The elegant beauty in this portrait is 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 that he completed of her over the course of two months.
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).
The present work is one of the best known of Picasso’s portraits of Sylvette and with good reason. Unlike other versions in which she is rendered more realistically (see fig. 2) or almost entirely abstract (see fig. 3), this depiction provides a fantastic mixture of bold abstraction and recognizable detail. Sylvette’s loose, blond ponytail, long neck and her other defining features are readily distinguishable. But her face, appearing linear and almost mask-like, is segmented and re-proportioned in a manner that is reminiscent of Picasso’s Surrealist portraits of Dora Maar from the 1930s. During the relatively brief time that he spent painting her, Picasso came to know Sylvette through his paintings, 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 the portrait, the woman whom he had created and who emblemized a type of radiant youth that he forever preserved on canvas.
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 (see fig. 4), 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” (Gallwitz, op. cit., p. 90).
Fig. 1, Photograph of Sylvette David, age 19
Fig. 2, Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Mademoiselle D. (Sylvette), 1954, oil on canvas, Kunsthalle, Bremen
Fig. 3, Pablo Picasso, Portrait de Sylvette David, 1954, oil on panel, The Art Institute of Chicago
Fig. 4, Pablo Picasso, Jacqueline et fleurs, 1954, oil on canvas, Private Collection
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