Sigmund Freud called the bond between a mother and her first born male child the single most powerful bond in humankind. Picasso's 1923 Mother and Child can be read as a powerful affirmation of such an assertion and yet no less an authority on the work of Picasso than William Rubin has compellingly and conclusively refuted the notion that this is an image of Olga Picasso with her son Paulo. Rather, Rubin argues, it is a painting that is part of a biographically complex history--and not without equally complex psychological elements.
According to Christian Zervos, this painting (variously entitled Mother and Child, Maternité, and Mme. Picasso and Child), was completed in 1922, some five years after the artist had gone to Rome where he designed the stage sets for Diaghilev's Parade and met Olga Khoklova, a dancer with the Ballet Russes whom he married the following year in Paris. During his stay in Italy, Picasso made excursions to see the ruins of ancient Pompeii and the archeological collections in Naples. Picasso also familiarised himself first hand with the work of the masters of the Italian Renaissance. The influence of both ancient art and that of the cinquecento was profound and lasted the rest of his life. The initial--and idiosyncratic--"Neo-Classical" style Picasso devised and developed between 1918 and 1924 has been well documented and exhaustively discussed. It is now posited as a hybrid of the classical art of Greece and Rome, earlier Neo-Classical strands in French art (Poussin, Ingres and later Renoir) and the paintings and frescoes of the Italian Renaissance, most notably Michelangelo and Raphael.
In February, 1921, Olga bore Picasso a son, Paulo, and for the next few years, the theme of motherhood and childhood was featured in many of Picasso's major paintings. Initially, the theme was inextricable from the monumental neo-classical figures which he had been painting since his trip to Rome. The tenderness and plentitude that were part and parcel of these gigantic mothers and their equally massive offspring lingered on in the paintings of 1922 and '23, though the style in which they were presented shifts towards something far more lyrical and delicate, almost ethereal.
Picasso is mainly interested in the reality of the life
that goes on round him, [and] the major theme that he
developed at this time and which...he had neglected
since the Blue period, was that of 'mother and child.'
There are a number of variations of paintings of a
mother playing with her naked infant on her knees,
in which the neo-classical figures and colossal females
of the previous months reveal a new look of contentment,
a sense of fulfillment. (R. Penrose, Picasso: His
Life and Work, p. 220).
[Around 1922, Picasso] virtually abandoned his colossal
classical nudes for a style more in keeping with the
grace and elegance of traditional neo-classicism.
Defying the chronic modern prejudice against prettiness
and sentiment he made a series of sweet figures of women
in classic draperies (fig. 1), mothers handling babies, a
pair of ineffable lovers, harlequins [thus] asserting
his ability to breathe new life and charm into so
exhausted a style as the neo-classical. (A.H. Barr, Jr.,
Picasso; Fifty Years of His Art, New York, 1966, p. 128).
Clearly, the painting was very important to the artist. Following several preparatory drawings (fig. 2) of varying resemblance Picasso completed two canvases, the present picture and a later replica now in the Baltimore Museum's Cone Collection (fig. 3). Both pictures present a tender moment in a non-descript environment and radiate a peaceful, ethereal quality. As in Picasso's earlier "monumental neo-classicism," the nose and forehead of the brooding, impassive woman are continuous, her eyes blankly staring, her gestures heavy. The Harriman painting is clearly the earlier of the two and bears a stronger resemblance to the key preparatory drawing (Zervos IV, no. 369). The Harriman painting shows the woman with her head more gently inclined toward the boy, and the lines describing her chin, her hair and her hand more painterly. The Cone painting, by comparison, is built up from fewer lines which tend to bind and encapsulate what it describes rather than bathe them in the atmosphere of the earlier canvas. The modelling around the heads of both boy and woman render them far more volumetric but also more rhapsodic; their eyes are less "sweet" than the simpler, downcast eyes of the Cone painting and somewhat more wistful; the child and the woman here both stare off into space. The Harriman painting uses a single color--with a trace of blue and pink--to establish a dominant emotional tonality which is compromised somewhat in the subsequent Cone version wherein shades of green, russet, and turquoise replace the ethereal near-monochrome of the earlier work. The Cone painting includes a Matisse-like sprig of foliage in the upper right corner; the figures in the Harriman painting exist in an even more sparse and seemingly dreamlike environment.
