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Lot 47: Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale

by Christie's

November 8, 2006

New York, NY, USA

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Description: Portrait de Angel Fernández de Soto
signed and dated 'Picasso 1903' (upper right)
oil on canvas
27 7/8 x 21 3/4 in. (69.5 x 55.2 cm.)
Painted in 1903

Notes: Property from the Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber Art Foundation

Picasso painted this superbly characterized portrait of his comrade Angel Fernández de Soto in Barcelona during 1903, at the very height of his Blue period. Picasso may have begun his blue paintings in Paris during the fall of 1901, but it was not until two years later, and then away from Paris, that he achieved absolute mastery in this willful and idiosyncratic manner, which he forged into his first personal and original style. After the eclectic virtuosity that he had displayed in the brilliant canvases he painted for the Vollard show of July 1901--his first great success, which he achieved before he reached the age of 20--he suddenly put the brakes on his technical facility and his growing talent as a colorist by limiting himself to a melancholy, monochrome cyan tonality, which he relieved only with bleached pinks, dull ochres and white highlights.

Within the confines of these austerely circumscribed means, however, Picasso kindled a sharply focused and concentrated intensity of expression that he had not previously displayed in his art. During the course of his fifteen month stay in Barcelona, from January 1903 to April 1904, he painted an extraordinary series of now celebrated masterpieces, including La Vie (fig. 1), Le repas de l'aveugle, Le vieux juif, and Le vieux guitariste (Zervos, vol. 1, nos. 168, 175 and 202). He had done the ubiquitously reproduced Nu vu de dos (Le nu bleu; Zervos, vol. 6, no. 449) during the previous year in Barcelona. There was also a triumvirate of great portraits of the artist's closest friends: the present painting of Soto, Le peintre Sebastià Junyer Vidal (Zervos, vol. 1, no. 174; fig. 2), and the Portrait de Jaime Sabartés (Zervos, vol. 6, no. 653; fig. 3).

Picasso treated the figure almost exclusively in his Blue period paintings, either as timeless, universalized human types, such as the Le vieux guitariste, or as specific depictions of real individuals, as in the present painting. Because they tap into archetypal and mythic dimensions, and occasionally La Bohème-like melodrama, the former have become the most widely known, best-loved and iconic of all Picasso's works. Their very popularity, however, hints at their weaknesses. Surely Picasso wears his heart on his sleeve in these images of the impoverished and the downtrodden, and because we have long come to expect a requisite degree of detachment and irony in our modernist artists, they seem maudlin and old-fashioned. Critics from the outset have leveled the charge of sentimentality at them, an accusation that no serious artist would take pleasure in hearing. While these paintings display a vigorous technique, which to some extent keeps them perennially fresh in the public eye, their essential message harkens back to the 19th century and the self-indulgent pathos that was the least forwardable aspect of the Symbolist ethos. Indeed, John Richardson reminds us that these paintings, in their time, "found surprisingly little favor outside the artist's immediate circle" (op. cit., p. 269).

The Blue period portraits, however, possess an entirely different mettle. They look forward, not back--they are resolutely modern, and this portrait of Soto may be counted as one of the first great portraits of the 20th century, fashioned in thoroughly modernist practice and arising from a new sensibility. Picasso's sitters may seem wistful or sullen, or suffering from ennui, the great intellectual malaise of the new century, but they come across as real people, not emblematic wraiths. These pictures are powerful and vital portraits because Picasso has keenly observed Soto, Junyer and Sabartés. Picasso could cast a cold eye on his friends, but he did not stint on compassion and understanding--Picasso has at this early age displayed an extraordinary ability to enter into his sitter and comprehend his essential character as well as the many lesser quirks that lend him individuality. Picasso has moreover insinuated into his sitters elements of his personality, so that the portrait becomes a mirror, in which the painter views and examines aspects of his own self in the person he is painting. If the blueness in the universalized figure paintings attempts to describe a world outside of real time and place, a never-never land as remote and fictional as the characters that inhabit it, the blueness in the portraits underscores the reality of the inner intensity, mystery and profundity of the self, as it enters into the two-way psychological transaction between the artist and sitter. This is an interior world which cannot be located, only felt, but which manifests itself in emotions that are as real and living as flesh and blood. This is the beginning of modern psychological portraiture.

