PROPERTY FROM AN IMPORTANT COLLECTION
Stephen C. Clark, New York (acquired by 1948)
Mrs Susan Lefferts (née Clark), Middleburg, Virginia (granddaughter of the above; by descent in 1960. Sold: Sotheby Parke Bernet, New York, 20th October 1976, lot 11)
Purchased at the above sale and thence by descent
New Haven, Yale University Art Gallery, Paintings, Drawings and Sculpture Collected by Yale Alumni, 1960, no. 93, illustrated in the catalogue
‘First Picasso Show in New York in 8 Years’, in PM, 14th January 1947, illustrated in photograph p. 10
Edward Alden Jewell, ‘Picasso Puts Spice Into City Galleries, in The New York Times, 29th January 1947, mentioned p. 23
‘Picasso: Late, Later, Latest’, in ARTnews, February 1947, mentioned
‘Picasso’, in Pictures on Exhibit, February 1947, mentioned
Ben Wolf, ‘Post-War Picasso’, in The Art Digest, 1st February 1947, mentioned
Carlyle Burrows, ‘Art of the Week: Work from France by Her Leading Artists’, in New York Herald Tribune, 2nd February 1947, mentioned
‘Show of New Picassos, in MKR’s Art Outlook, 3rd February 1947, mentioned
Benedikt F. Dolbin, ‘Picasso unangefochtener Diktator’, in Aufbau, 7th February 1947, mentioned
Robert M. Coates, ‘The Art Galleries, in The New Yorker, 8th February 1947, mentioned
Marion Summers, ‘Kootz Exhibits Ten New Works by Pablo Picasso’, in New York Daily Worker, 9th February 1947, illustrated
‘That Man Is Here Again’, in Time, 10th February 1947, mentioned
Joseph Solman, ‘Art’, in New Masses, 18th February 1947, illustrated
Christian Zervos, Pablo Picasso, œuvres de 1944 à 1946, Paris, 1963, vol. 14, no. 27, illustrated pl. 17 (illustrated in the unfinished state on 6th August 1944, no. 24, pl. 14 & on 9th August 1944, no. 25, pl. 15)
André Fermigier, Picasso, Paris, 1969, no. 195, illustrated p. 296
Michèle C. Cone, Artists under Vichy: A Case of Prejudice and Persecution, Princeton, 1992, no. 68, illustrated p. 144
The Clark Brothers Collect: Impressionist and Early Modern Paintings (exhibition catalogue), Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown & The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2006-07, no. 333, catalogued p. 340; fig. 260, illustrated in a photograph p. 312
Symbolic of victory in France, Picasso's paintings of a tomato plant in bloom are considered some of the most important works that the artist produced during the war years. Executed during a most turbulent era in European history, they are ripe with both personal as well as wider political and cultural significance. Picasso remained in Paris throughout the war, and his production at the time was dominated by still-lifes imbued with a sense of threat and destruction (fig. 1). In the summer of 1944, when the Allied forces began to advance towards Paris and the end of Nazi Occupation was in sight, Picasso could not help but be embroiled in current events. The series of tomato plant paintings, of which the present work is the most complex and visually striking example, was Picasso’s way of reflecting the spirit of hope and resilience that characterised this time. While staying with his mistress Marie-Thérèse and their daughter Maya at the Boulevard Henri IV in the weeks before the Liberation, Picasso took notice of the potted tomato plant that was growing besides the window of the apartment. Potted fruit-bearing plants such as these were not uncommon in civilian households throughout Europe during this period, when food rations limited the amount of available produce for consumption. Seeing the resilient plant as a symbol of hope, Picasso executed four drawings on the theme on 27th July, and eventually developed his ideas in a series of five canvases between 3rd and 12th of August.
In her discussion of this series, Jean Sutherland Boggs wrote: ‘Picasso was recording this consequence of war, not as a deprivation, but as a source of admiration. His tomatoes are heavy and full, most of them handsome green promising the blush of pink, and then the brilliant vermilion of the ripe fruit. Picasso could not have helped admiring their readiness to grow toward the freely painted sunlight and sky, which he expressed in the movement of the vines and the shape of the leaves as well as in the fruits themselves. The tomato plants are an earthy and decorative metaphor for the human need to survive and flourish even within the constraints of war’ (J. Sutherland Boggs, Picasso and Things (exhibition catalogue), The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland; The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia; Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, 1992, p. 286).
Christian Zervos documented the creation of this series of paintings, photographing several of them, including the present canvas, while Picasso still worked on them. The present composition was started on 6th of August and completed three days later, and is the finest of this series of five canvases that Picasso completed over the course of ten days. In each of these pictures, he renders his subject with different levels of abstraction and detail, and presents the tomato plant at different stages of bloom. Discussing the group of works, Harriet and Sidney Janis note that the present canvas ‘is the most realistic version of the series of the tomato plant. Still, the configuration of the flowerpot and saucer there is almost completely abstract. The pot seems to be transparent, permitting a view of darkened segments of both saucer and windowpane which are behind it’ (H. & S. Janis, op. cit., n.p.).
