Fig. 1 Pablo Picasso, Hibou sur une chaise, 1947, oil on canvas, Private Collection
The present work was painted in 1993, exactly forty years after Françoise Gilot parted from Picasso in 1953 following a shared ten-year relationship. The subject of the owl clearly harks back to their time together, and to a particular period in 1946 when the couple adopted a baby owl, an experience which would inspire Picasso’s celebrated series of "hibou" paintings, sculptures and ceramics in the years that followed. Gilot describes the incident in her memoirs: “While Pablo was still working at the Musée d'Antibes [in 1946, the photographer Michel] Sima had come to us one day with a little owl he had found in a corner of the museum. One of his claws had been injured. We bandaged it and it gradually healed. We bought a cage for him and when we returned to Paris we brought him back with us and put him in the kitchen with the canaries, the pigeons and the turtledoves. He smelled awful and ate nothing but mice. Every time the owl snorted at Picasso he would shout, Cochon, Merde, and a few other obscenities, just to show that he was even worse-mannered than him, but Picasso’s fingers, though small, were tough and the owl didn’t hurt him. Finally the owl would let him scratch his head and gradually came to perch on his finger instead of biting it, but even so, he still looked very unhappy” (Françoise Gilot, My Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, pp. 144-45).
Quite apart from its reference to this extraordinary period in Gilot’s life, the present work also stands in its own right as an image of great force and compositional clarity. This is a painting by a bold and accomplished colorist and in this respect the work arguably owes more to Gilot’s old friend Matisse than to Picasso’s many depictions of the subject. The bright blue background speaks of romance and mystery and is masterfully offset by the accents of complementary yellow and gold pigments, both on the owl and the tree trunk too. Gilot’s statements about her earliest experience of color leave us in little doubt about its central role in her oeuvre and help us to better understand the concerns behind her extraordinary artistic vision: “each time we open our eyes, we experience a new birth. Whenever all the sensations from the external world rush towards us, tones, shapes and textures seem to fight for precedence, but in my earliest childhood remembrances, color always prevails" (Françoise Gilot, in Mel Yaokum, ed., Françoise Gilot, Monograph 1940-2000, Lausanne, 2000, p. 13).