* * * * *

Among the many friends that Picasso made at Pere Romeu's tavern Els 4 Gats ("The Four Cats") in Barcelona at the end of the 1890s, there were two brothers, Angel and Mateu Fernández de Soto, to whom he was especially drawn. They were Catalan on their mother's side, and had become fervent partisans for Catalan independence. Mateu was a sculptor, a serious young man who was deeply committed to his art, although it brought him little financial reward. Picasso shared a studio in Barcelona with him in 1899, and they were both in Paris the following year when Picasso made his first trip there. In those days Mateu was usually dependent on daily handouts from other Spanish expatriates in Paris. Fernande Olivier, who became Picasso's mistress in 1905, wrote, "I think Picasso liked him better than the others, perhaps because of his frailty: he was so small and looked pale and pathetic" (in Loving Picasso, New York, 2001, p.182). Picasso painted Mateu twice in the early winter of 1901, when the penniless sculptor moved into his studio, at the beginning of the Blue period (Zervos, vol. 1, nos. 86 and 94; the former, fig. 4).

As one might presume from the sharply contrasting personalities in their respective portraits, so tellingly drawn by Picasso, Angel was an altogether different sort of fellow than his brother. He aspired to be a painter, but rarely applied himself. He and Picasso shared a studio in Barcelona in 1902 and 1903, when Picasso was there between his trips to Paris. Josep Palau i Fabre notes that Picasso called Angel "Patas," Catalan for "buddy" (in op. cit., p. 286). Picasso described Angel to John Richardson as "an amusing wastrel." He worked at a meager salary for a spice merchant. Richardson has written, "Picasso was so taken with Angel's stylishness and [political] intransigence that they became inseparable. When they wished to make a fashionable impression they would share their one and only pair of gloves, each of them keeping the uncovered hand in a pocket while conspicuously gesturing with the gloved one. I asked Picasso why he had depicted this penniless friend as a foppish man-about-town in white tie and tails [as seen in the present portrait and other drawings]. Angel was a dandy who sometimes eked out his small salary by hiring out as an extra in theaters, he explained, and the spectacle of him improbably attired in borrowed finery as an elegant boulevardier, dashing officer or habitué of Maxim's inspired these fanciful portraits. Despite these disguises, Angel is always instantly recognizable, thanks to the lantern jaw and sardonic expression that Picasso catches so affectionately" (op. cit., pp. 116-117).

Picasso first painted Angel in 1899, in the gaunt and somber style of El Greco (Zervos, vol. 6, no. 197; fig. 5). The artist quite naturally included his friend, and Mateu as well, in the extraordinary series of watercolor and chalk portraits that he made of his Barcelona colleagues in early 1900 and showed at Els 4 Gats in February (Zervos, vol. 21, no. 98). Here Angel is seen wearing a bowler hat, with his hand in his pocket, thin-lipped and again looking serious, gazing askance at the viewer. Thereafter Picasso treated Angel in a more humorous vein, in quickly sketched caricatures done in Barcelona in 1902-1903, in which he exaggerated the height and stiffness of his friend's collar, and showed him smoking his long-stemmed pipe or holding it before him. Angel appears, with Picasso and other members of their tertulia, their coterie of artists and writers, in a flyer that Picasso drew in 1902 for Els 4 Gats (Zervos, vol. 6, no. 190; fig 6). In a sketch done a year later, Angel caresses a naked whore seated on his lap, and in another he looks as on as half-naked woman named Anita holds a diminutive child-like figure of Mateu on her lap in bed (see Picasso and Els 4 Gats, exh. cat., Museu Picasso, Barcelona, 1996, p. 213, nos. 167-168). In another drawing Picasso drew himself, Angel and Junyer seated side by side at adjoining café tables (fig. 6).

Picasso returned home to Barcelona from his disastrous third trip to Paris in January 1903. He had spent less than four months in the capital, the shortest of his stays there thus far. Nothing went well; by Christmas 1902 he seemed entirely down on his luck, he had run out of money and had no prospects. His success at Vollard's gallery the year before was all but forgotten. "It pleased a lot of people," Picasso later recalled. "It was only later when I set about to do blue paintings that things went really badly. This lasted for years" (quoted in P. Daix, op. cit., 1967, p.154). Arriving back home for the proud young man was a major setback and humiliation, but, as Sabartés put it, Barcelona "meant a roof and three square meals" (quoted in P. Daix, op. cit., 1993, p. 31). At first he stayed in his family's apartment, and his mother dutifully washed his clothes, angering Picasso, who did not want to part with the grime he had accumulated in Paris. He soon moved into an apartment that Angel de Soto had recently rented. Picasso had stayed there three years earlier with his ill-fated friend Carles Casagemas, whose suicide in February 1901 had led Picasso into the gloomy state-of-mind that had set the stage for the blue paintings. The decorations that Picasso and Casagemas had painted on the walls were still there.