In the present work, the branches of the plant are weighed down with the heavy tomatoes; their arched shapes stand in contrast with the strong horizontals and verticals of the window, which fragment the composition into a grid-like surface. The contrast between these two elements, both of which spread across the canvas, makes this the most complex and dynamic composition from the series of five paintings. For his palette Picasso chose vibrant shades of red and green to emphasise the fecundity of the plant. For the background view outside the window, he paints the canvas with different shades of yellow and grey - a colour that calls to mind the smoke and gunfire that could be heard throughout the city during these frightening last few weeks of the war. Rarely did Picasso invest a still-life with such meaning and sociological importance.
In both its stylisation and colouration, the highly abstract vase incorporates vestiges of Cubism from the early years of Picasso’s career, while the curvilinear forms of the plant bear resemblance to Picasso’s treatment of the female body in his later work. In his ever present fascination with sexuality and the female form, Picasso incessantly explored new ways of giving a visual expression to his fantasies. Numerous art historians have commented on the ways Picasso used everyday objects as symbols of desire. From the pieces of fruit and jugs of his neo-classical phase to the painters' brushes and musician's flutes in his late works, Picasso often suggested sexual tension and a potential erotic encounter. In the present work, the depiction of bright, round tomatoes against a dark background suggests the curves of a female body, reminding us that even the seemingly most innocent subject matter can become a vehicle for exploring the artist's obsession with the female figure.
Unlike many of his avant-garde contemporaries, Picasso had no urgent need to leave Paris during the war, and continued to work in his studio at 7, rue des Grands-Augustins. His art was blacklisted by the Nazi regime and he was not permitted to exhibit his pictures publicly by government decree. By this point in his career, Picasso was a celebrity and financially secure. Because he did not have to worry about selling his work, the paintings that he completed during this period remained in his studio, only to be exhibited after the war. Around the time Picasso painted the tomato plant canvases he was visited by the renowned photographer Cecil Beaton. A series of photographs Beaton took of his studio at rue des Grands-Augustins, several of them showing the present work (fig. 5), gives a remarkable insight into Picasso's work during this period.
Many of his admirers interpreted the artist's decision to remain in France during this period as a venerable act of patriotism. Although Picasso was not an active member of the Resistance movement like his biographer Christian Zervos, his artistic activity during the war was deemed as heroic by many of his contemporaries around the world, including Alfred Barr, the director of The Museum of Modern Art in New York. Writing of Picasso's importance in this respect, Barr noted: ‘[Picasso] was not allowed to exhibit publicly and he made no overt gestures, but his very existence in Paris encouraged the Resistance artists, poets and intellectuals who gathered in his studio or about his cafe table. [...] Picasso's presence [in Paris] during the occupation became of tremendous occult importance [...] his work has become a sort of banner of the Resistance Movement’ (quoted in Picasso and the War Years (exhibition catalogue), California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco & The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1998-99, p. 118).
The genre of still-life was a significant component of Picasso's wartime production, resulting in the most fruitful and imaginative production of still-lifes since his days as a Cubist artist at the beginning of the century. To his public during this period, Picasso's wartime still-lifes were an outward sign of the artist's perseverance during the war as a resident painter in Paris. In the days leading up to the Liberation and in the midst of his painting of the tomato plant series, Picasso was visited by British and American journalists and soldiers at his studio at rue de Grands-Augustins. When asked about the historic significance of the paintings that he produced during the war years, including the present canvas, Picasso remarked: ‘I have not painted the war because I am not the kind of painter who goes out like a photographer for something to depict. But I have no doubt that the war is in these paintings I have done. Later on perhaps the historians will find them and show that my style has changed under the war's influence. Myself, I do not know’ (quoted in ibid., p. 13).
In 1947 the American art dealer Sam Kootz opened an exhibition of nine oils by Picasso in his New York galleries, in which the present work was included (fig. 6). Trumpeted as the first post war show of the artist’s work in America, it drew a huge amount of attention in the press, with articles heralding the return of Picasso with titles such as ‘That Man is Here Again’, and ‘Picasso Puts Spice into City Galleries – Work of War Year Creates Stir – Displaced Noses Gone, Features Just Omitted’. Kootz’s exhibition was quite a coup, with other, older dealers stumped as to how he had managed to persuade Picasso to consign his paintings. Kootz had flown to Paris without an appointment the previous year, and somehow convinced him by showing him catalogues of the other avant-garde art he had previously exhibited. He was allowed to select nine oils, all of which he brought back on the plane with him.
The present work was once in the collection of Stephen Carlton Clark (1882-1960), the American philanthropist, inheritor to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune and founder of the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. Clark and his brother Robert Sterling Clark were both art collectors, and the latter founded the eponymous museum in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Amassing an impressive art collection that included Van Gogh's The Night Café, Stephen Clark also served as chairman of the board of trustees of The Museum of Modern Art and the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Upon his death, he gifted the majority of his collection to several major museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Yale University Art Gallery. Plant de tomates remained with the Clark family until 1976 when it was sold by his granddaughter Susan Lefferts at Sotheby Parke Bernet in New York where it was acquired by the same family that has owned it ever since.
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