The Vollard Suite is Pablo Picasso’s most celebrated set of etchings. This monumental series records the development of the artist’s ideas during one of the most creative periods of his career. No other work by Picasso offers such an intense observation of his ideas in such a powerful sequence of images. When the British Museum showed the Vollard Suite for the first time last year, Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, remarked that it was truly ‘a walk inside Picasso’s mind.’
Ambroise Vollard’s relationship with Pablo Picasso started at the beginning of the artist’s career with his first exhibition in 1901 and was to continue until Vollard was killed in a car crash in 1939. Shortly after Picasso’s arrival in Paris, he was introduced to Vollard by Pere Maňach. Ambroise Vollard had recently established his reputation for identifying talented artists who had enormous potential and he did not hesitate to offer Picasso his first exhibition. This was not only of critical importance for Picasso, as it launched his career in Paris, it was also important for Vollard as it started the fertile partnership between the two men that lasted almost 40 years.
Between September 1930 and December 1934, Picasso etched and engraved 97 images. This was followed by three etched portraits of Vollard in 1937, which when added to the series, made 100 etchings that subsequently became known as the Vollard Suite.
The dates of these etchings were highly significant in the career of Picasso. The artist had met Marie-Thérèse Walter in 1927 and by 1930 she had become a central muse in his works. Picasso moved her to his home in Boisgeloup, and Marie-Thérèse became the model for many of his paintings, sculptures and prints of the Vollard Suite. The etchings played a critical part in the development of the artist’s ideas, with the etched compositions appearing in the paintings and the sculptured portraits of Marie-Thérèse shown in the prints.
Although Marie-Thérèse was the muse for an important theme of the Vollard Suite, the 100 etchings covered other ideas in the artist’s mind including the Artist in his studio, the Minotaur and Bull-Fighting subjects, the Battle of Love, as well as etchings showing Picasso’s creative mentors of Rembrandt and Balzac.
This exploration of pictorial themes was matched with an exploration of printing techniques. The first images in the series are line etchings expressing a simple neo-classicism, but as the series progresses, Picasso experiments with an increasing number of techniques; these can be seen in the bravura use of drypoint in Man Uncovering a Woman (VS 5) and the delicate sugar aquatint in the subject Faun Uncovering a Sleeping Woman (VS 27). Perhaps the greatest technical achievement was the use of aquatint with scraper to resemble a mezzotint in the magnificent portrayal of Marie-Thérèse holding the Dove of Peace in Blind Minotaur Led by a Little Girl in the Night (VS 97).
The origins of the commission for the Vollard Suite are unclear; no contract between Picasso and Vollard has been discovered and no correspondence has emerged to suggest why Vollard asked Picasso to make the plates. However, it is clear that Vollard had identified the genius of Picasso as a print maker and it was his intention to combine his etchings with various texts to form livres d’artistes. Evidence of this appeared on the market at Sotheby’s in May 2002 when they sold parts of a maquette for a book entitled Minos and Pasiphae (text by André Suarès) that comprised the Minotaur etchings from this series. These etching had been shown to Suarès who was inspired by them to write the text. It is probable that the 100 etchings were destined for more than one book as the images of the Suite do not follow a narrative and the groupings of the subjects do not appear to relate to each other.
For his fabulous book publications, it was Vollard’s practice to print 250 impressions of each subject on regular paper to be included in the books and an additional 50 impressions on larger sheets of paper that could be signed by the artist and included as a deluxe edition. The present example is from the deluxe edition of 50. Furthermore, as each work is signed by the artist, it is possible that Vollard had intended them to be framed and displayed as pictures.
Shortly after the printing of the plates, Vollard was killed in a tragic car accident in July 1939. The prints remained stored in his mansion until his brother Lucien Vollard sold the etchings en bloc to the Parisian dealer Henri Petiet in the late 1940s. They had been kept together and not been divided into potential book projects and so when Petiet offered them for sale as a series, they acquired the name ‘Vollard Suite’.
The set has always held a dominant position in the printed œuvre of the artist and still fires the public imagination when exhibited. Complete sets are now rare, and when the British Museum acquired the first set in a British institution last year, it attracted much enthusiasm from the press and the public causing Richard Dorment to ask in the Daily Telegraph ‘Is this the year’s richest visual feast? (R. Dorment, The Daily Telegraph, 8th May 2012, p. 25).
Jonathan Pescoe Pratt was the contributing author to the catalogue for Cézanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde, held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Art Institute of Chicago and Musée d’Orsay, Paris in 2006-07.
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