In these surroundings Picasso painted La vie (fig. 1), in which he finally exorcised the ghosts of Casagemas and the girl his friend had killed himself over, Germaine Pichot, with whom Picasso subsequently had an affair as well. La vie was his most complexly conceived and fully realized painting to date, his first indisputable masterpiece. He finished it in May, and sold it within a couple of weeks. In June he painted the portrait of Sebastià Junyer Vidal (fig. 2), and the series of great mendicant blue paintings soon followed, all featuring blind men--the old Jew, a poor man's meager meal, and the old guitarist.

Picasso painted the Portrait de Angel Fernández de Soto in the final months of 1903. Unlike the melancholy and absolutely still figures seen in earlier portraits, the Soto painting shows a nervous and restless sitter, fidgeting with his hands, as he smokes his pipe before finishing a glass of absinthe. Picasso has exaggerated and even brutalized the delicate features of his friend's face, so finely drawn in earlier portraits, to create a Dorian Gray-like decadent whose descent into physical degeneration and moral decay is all too clear. However, if Soto seems in danger of becoming typecast, Picasso does not judge him, and he displays his affection for his friend as well. He is human, and nothing human is alien to him, and this is precisely what Picasso loves in him. John Richardson has written, "The deformations in the Soto portrait--the jug ear, kinky nose, skewed mouth, prognathous chin--seem caricatural, but the image transcends caricature. By this time Picasso had learned to exploit his inherent gift for caricature in depth as a means of dramatizing psychological as well as physiognomical traits. Whereas the average caricaturist externalizes things and comes up with an image that is slick and trite--an instant cliché--Picasso internalizes things and comes up with an enhanced characterization of the subject. Picasso enlarges Angel's heavy-lidden eyes out of all proportion and endows them with his own obsidian stare. Among his immediate predecessors, only van Gogh had this ability to galvanize a portrait with his own psychic energy" (in op. cit., pp. 285-286).

There is surely an element of the vanitas theme in Soto's portrait, suggested in the bone-colored flesh of his skull-like head, and the skeletal fingers of his hands. The smoke swirling above his head suggests the vaporous transience of life, and even the table-top on which Angel rests his elbows seems to flow beneath him as if it were a white-water torrent. The smoke and blue tonality recall Edvard Munch's haunting Self-Portrait with a Cigarette, recently seen in the New York retrospective (fig. 7). Jaime Sabartés has written "Both Munch and Picasso subordinate form and color to symbolic expression. Picasso could scarcely be entirely unacquainted with the works of Munch, who was in close contact with the Paris artists. Cirici Pellicer in his book on Picasso's early years shows in detail that northern literature and art were well know in Picasso's milieu in Barcelona" (in Picasso, New York, 1957, p 117)

* * *

Angel de Soto was indeed a charming and entertaining person to have around, the perfect "Patas," a useful foil for a young artist who, for the time being, had preoccupied himself with a dark view of life, and was now deeply immersed in his work. Picasso was thinking of Paris again, but his first move was to new studio. The artist drew strength from his work, and worked long hours, and might want to paint well into the night, just at the very time that Angel was ready to party. Richardson has written, "He had to get away from his distracting roommate, Angel de Soto. Every evening after he left his job, Angel would fill his studio with friends. If Picasso work had gone well, the friends might amuse him; if it had gone badly, they would irritate him, and he would ensure that everyone else felt as angry and frustrated as he did As winter set in, Picasso became ever more a loner. He insisted on keeping his own hours, working hard when the mood was on him" (op. cit., p. 291).

Picasso may have painted the portrait of Angel as a cautionary tale for himself. Yes, he could spend valuable time enjoying himself, play the poseur, while Angel beside him acted the part, any part he chose, to perfection. But a life of this kind, Angel's path, was for Picasso a dead end, in which the potential of a talented life would be wasted. The young painter had now reached a point of commitment to his art beyond which there could be no return, and he could not let joviality or even the pleasures of camaraderie distract him from his work. In this respect, Angel's brother Mateu was a more admirable model. Picasso remained fond of both men, and displayed his loyalty and good will to them whenever the occasion arose. Picasso crossed paths with Angel for the final time, albeit at a distance, in 1937. The beleaguered Spanish Republic, torn by civil war, named Picasso as director of the Prado. Angel was a deputy of the arts in the Loyalist cabinet. Picasso was in Paris, out of danger. Angel was in thick of it, and not so fortunate--the civil war claimed his life in 1938.