Both paintings bear a marked distinction to the crisp line drawings of the works during Picasso's first several years with Olga. The earlier approach--which is usually likened to Ingres--and the balletic gracefulness of the figures has been displaced not by the stolid, stonelike figures of 1921 but by imposing figures wrapped in an indistinct fog, their limbs delineated through the most minimal of means. Elements of these paintings seem to refer back to imagery found in Renaissance Madonnas, though it would be fruitless to suggest one or another particular image. Nonetheless, in his 1960 Picasso: ombre et soleil, de Champris cited Leonardo da Vinci's Benois Madonna as a source for these paintings (fig. 4). De Champris points out that they all share an identical three-quarter length format, hand placements and the use of a harmonious contrapposto which unites them with unerring gracefulness. That an artist as gifted--and irreligious--as Picasso would have needed to depend upon a particular religious picture--which had been in Saint Petersburg for almost ten years when Woman and Child was painted--as a unalterable template for a canvas that was very clearly the result of many months of work is hard to believe.
Yet the mention of the work of Leonardo in a more general sense should not be discounted. A perusal of the work of Picasso of this period shows Picasso initiating an idea by rendering it in a highly 'Leonardesque' fashion, full of mystery and cloudy light but often completing variations that are more solid and more akin to Raphael. The way Picasso handles Paulo's tender petting of the dove calls to mind Raphael's images of Saint John the Baptist as a child, who is very often shown fondling a bird. (Picasso also depicted his son as a toddler/shephard boy leading a lamb, [Zervos V, no. 431] which also has its resonance in Renaissaince images of the Christ child as a shephard). Thus with seeming effortlessness, Picasso joins fragments of Renaissance painting, particularly the misty sfumato of the world of Leonardo to the coloristic sensibility which originated in fin-de-siècle Europe when Picasso was a teenager.
For decades, many have assumed that the brooding, kind maternal figure was an idealised version of the artist's wife Olga. And, as is generally believed and easily demonstrated, virtually everything Picasso undertook had an autobiographical basis. Most scholars have thus concurred that
most of Picasso's enormous output of work at this
time is concerned in one way or another with his love
for his new wife, Olga, his happiness at becoming a
new father, his affection for his young son, or his
curiosity about his new way of life and his surroundings.
(D. Cooper, op. cit., p. 63)
Picasso here raises the subject of motherhood so far
above his personal observation as to attain the
monumentality of myth... This renewed interest in
emotional relationships--renewed in the sense that
more than fifteen years separate this painting from
the works of the Rose period--of course grew out of
Picasso's personal life. Yet his work is never
autobiographical in the ordinary sense of the term.
He has always raised personal experience to a level
of universality and objectivity, as here, where the
birth of his first son is rendered in terms of some
modern mythology. (H. Jaffe, Pablo Picasso, New York,
1980, p. 106).
