This transfixing portrait is one in a series of canvases that Giacometti devoted to depicting Caroline, his lover and primary model during the early 1960s (see fig. 1). Between 1959 and until Giacometti's death in 1965, Caroline would become the artist's main source of inspiration, and her image all but replaced that of Annette's in his paintings, drawings and sculpture (see figs. 2 & 3). This deeply intimate picture, painted in the midst of their complicated and often volatile relationship, reveals what exactly the artist saw in this young woman, whom he once described as "a golden sphere (not a sphere, something else, but made of gold) with green eyes that smolder (no, that radiate) intensity" (quoted in Véronique Wiesinger, "On Women in Giacometti's Work (And Some Women in Particular)," in The Women of Giacometti (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., p. 21).
Giacometti probably painted this large portrait of the dark-eyed brunette in 1964, when she was twenty-five years old and he was sixty-two. The two had first met one night in October 1959 over drinks at Chez Adrien, one of the artist's frequent haunts in Paris. Giacometti was impressed by the unnervingly young-looking Caroline, whose aloofness intrigued him as he chatted with her until dawn. The free-spirited Caroline was an enticing enigma to him, and he exalted her in his art. He adored the young woman, supposedly even turning down an evening with Marlene Dietrich at her insistence. Over the next six years Caroline would become a fixture in Giacometti's life, ever-present with him in the studio, on the town, and finally at his deathbed.
Caroline, who was born Yvonne Poiraudeau, referred to Giacometti as her 'grisaille.' James Lord, however, in his biography of the artist, believed that this was Giacometti's nickname for Caroline. Whatever the case, the couple's pet name referred to the monochromatic tonality which the artist used in his oil paintings. We can see this in the present work, in which Giacometti uses washes of gray and sepia pigment to color his image of Caroline. Giacometti himself provided the following explanation for his limited palette: "My colleagues admonish me, 'paint with colors!' Isn't gray a color, too? If I see everything in gray, if within that gray I see all the colors that impress me and that I would like to convey, why should I use another color?" (quoted in James Lord, Giacometti, New York, 1985, pp. 438-439).
This gray-scale technique allowed the artist to hone in on certain elements of his composition, while the rest of the picture fades out of focus. The primary focus here is Caroline's face, which appears as steady and stoic as that of the ancient Queen Nefertiti (see fig. 4). The rest of her body is roughly sketched out as she poses in a chair, and the background of the composition is left relatively untouched. When confronted by Caroline's steely gaze, all else fades into oblivion. In a statement that could be readily applied to this picture of Caroline, Giacometti recalled: "One day while I was drawing a young girl something struck me: that is to say, all of a sudden I noticed the only thing that remained alive was the gaze. The rest, the head made into a skull, became equivalent to a death's head. What made the difference between death and the individual was the gaze....In a living person there is no doubt that what makes him alive is his gaze. If the gaze, that is to say life itself, becomes essential, there is no doubt that what is essential is the head" (quoted in James Lord, Giacometti, New York, 1985, p. 426).
Giacometti was enraptured by Caroline's image, and by many accounts this was a rapture that she insisted upon. According to Véronique Wiesinger, one of Giacometti's friends noted that Caroline "resented anyone who was close to Giacometti, and her way of demanding complete attention is manifest in the portraits, where she is the absolute center. With her, Giacometti pursued his work on the rendering of distance, by defining different ways of framing his model: stopping at her bust, halfway down her legs, or presenting her in full figure. In addition, just as he had done in sculpture with the series of Tall Women, he represented the superhuman size he perceived his model to have by thickening her legs at the foreground and diminishing her head, thus creating a powerful receding effect" (Véronique Wiesinger, "On Women in Giacometti's Work (And Some Women in Particular)," in The Women of Giacometti (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., p. 21).
This magnificent portrait is one of the works that Caroline acquired after the artist's death in 1966 and sold to Galerie Claude Bernard later that same year. The family of the present owner purchased this work from the gallery shortly thereafter, and it has been in their collection ever since. Thanks to information provided by the Comité Giacometti, we know that the artist signed and dated this work about a year after he painted it. Given the clothing and the positioning of the model, the Comité believes that the work dates from 1964 and not 1963, as it is inscribed.
Oil on canvas
New York, Robert Elkon Gallery, Delvaux, Dubuffet, Francis, Giacometti, Herbin, Magritte, Picasso, 1966, no. 9, illustrated in the catalogue (as dating from 1953)
51 1/4 by 35 in. 130.2 by 88.9 cm
Caroline Tamagno (Yvonne Poiraudeau), France
Galerie Claude Bernard, Paris (acquired from the above in January 1966)
Acquired from the above in 1966 and thence by descent to the present owner