(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, La vie, Barcelona, 1903. The Cleveland Museum of Art. BARCODE 20628109
(fig. 2) Pablo Picasso, Le peintre Sebastià Junyer Vidal, Barcelona, 1903. Los Angeles County Museum of Art. BARCODE 20628116
(fig. 3) Pablo Picasso, Portrait de Jaime Sabartés, Barcelona, 1904. Private collection. BARCODE 20628123
(fig. 4) Pablo Picasso, Mateu Fernández de Soto, Paris, early winter 1901. Private collection. BARCODE 20628154
(fig. 5) Pablo Picasso, Portrait de Angel de Soto, Barcelona, 1899. Private collection. BARCODE 20628130
(Fig. 6) Picasso at the 4 Cats, Barcelona, 1902. BARCODE 20628147
(fig. 7) Pablo Picasso, Picasso, Angel Fernández de Soto and Sebastià Junyer at the Café, Barcelona, circa 1903. Museu Picasso, Barcelona. BARCODE 20628161
(fig. 8) Edvard Munch, Self-Portrait with Cigarette, 1895. National Gallery, Oslo. BARCODE 20628178

Provenance: Paul von Mendelssohn-Batholdy, Berlin.
Justin K. Thannhauser, Berlin/Lucerne (by 31 August 1935).
M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., New York (acquired from the above, 2 September 1936).
William H. Taylor, West Chester (acquired from the above in October 1936).
Private collection (acquired from the above; through M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., New York, in May 1946).
Donald and Jean Stralem, New York; sale, Sotheby's, New York, 8 May 1995, lot 14.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.

Artist or Maker: Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

Exhibited: Buenos Aires, Galeria Müler, Exposición Pablo Ruiz Picasso, October 1934, no. 4.
Philadelphia Museum of Art, Exhibition of French Art, 1937.
New York, M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., Loan Exhibition of Allied Art for Allied Aid, 1940, no. 18.
New York, M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., Exhibition Celebrating Knoedler's One Hundred Years--1846-1946, 1946, no. 76.
New York, M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., Picasso before 1907, 1947, no. 15.
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Summer Loan Exhibition, August 1949, p. 2.
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Summer Loan Exhibition, 1960, p. 8, no. 87.
New York, M. Knoedler & Co., Inc., Picasso: an American Tribute, 1895-1909, 1962, no. 18 (as The Absinthe Drinker).
New York, The Metropolitan Musem of Art, Summer Loan Exhibition, 1962, p. 7, no. 63, loan no. L 62.63.6.
The Art Gallery of Toronto, and The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Picasso and Man, 1964, no. 17.
Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, and Fort Worth Art Center, Picasso: Two Concurrent Retrospective Exhibitions, February-March 1967, p. 14, no. 7 (as The Absinthe Drinker).
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Summer Loan Exhibition, 1968, loan no. 68.85.9.
New York, Marlborough Gallery Inc., and Saidenberg Gallery Inc., Homage to Picasso for his 90th Birthday, 1971, no. 2.
New York, Acquavella Galleries, Inc., Picasso. A Loan Exhibition for the Benefit of Cancer Care, Inc., The National Cancer Foundation, April-May 1975 (illustrated as The Absinthe Drinker).
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1990.
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1991.
London, National Gallery, Loan to the collection, May-September 2005, loan no. 665.
London, Royal Academy of Arts, The Pre-Raphaelites and other Masters. The Andrew Lloyd Webber Collection, September-December 2003, no. 282. London, National Gallery, Rebels and Martyrs: The Artist in the 19th Century, 2006.

Literature: J. Cassou, Picasso, New York, 1940 (illustrated, pl. 87). P. Daix and G. Boudaille, Picasso, The Blue and Rose Periods, A Catalogue Raisonné, 1900-1906, London, 1967, p. 225, no. IX.20 (illustrated).
A. Moravia and P. Lecaldano, L'Opera completa di Picasso blu e rosa, Milan, 1968, no. 74.
C. Zervos, Pablo Picasso, Paris, 1969, vol. 1, no. 201 (illustrated, p. 90).
J. Palau i Fabre, Picasso, The Early Years, 1881-1907, New York, 1981, p. 352, no. 911 (illustrated in color).
J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso (1881-1906), New York, 1991, vol. 1, p. 285 (illustrated).
P. Daix, Picasso: Life and Art, 1993, p. 36.
M.-L. Bernadac, B. Léal and C. Piot, The Ultimate Picasso, New York, 2000, p. 60, no. 120 (illustrated, p. 64).

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