The present canvas is part of a well-known series of thirty-one paintings and drawings that Picasso made in April and May of 1954, depicting a twenty-year-old blonde model named Sylvette David (fig. 1). With her long, thick ponytail worn high on her head, Sylvette is among the most recognizable of the many women who feature prominently in Picasso's oeuvre (as well as one of the few with whom the artist was not romantically involved). Comparing the Sylvette series to Picasso's female portraits from the earlier 1950s, Klaus Gallwitz writes, "Although these heads of women are landmarks in Picasso's [oeuvre], they are not nearly as famous as the set of portraits, painted in the spring of 1954, of Mademoiselle David, whose first name, Sylvette, immediately conjures up the vivid image of a young girl with a long neck on narrow, sloping shoulders, a classical face, straight nose, and thick blond hair in a ponytail. The portraits concentrate so single-mindedly on the youthful head that the individual features become subsidiary to the type into which Picasso condensed them. What makes the Sylvette portraits remarkable is that through Picasso's paintings, this young girl came to typify a whole generation. Young people recognized themselves in these portraits when they saw them in exhibitions or reproductions. The ponytail (which was not an invention of Picasso's) and Sylvette's high carriage of the head became fashionable styles à la Picasso. For the first time since the war one of Picasso's portraits had become the idol of a rising generation" (op. cit., p. 90).
Picasso met Sylvette and her fiancé, an English chair designer, at Vallauris in the spring of 1953. The artist was intrigued by their silhouettes and invited them to his home, La Galloise, one evening. They brought as a gift one of the fiancé's chairs: an iron framework filled out by rope and felt, with two round balls at the end of the arms on which to rest one's hands. The chair was so impractical for sitting--such an abstraction of the idea of a chair--that it delighted Picasso, reminding him of a group of paintings that he had made in the 1930s of Dora Maar seated in a similarly skeletal fauteuil. He subsequently ordered three more chairs from Sylvette and her fiancé - as a result of which, Françoise Gilot recalls, "La Galloise was bulging with chairs that were amusing to look at but took up a disproportionate amount of room in view of the fact that no one could sit in them with any pleasure" (Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, p. 352).
Sylvette began to model for Picasso in April of the following year. Between April 18 and May 24, 1954, the artist completed twenty-three large oil paintings and eight substantial pencil drawings of the young blonde (Zervos vol. XVI nos. 274-294, 306-315). The works almost without exception show Sylvette in full to three-quarter profile, highlighting her youthful silhouette, long neck, and celebrated ponytail. However, they employ an unusually wide stylistic range, from graceful naturalism (fig. 2) to geometric abstraction. The present painting, executed on May 17th, is one of the most abstract in the series, with Sylvette's face and torso analyzed into a succession of interlocking planes and her ponytail rendered as a quartet of knife-like pleats. It is also one of the few pictures in the group to employ a brightly colored palette rather than monochrome grisaille. Describing the sequence of portraits, Pierre Daix has written:
The challenge posed by Sylvette was in fact the challenge of a new type of woman. At this point Picasso plunged into one of his most extraordinary campaigns of possession, not through working and reworking an oil painting but with a dazzling series of forty paintings and drawings done inside a month. Sylvette seated in an armchair; Sylvette in three-quarter face; Sylvette in profile; in the vigorous geometrization used for the nudes of Françoise; and in all the grace of her natural curves, with the neck more or less elongated; Sylvette obdurate; closed; ironic; absent. How to capture the secret of her youth? The secret of painting? Fifteen or sixteen years later, I was at Mougins when Sylvette came back for a visit. She had aged--more than I had expected; more, too, than Picasso had hoped. I watched him decoding her, as it were, comparing the present with what he remembered. Suddenly he got up and went into the studio. I knew that he would come back with her portrait, which he had kept in his collection. Calmly he put it beside the model. And there was no doubt at all that the real Sylvette for him was the woman in the painting. As soon as the living Sylvette had left the house, Picasso took the portrait back to the studio, remarking as he went, with one of his sardonic grins, 'So, you see: art is stronger than life' (Picasso, Life and Art, New York, 1993, pp. 318-319).
In her memoirs, Françoise Gilot suggests that Picasso began painting Sylvette partly in the hope of making her jealous. Françoise's relationship with Picasso had been unraveling since 1953 and their definitive break came shortly after the portraits of Sylvette were completed. "Undoubtedly he wanted to make portraits of her," Gilot writes, "but I know, also, he hoped I might think twice about leaving if I realized there was someone else so close at hand who could step into at least one pair of my shoes. But I encouraged him to go on and make more portraits of her, for I found her as charming as he did, and I made it a point never to be around while she was posing for him. The first few portraits he did with enthusiasm, and then he began to drag his heels. The pleasure was shrinking. One day he reproached me: 'You don't seem at all unhappy about it. You should refuse to admit another face into my painting. If you knew how Marie-Thérèse suffered when I began making portraits of Dora Maar and how unhappy Dora was when I went back to painting Marie-Thérèse. But you--you're a monster of indifference'" (op. cit., p. 352).
The portraits of Sylvette are also immediately prior to the very first paintings that Picasso made of Jacqueline Roque, the last great love of his life. Jacqueline made her entry into Picasso's work on June 2-3, 1954, in a pair of large canvases that carry over the elongated neck, profile format, and overall elegance of the Sylvette series (fig. 3; Z. vol. 16, nos. 324-325). As Daix has commented, "It suddenly seems as if all the refinement and figurative enrichment elaborated during the Sylvette sequence had been arrived at specifically for this new model, with something fresh in the organization of space around her" (op. cit., p. 319). Picasso used Sylvette's image as well as the basis for a group of four sculptures in 1954, cutting the profile out of sheet metal, then folding it like a screen and painting it on both sides (Spies nos. 488-491). These small-scale works in turn served as the model for two monumental concrete sculptures, executed in 1968-1970 and installed at New York University, New York, and the Bowcentrum, Rotterdam (Spies nos. 658, 661).
(fig. 1) Sylvette David, the model for the present painting. BARCODE 23662377
(fig. 2) Pablo Picasso, Sylvette, 1954. Musée Picasso, Paris. BARCODE 23662360
(fig. 3) Pablo Picasso, Portrait de Jacqueline aux fleurs, 1954. Estate of Jacqueline Picasso. BARCODE 23662353
Sylvette au fauteuil vert
Oil on canvas
PROPERTY FROM A PRIVATE EUROPEAN COLLECTION
Signed 'Picasso' (upper left); dated and numbered '18.5.54 II' (on the reverse)
31 7/8 x 25 5/8 in. (81 x 65 cm.)
C. Zervos, Pablo Picasso, Paris, 1965, vol. 16, no. 308 (illustrated, pl. 101).
K. Gallwitz, Picasso at 90: The Late Work, New York, 1971, p. 80, no. 103 (illustrated).
C.-P. Warncke, Pablo Picasso 1881-1973, Cologne, 1995, vol. II, p. 519 (illustrated in color).
The Picasso Project, ed., Picasso's Paintings, Watercolors, Drawings and Sculpture: The Fifties I, 1950-1955, p. 231, no. 54-208 (illustrated).
Galerie Berggruen, Paris (circa 1955).
Private collection, France (acquired from the above).
By descent from the above to the present owner.