Painted in Barcelona in 1901, Portrait de Lola, soeur de l’artiste comes from a period of great transition for the nineteen-year old Picasso and was likely exhibited in the historic and career-defining Vollard exhibition of the same year. With help from Pere Mañach, a Catalan dealer who was known for his support and promotion of young Spanish artists, Picasso quickly made inroads with buyers and gallerists upon his arrival in Paris. By the spring of 1901, Mañach had secured an exhibition of Picasso’s works at the larger gallery of Ambroise Vollard; an impressive accomplishment for the relatively unknown young Spaniard who admired artists like Cézanne, van Gogh and Gauguin whom the dealer represented. The 1901 Vollard exhibition would come to define the trajectory of Picasso’s career, propelling the young artist onto the international stage and witnessing a stylistic shift from the Spanish-influenced works of his youngest days to the exuberant Paris scenes which followed. The critical reception to the show was resoundingly positive, placing Picasso at the fore of an artistic revolution: “…Picasso, the brilliant newcomer. He is the painter, utterly and beautifully the painter; he has the power of divining the essence of things… He is enamored of all subjects, and every subject is his” (F. Fagus quoted in J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso, vol. I, New York, 1991, p. 199).
Likely displayed in the 1901 Vollard show, Portrait de Lola, soeur de l’artiste also documents a time of crisis in the artist’s personal life. A few months prior to the exhibition, Picasso learned about the suicide of his closest friend Carles Casagemas while away in Madrid. Awash in grief but still obligated to create works for the upcoming exhibition, Picasso headed back to Paris at the behest of Mañach, stopping in Barcelona for about ten days along the way. It is from this dolorous interim which Portrait de Lola, soeur de l’artiste comes. Absent in the present work are the bright swathes of color and flashy markers of Parisian cabaret life of many of Picasso’s subsequent 1901 compositions, featuring instead a focused image of a beloved family member. Rendered in subtle blues, grays and hints of yellow, the luminous pallor of Lola’s visage draws the viewer in, contrasted against the swelling blues and blacks of her neckwear, hair and background. Her keenly arched brows and a sidelong glance suggest a more somber, knowing awareness not seen in Picasso’s earlier portrayals of Lola. The tragic loss of Casagemas at this time likely recalled an earlier watershed moment for the artist, the death of Picasso’s youngest sister Conchita in 1895. The successive losses provoked in Picasso a period of deep reflection and resulted in the empathetic and lugubrious works which would define the artist’s iconic Blue Period in the following years (see figs. 3 & 4).
In contrast to the deliberate and tenebrous oil-on-panel rendering of Portrait de Lola, soeur de l’artiste, the works which Picasso executed after returning to Paris present distinctly French-inspired scenes of parks, boulevards, brothels and café life, often painted in quick, colorful swathes of oil on cardboard (see figs. 5 & 6). During this time, Picasso’s financial constraints often dictated his compositions, with the artist often using and re-using the affordable materials at hand and sketching or painting on the backs of his works—a habit dating back to his time in Spain.
An historic work in time and place, Portrait de Lola, soeur de l’artist can be traced to a number of prestigious collections. Olivier Sainsère, a prominent politician and patron of the arts, likely acquired this painting from Picasso soon after its creation. Sainsère supported many modern avant-garde painters in Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century and discovered Picasso at the Galerie Berthe Weill, becoming one of his earliest collectors in 1901 and even assisting him with his French residency permit. Many works owned by Sainsère now enrich the collections of some of the world’s greatest museums, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Louvre and the Musée d’Orsay. Portrait de Lola, soeur de l’artiste later belonged to Mr. & Mrs. Paul Mellon who are best remembered for their generous philanthropy and acclaimed art collection.
The reverse of the present work reveals an assortment sketches—the most recognizable of which are of a nun and monocled gentleman—and finds resonance with the incisive drawings of his friends at Els Quatres Gats. Brimming with a newfound sense of independence, the young artist had moved from Madrid to Barcelona in 1899, where free from the oversight of his instructors and painter father, he’d taught himself how to draw. Picasso quickly became a fixture at the café Els Quatres Gats, cultivating a lively social circle at the modernista hub and recording the days and nights spent there with his friends and fellow artists like Miquel Utrillo (see figs. 7 & 8).
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