allure of this nocturnal world. Even in his paintings of traditional themes like still-lifes and mothers and children (fig. 1), Picasso favored a palette and a technique that capture the incandescence and dazzle of this exciting chapter in his life.
Painted upon his arrival in Paris in early 1901, the picture is one of the paintings believed to have hung at the exhibition at Ambroise Vollard's gallery that launched his career in France. The year before, Picasso's work was included in a smaller exhibition at the gallery of Berthe Weill. But Vollard, being somewhat of a svengali in his ability to recognize and promote new talent, propelled the young Spaniard into the limelight. Picasso's own assessment of the exhibition was that it had 'some success. Almost all the papers have treated it favourable, which is something." The poet Max Jacob, whom Picasso would later feature in several paintings and drawings of the teens and twenties, confirmed that "as soon as he arrived in Paris, [Picasso] had an exhibition at Vollard's, which was a veritable success" (quoted in Picasso, Challenging the Past (exhibition catalogue), National Gallery, London, 2009, p. 30).
The present work dates from early in 1901, when the suicide of Casagemas triggered Picasso's Blue Period. These pictures are characterized by a palette saturated in tones of blue, as evidenced by the present work. The sense of melancholy in these pictures was brought on by occasional feelings of insecurity and loneliness that accompanied the young émigré during his first years in Paris and his visits to his friends in Barcelona (fig. 3). Financially insecure and a relative unknown within the art world at this point, Picasso nevertheless did not waiver in his creativity. While in Paris he immersed himself in Bohemian culture and intermingled with the more flamboyant characters of the demi-monde, including prostitutes (fig. 2), cabaret and circus performers, beggars and madmen. And on his visits to Barcelona, he reunited with his old friends from Els Quatre Gats, who considered themselves "neurotic dilettanti" and encouraged young Picasso's moody and introspective approach to his art. The blue, absinthian haze of the pictures that he created during this time perfectly captures this creative atmosphere, and the present work is a revealing example from this period.
Brigitte Léal, Christine Piot and Marie-Laure Bernadac have written about Picasso's blue period and the essence of mood and mysticism that characterizes it: "The theme that underlies this series of seated women turned in upon themselves with their heads in their hands is the ancient and time-honored personification of Melancholy, which was revived by the Symbolists. For the first time, Picasso even used the medium of sculpture to express the theme, modeling a terra-cotta figure that he fired in Paco Durrio's kiln. In these studies Picasso pursued to the point of exhaustion the pattern of an arabesque closing in upon itself or hollowing itself out to accommodate the ellipse of a table, a glass, or the weight of a child's body. Despite the precious nature of the materials he used – turquoise alloys rubbed with metallic gray or with gold marbled sapphire, whose surface appears either granular or melted into a glaze – all these portraits, drawn with a heavy jagged brushstroke, have a repellent quality [....] As Sabartés wrote, 'Picasso believes that sorrow is the foundation of life'" (Brigitte Léal, Christine Piot and Marie-Laure Bernadac, The Ultimate Picasso, New York, 2000, pp. 56-60).
Oil on board
(possibly) Paris, Galerie Ambroise Vollard, Picasso, 1901, no. 8 (as La Mère) or no. 64 (as La mère et l'enfant)
20 7/8 by 26 ¾ in. 53 by 68 cm
Christian Zervos, Pablo Picasso, Oeuvres de 1895 à 1906, vol. I, Paris, 1957, no. 77, illustrated pl. 38
Pierre Daix and Georges Boudaille, Picasso, The Blue and Rose Periods, A Catalogue Raisonné of the Paintings, 1900-1906, Greenwich, Connecticut, 1966, no. V.7., illustrated p. 163
Joseph Palau i Fabre, Picasso, The Early Years 1881-1907, Barcelona, 1985, no. 629, illustrated in color p. 243 and in black and white p. 257
Carsten-Peter Warncke & Ingo Walther, Pablo Picasso. 1881-1973, vol. 1, Cologne, 1992, illustrated p. 76
The Picasso Project, ed., Picasso's Paintings, Watercolors, Drawings and Sculpture. Turn of the Century - 1900-1901, San Francisco, 2010, no. 1901-246, illustrated p. 175
Max Pellequer, Paris
Private Collection, Paris (sold: Christie's, New York, November 8, 1999, lot 119)
Private Collection, United States
Private Collection, United States
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