The work, Head of a Woman with Chignon (Fernande) (1906), is a powerful large-scale portrait of Picasso’s early model and partner, Fernande Olivier. As a major work executed during what is known as his Rose period (1904–6), when Picasso heavily favored pink tones (rose in French), the drawing makes a remarkable addition to our Picasso collection.
The work prompted an exhibition in which it could serve as a centerpiece. Yet we questioned how to focus an exhibition on Picasso, given how significantly the political landscape around the artist has changed in the past decade. In the wake of #MeToo and cancel culture, questions have rightly arisen about artists known to have mistreated their wives, partners, or models. We did not want to heroize Picasso, but we also did not want to degrade him. Rather we sought to find a way to consider the artist’s production throughout his long career, acknowledging his immense creativity, celebrating our own collection, and, at the same time, recognizing Picasso’s weaknesses.
And then an idea came from the newly gifted drawing itself. The work had encouraged us to explore further how individuals like Fernande Olivier had impacted the artist, and we knew she was one among many who had influenced him. Art dealers, artist friends, lovers, wives, printers, and children—they all contributed to Picasso’s art in distinct and significant ways. And so our exhibition, Picasso: Drawing from Life, approaches the artist’s work through the people in his life who helped him achieve tremendous success. Here, we take a closer look at some of these influential individuals.
Born Maria Benz (1906–1946) in Germany, Nusch Éluard emigrated to France in 1928 and worked as an acrobat, actress, model, and hypnotist’s assistant. She met her future husband, the French Surrealist poet Paul Éluard (1895–1952), in 1930, and through him other avant-garde artists and writers, such as Picasso, Man Ray, René Magritte, and Joan Miró. Her ethereal, waiflike appearance made her a favorite subject for the photographs of Man Ray, Lee Miller, and Dora Maar (above), who was, at the time, Picasso’s lover. Along with being a part of this artistic and social milieu that inspired and reenergized Picasso, Éluard was also a source of visual inspiration for him. She presented a new female type, distinct from the darker, more angular Maar and the blonde, curvilinear form of Marie-Thérèse Walter, another of his lovers.
Despite Éluard’s delicate facial features, which could imply a sense of vulnerability or fragility, she was anything but weak. During the Nazi occupation of France, she worked with the French Resistance at great personal peril. Sadly however, she died of a stroke at just 40 years of age.
Roger Lacourière (1892–1966) was a professional intaglio printer who specialized in prints made from copper plates, like etching, engraving, and aquatint, and founded a workshop in the Montmartre neighborhood of Paris in 1929. Although artists are often credited with creating an image, in some printmaking practices, the final product is as much a result of the printer who prepared the plate or block, inked it, and ran it through the press. Lacourière and Picasso were creative collaborators and experimented together with various printmaking processes, including one the two perfected: sugar-lift aquatint.
While a great deal is known about Picasso’s later collaborations with the linocut printer Hidalgo Arnéra, less is known about Lacourière, likely in part because the printer thought of himself as an artisan, one who did his work out of the spotlight and did not receive (or expect to receive) credit. Three monumental prints in the exhibition etched by Picasso in the 1930s—The Weeping Woman II, Woman with Tambourine, and Minotauromachia—would not have achieved such brilliance without the technical expertise of Lacourière.
Ambroise Vollard (1866–1939) was a legendary French art dealer (and also the subject of a major 2007 exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago). He championed many artists, including Cezanne, Van Gogh, Gauguin, and Picasso. In 1901, Vollard gave the 20-year-old Picasso his first exhibition in Paris, which included Nude with Cats, and sold many paintings, such as The Old Guitarist, that he bought directly from Picasso. Over the next nearly four decades, Vollard continued to sell Picasso’s paintings. The pair’s most fruitful business ventures involved the commission of bronzes, such as Head of a Woman (Fernande), prints, and illustrated books like The Unknown Masterpiece (Chef d’oeuvre inconnu).
Their best-known partnership was the Vollard Suite, a series of 100 prints commissioned in 1930 and published in 1939 featuring images from ancient mythology—scenes of aggression, lust, and creativity—mostly set in an artist’s studio, as well as three portraits of the dealer himself. While Vollard never represented Picasso exclusively, it has been suggested that his publication of Picasso’s prints and bronzes, works that could be made in multiples and sold more widely than paintings, expanded Picasso’s renown significantly.
Françoise Gilot, who died earlier this year at the age of 101, was an esteemed painter. Despite her abilities as an artist and memoirist, she was perhaps best known as Picasso’s partner from 1943 to 1953. The two met at a restaurant when Gilot was 21 and Picasso was 61. For years they shared a warm relationship, but when Gilot decided to leave him, largely as a result of his infidelities, and take their two children, Picasso turned vengeful. Gilot claimed after their separation, “I am the only woman who did not sacrifice herself to the sacred monster.” In 1963, she published a wildly successful book about their relationship called Life with Picasso.
Picasso was so enraged by her disparagement of him in the book that he never spoke to their children, Claude and Paloma, again. Gilot, however, used the proceeds from the sale of her memoir to support them. She later remarried twice; her second marriage was to Jonas Salk, inventor of the polio vaccine. Throughout, she continued her art practice in Paris, eventually dividing her time between Paris, New York, and La Jolla, California.
Claude and Paloma Picasso
Picasso and Gilot’s two children, Claude and Paloma, were born in 1947 and 1949, respectively. In the early years of family life, Picasso settled into domesticity and portrayed the children often. The lithograph Games and Reading, from 1953, shows Paloma playing with a toy car and Claude sitting on his tricycle while their mother reads a book.
The children continued to see their father after their parents’ separation, and despite Picasso’s severing ties with them in his anger over Gilot’s Life with Picasso when they were still teenagers, they went on to proudly represent their father as adults. Claude, who was an accomplished photographer, eventually became the head of his father’s estate—the first director of the Picasso Administration. He passed away in August 2023, just two months after his mother’s death at age 101. Paloma is a celebrated fashion designer, best known for her jewelry designs for Tiffany and Company and her eponymous perfume. She took over her brother’s role as director of the Picasso Administration in 2023.
Individuals like Éluard, Lacourière, Vollard, Gilot, and his children Claude and Paloma are the lens through which Picasso: Drawing from Life considers more than 60 of the artist’s drawings, prints, paintings, and sculpture from the 1890s to the 1960s. By giving agency to these people, we can appreciate the full picture of Picasso as an artist who relied on those around him to support, promote, execute, and inspire his practice.
—Jay A. Clarke, Rothman Family Curator, Prints and Drawings, and Emily Ziemba, Emily Ziemba, director of curatorial administration and research curator, Prints and Drawings