William Rubin agrees that Picasso's oeuvre is assertively autobiographical and that virtually all of the artist's works bear a direct relation to his emotions and circumstances. But again and again Rubin has demonstrated that Picasso's work is often based on the qualities of subterfuge, duplicity, alternative identities, transmogrifications, and hidden, private symbologies. Recently, Rubin has convincingly argued that the beautiful, wistful figure here, who appears in scores of Picasso paintings and drawings during this period, is not his wife Olga but a slightly idealized portrait of Sara Murphy, wife of the American expatriate painter Gerald Murphy. Moreover, Rubin argues that this painting was subsequently misdated 1922, either by accident or on purpose to throw Olga--who was insanely jealous--"off the track." Paulo was just eighteen months during the summer of 1922 and would have been considerably smaller than he is shown here. Moreover, the boy is petting a small bird--presumably a dove--with a fine motor control that no child of eighteen months can possess. Rubin dates these paintings from the summer of 1923, a time when the Picassos and Murphys were especially close. (fig. 5)
I mentioned my supposition that [the mysterious female
in Picasso's paintings of summer 1923] was Sara to a
friend and colleague, Pierre Daix, who told me...that
the artist had communicated to him "in utter confidence"
(Sara was still alive) that the sitter was, in fact,
Sara Murphy.... The Murphys' daughter Honoria, and the
family's close friends had always known that Sara
appeared in a few of Picasso's 1923 drawings [but] no
one, however, suspected the existence of the almost
40 oil paintings nor the more than 200 drawings of
Sara that we can now identify. Indeed, in 1923,
pictures of Sara far outnumber those of Picasso's wife
Olga.... Sara had also been the subject of perhaps
the greatest monument of Picasso's Neo-Classicism,
The Woman in White [fig. 6]. To be sure, she
might be somewhat idealized or conceptualized in this
or the other picture--her delicately turned-up nose,
for example was usually "Romanized"--but the changes
were relatively slight.... Confronting some several
hundred images--many of them patently romantic--it
was hard to avoid concluding that Picasso was
mesmerized by Sara, indeed enamored of her. (W.S. Rubin,
"The Pipes of Pan: Picasso's Aborted Love Song to Sara
Murphy," Art News, May, 1994, pp. 140-141).
By 1922, the Murphys and Picassos were seeing each
other frequently, and Picasso's infatuation with Sara
was well under way. During the summer of 1923, when they
were together almost every day, he was clearly in
love with her.... When Picasso "turned on," he was
hard to resist, and I do not doubt that minimally,
some serious flirtation with Sara developed. Sara's
quite proper letters to Picasso and Olga--one truffled
with arguable doubles ententes--betray her enormous
pleasure in seeing Pablo, and surely she was intrigued
by the fact that he was making paintings and drawings
Those who wish to stress Pablo and Sara as lovers will
point to drawings where she is nude in bed or reclining
nude on the beach. But we must never forget that
Picasso's drawing comes more out of his imagination--
indeed, his fantasies--than his memory. Picasso's
private definition of art as possessing the power, as
he put it, to "change life," should make us aware of
the undoubtably magical or talismanic intention of
the multiple images of Sara. (Ibid.,pp. 144-145)
For all of its gentility and graceful melancholy, Picasso's icon of motherhood contains within it this subversive strain that is the bedrock of Picasso's great work. For herein Picasso expresses the vain wish that the unavailable beauty of Sara Murphy would displace his wife Olga, in whom he had long since lost interest.
Picasso sold this painting and the variant now in the Cone Collection to the New York dealer Paul Rosenberg in October, 1923 (fig. 7). Rosenberg exhibited both works at the Wildenstein Gallery shortly thereafter. (fig. 8)
Please note that this painting has been requested for the exhibition Picassos Welt der Kinder to be held at the Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf, Sept.-Dec., 1995 and the Staatsgalerie, Stuttgart, Dec., 1995-March, 1996.
We are grateful to Matthew Armstrong for his assistance with this entry.
