The present sculpture was inspired by Sylvette David (see fig. 1), Picasso’s neighbor in Vallauris whom he depicted in a series of paintings, drawings and sculpture during the spring of 1954. Picasso met Sylvette, also know as as “Mademoiselle D.”, at a critical period in his personal life, just when his relationship with Françoise Gilot had come to an end. Sylvette was around 20 at this time and engaged to an Englishman who never left her side while she posed at the artist’s studio between April and June. The fact that she was unattainable perhaps fueled Picasso’s obsession with her, accounting for around forty paintings and drawings and five sculptures that he completed of her over the course of two months. In 1968, he would return to the image of Sylvette to create a monumental public sculpture that was installed in a plaza on the New York University campus in Manhattan (see fig. 2).
Pierre Daix wrote about Picasso’s fascination with this young woman and the effect that she had on his art: “Picasso glowed with enthusiasm and spoke of her with such warmth that I suspected he had fallen in love. He disabused me by describing the fiancé. The challenge posed by Sylvette was in fact the challenge of a new type of woman. Through her he would appropriate for his own purposes the generation which followed that of Françoise, and even of Geneviève Laporte. At this point he 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; somewhat stockier; somewhat thinner; Sylvette obdurate; closed; ironic; absent. How to capture the secret of her youth? The secret of painting?” (Pierre Daix, Picasso, Life and Art, New York, 1993, p. 318).
During the relatively brief time that he spent painting her, Picasso came to know Sylvette through his work, not through an intimacy that he shared with many of his other models. When she came to visit him several years after he completed this series, Sylvette had aged so much that Picasso almost did not recognize her. For him, the real Sylvette was the woman in his art, the woman whom he had created and who emblemized a type of radiant youth that he forever preserved in his paintings and sculptures. Picasso’s sculptures of Sylvette were executed in sheet metal, a material that he could fold and bend into form with relative ease. Werner Spies wrote about Picasso’s renditions of Sylvette in sculpture, and described how he could manipulate her image with unabashed creativity using the three-dimensional medium of sculpture. “The first phase of the sheet metal sculptures began in 1954 with the Sylvette heads. The sheet metal used in these pieces is thin and the cutout forms are folded. The surface of the metal remains smooth and is not, as in the works of the second phase, supplemented with soldered-on, relief-like metal strips. In the second phase, painting sometimes yields to this relief-like application of metal, used as a graphic means. A series of sketches shows how Picasso developed these works (see fig. 3): here, the fields of vision that open themselves up to successive perception are first of all projected onto a plane. The possibilities for viewing are exactly predetermined. Sylvette first presents itself in an overall view, the projecting and receding folds lending the form a slight sense of movement. Yet since painting itself, above all in the central areas, produces spatial effects, the sculptural situation is obscured. The folded sheet-metal form begins to exert a sculptural effect when we divide it up into planes of action and take each of the form surfaces as a separate visual point of departure” (Werner Spies, op. cit., p. 291).
Picasso’s series of Sylvette introduced a new phase of his art in which he would concentrate on rendering variations on a given theme. In the months and years that followed, Picasso would apply this approach and a similar aesthetic to the many portraits of Jacqueline Roque, who was making her way into Picasso’s life around the same time that he was painting Sylvette. But perhaps most significantly, the portraits of Sylvette became important cultural icons of the 1950s, essentially character studies of the new post-war “teen-ager” elevated into high art. Klaus Gallwitz has observed, “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” (Klaus Gallwitz, op. cit., p. 90).
Fig. 1, Sylvette David in profile, circa 1954.
Fig. 2, Bust of Sylvette, executed by Carl Nesjär, 1967, New York University Campus
Fig. 3, Pablo Picasso, Sylvette, pencil on paper, 1954
Fig. 4, The artist at work on one of his sculptures
Paris, Musée du Petit Palais, Hommage à Pablo Picasso, 1966-67
Height: 25 in. 63.5 cm
Hélène Parmelin, Picasso Les Dames de Mougins, Paris, 1964, illustrated p. 89
Roland Penrose, The Sculpture of Picasso, New York, 1967, illustrated p. 151 (with the measurements 59 by 33 cm)
Werner Spies, Picasso, Sculpture by Picasso, New York, 1971, no. 490, illustrated p. 290
Werner Spies, Picasso, Das Plastische Werk, Düsseldorf, 1983, no. 490, illustrated p. 357
Werner Spies, Picasso, The Sculptures, Stuttgart, 2000, no. 490, illustrated p. 378
The Picasso Project, Picasso’s Paintings, Watercolors, Drawings and Sculpture. The Fifties I, 1950-1955, San Francisco, 2000, no. 54-321(b), illustrated p. 266
Estate of the artist
Paloma Picasso Lopez (by inheritance from the above)
The Pace Gallery, New York (acquired from the above)
Acquired from the above on October 21, 1982