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, Femme au voile, sale Christie's, New York, May 12, 1992, lot 124, $1,485,000, private collection
(fig. 2) Pablo Picasso, Mère et enfant from sketchbook no. 76
(fig. 3) Pablo Picasso, Mère et enfant, Baltimore Museum of Art, Cone Collection
(fig. 4) Leonardo da Vinci, Benois Madonna, Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg
(fig. 5) Sara Murphy and Picasso, Antibes, Summer 1923
(fig. 6) Pablo Picasso, Femme en blanc, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
(fig. 7) bill-of-sale for works sold by Picasso to Paul Rosenberg Oct. 22, 1923, Pierpoint Morgan Library, New York
(fig. 8) Exhibition of Recent Works by Picasso at the Wildenstein Galleries, Nov.-Dec., 1923, Wildenstein & Co., Inc., New York (Archives)
PABLO PICASSO (1881-1973)
Signed and dated top right 'Picasso 22'--oil on canvas
THE HONORABLE PAMELA HARRIMAN
Signed and dated top right 'Picasso 22'--oil on canvas
New York, Wildenstein & Co., Inc., Exhibition of Recent Works by Picasso, Nov.-Dec., 1923, no. 5 or 6
Pittsburgh, Carnegie Institute, Twenty-Fourth Annual International Exhibition of Paintings, Oct.-Dec., 1925, no. 186
New York, Marie Harriman Gallery, Opening Exhibition, Oct., 1930, no. 16
New York, The Museum of Modern Art, Summer Exhibition: Painting and Sculpture, July-Sept., 1933, no. 30
Dallas, Museum of Fine Arts, 1933
New York, Marie Harriman Gallery, Paul Cézanne...Pablo Picasso, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Vincent van Gogh, Feb., 1936, no. 12
New York, Wildenstein & Co., Inc., Great Portraits from Impressionism to Modernism, March, 1938, no. 30
Boston, Museum of Modern Arts, Picasso-Matisse, Oct.-Nov., 1938, no. 22
New York, Marie Harriman Gallery, Picasso: Figure Paintings, Jan.-Feb., 1939, no. 8
San Francisco, The California Palace of the Legion of Honor and the M. H. de Young Memorial Museum, Seven Centuries of Paintings, Dec., 1939-Jan., 1940, no. L-200 (illustrated)
Miami, Hotel Fontainebleau, Art is Forever: Sixth Annual Art Sale and Loan Collectors' Exhibition, Feb., 1959 (illustrated,
Washington, D.C., The National Gallery of Art, Exhibition of the Marie and Averell Harriman Collection, April-May, 1961 (illustrated, p. 26)
New York, Duveen Brothers Inc., Picasso: An American Tribute, April-May, 1962, no. 32 (illustrated)
New York, Wildenstein & Co., Inc., Art and the Decorator, April-May, 1967 (illustrated)
39½ x 32 in. (100.5 x 81.5 cm.)
F. Watson, "A Note on Picasso," The Arts, Dec., 1923,
p. 332 (illustrated on the cover)
V. Ihara, Picasso, Tokyo, 1932, p. 10, (illustrated, pl. 11) "Portfolio of Modern French Art," Vanity Fair, 1935,
no. 26 (illustrated)
"American Collectors Aid Charity with Show of Modern Portraits," The Art Digest, March 1, 1938, p. 13
J. Cassou, "Les Solitudes de Picasso," La Renaissance, Jan., 1939, p. 8 (illustrated)
Parke-Bernet Galleries, Paintings, Sculpture, Drawings and Lithographs by Modern French Artists...Collection of Mr. Frank Crowninshield, New York, Oct. 20-21, 1943, p. 5 (illustrated)
C. Zervos, Pablo Picasso, Paris, 1951, vol. IV (oeuvres de 1920 à 1922), no. 370 (illustrated, pl. 150)
exh. cat. Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Picasso: Paris 1900-1955, Paris, 1955, cited under no. 50
R. Penrose, Picasso, London, 1960, cited under no. 98
P. de Champris, Picasso: ombre et soleil, Paris, 1960, p. 79 (illustrated, p. 76, fig. 69)
F. Elgar and R. Maillard, Picasso, New York, 1972 (illustrated, p. 208)
G. Metken, Pablo Picasso, Sammlung Marina Picasso, Munich, 1981, cited under no. 133
G. Caradente, "Picasso's Italienische Reise", Pablo Picasso: Sammlung Marina Picasso, Munich, 1981, p. 82, no. 42
D. Cooper, Picasso Theater, New York, 1987, p. 31, no. 77
T. Suenaga, Musée Picasso, III, Adventure in Space, Tokyo, 1992, p. 100 (illustrated)
C. Geelhaar, Picasso, Wegbereiter und Förderer seines Aufstiegs 1899-1939, Zurich, 1993, p. 145, pl. 141 (illustrated in installation of 1923 Wildenstein exhibition)
Paul Rosenberg & Co., Paris (acquired from the artist Oct., 1923)
Marie Harriman Gallery, New York (1930)
The Honorable and Mrs. W. Averell Harriman, New York
By descent to the present owner