Picasso: Creator and Destroyer

Picasso's art enacted the violent passions and twisted energies of the twentieth century. So did his life.

IN the Summer of 1901 Ambrose Vollard, the dealer of Cezanne and Gauguin, put on a Picasso exhibition. There were prostitutes and society ladies, portraits and landscapes, interiors and street scenes. The exhibition was a success, but even more significant for Picasso's life, it led to his meeting the man who for the next few years would fulfill two of his three most constant and urgent needs. Max Jacob would become his caretaker and his worshipper. As for Picasso's third need, for constantly and effortlessly available sex, he would no doubt have been eager to meet that too, if only Picasso had been willing. Max Jacob went to see the Vollard show and soon after, struck by Picasso's "fire" and "real brilliance," arrived at the boulevard de Clichy, where Picasso was living, to pay his respects to the young master.

Jacob was twenty-five years old when he met Picasso. He had come to Paris from Brittany three years earlier, determined to become an "artist"—a poet and a painter. "Stick to poetry" was Picasso's advice, and to a very large extent Jacob took it. He called Picasso "my little boy" but listened carefully to what the little boy had to say. This short, prematurely balding intellectual, who wore a monocle with the sensuality of a woman wearing a garter belt, had already gained considerable influence in the demimonde of poets and painters which he had made his home. He would launch some and help the careers of others already launched, but none would he love as deeply and as unconditionally as he loved Picasso.

THE summer of 1901 was a demonically creative one for Picasso. The art critic Francois Charles cautioned him "for his own good no longer to do a painting a day," but Paris had unleashed a surge of experimentation in him. It was a summer of reveling in the city, of celebrating his freedom from Spanish conventional morality, of flower still-lifes, cancan dancers, the races, pretty children, and fashionable ladies. Yet a noticeable change was beginning to take place in both his mood and his work. "I have tried to express the terrible passions of humanity by means of red and green," Van Gogh wrote in 1888, and in 1901 Picasso, spurred by his inner turmoil, switched his focus to the solitude and pain of humanity and tried to express them by means of blue. So began the procession of beggars, lonely harlequins, tormented mothers, the sick, the hungry, and the lame. And in their midst was Picasso himself, his own suffering on display in a blue self-portrait.

In January of 1902 he returned for a time to Barcelona, where the sometimes despairing, sometimes bitterly tender expressionism of the Blue Period became still more intense. The destitute women of Paris appeared in their Barcelona incarnation utterly crushed by life and a hostile world. In Two Sisters, his painting of a whore and a nun, Picasso expressed for all time his starkly divided vision of women as madonnas or whores. And in his life, having idealized his mother to the point where he could not even bear to talk to the real, imperfect Dona Maria, he spent his time watching, sleeping with, and painting women who in his mind occupied the space reserved for whores. Two of the smaller nude drawings he would keep for his Private collection. On one of them he had written, "Cuando tengas ganas de joder, jode"—"When you are in the mood to screw, screw." In his struggle to define himself as a man, lust seemed the most appropriate emotion toward women.

IN October Picasso returned to Paris. All his hopes were now pinned on a new show organized by Berthe Weill. The other artists in the show were Lauriay, Pichot, and Girieud, and the catalogue praised Picasso's "indefatigable ardor to see and show everything" and the "wild light" that permeated his work. But nothing was sold, and Picasso's mood became even more nihilistic.

His despair was there for all to see in his work. Charles Morice focused on it in an essay he wrote for the Mercure de France while the Weill show was still on.

It is extraordinary, this sterile sadness which weighs down the entire work of this very young man. His works are already numberless.... He seems a young god trying to remake the world. But a dark god. Most of the faces he paints grimace; not a smile. His world is no more habitable than lepers' houses. And his painting itself is sick. Is this frighteningly precocious child not fated to bestow the consecration of a masterpiece on the negative sense of living, the illness from which he more than anyone else seems to be suffering?

It was an extraordinarily powerful piece, and it shook Picasso. He wanted to meet Morice, as if the man who had so accurately diagnosed his state of mind might also be able to provide a cure. Morice, a good friend of Paul Gauguin's, introduced him to Noa Noa, Gauguin's autobiographical poem. Picasso's deep-rooted pessimism was pitted against Gauguin's primitive, questing optimism. "Where are we coming from? Who are we? Where are we going?" Gauguin asked, and although Picasso never formulated those questions in words, they were all there in his work and in the restlessness of his life.

BLUE was still dominant on his canvases, but a rose glow began to creep in, anticipating a major change in his life. In the afternoon of August 4, 1904, in the middle of an unexpected thunderstorm, he was on his way to his studio, carrying a little kitten he had rescued from the storm, when a beautiful, statuesque woman rushed into the Bateau-Lavoir, drenched to the skin. He blocked her path and thrust the kitten into her arms—an offering and an introduction. He laughed and she laughed with him, and he took her to see his studio. Her name was Fernande Olivier. In a nude autobiographical drawing dated August, 1904, they have just made love and he is still stretched on top of her, his feet barely touching hers, her almond eyes closed, her wavy hair dark and rich. He commemorated the occasion as if he knew immediately that this was not just another sexual encounter. It was, in fact, the beginning of his first real relationship, the first time in his life he committed himself to a woman—not "till death do us part" but at least until the attachment stopped being passionate, inspiring, or convenient.

Fernande had been born in Paris on June 6, 1881, four months before Picasso was born in Malaga. At seventeen she had become involved with a shop clerk, Paul-Emile Percheron, and had a son by him. When the child was five months old, Percheron married her, but soon after, both father and son disappeared without a trace, and Fernande married the sculptor Gaston de Labaume. In Fernande's inventive reshaping of her life she had never had a child or a shop-clerk husband. Instead, at seventeen she had had, as she described it, "an extremely unhappy try at marriage," which left her at twenty-two, again in her own words, "already a little disillusioned with life," living alone at the Bateau-Lavoir, as Madame de Labaume.

"For good or for bad," Gertrude Stein would say, "everything was natural in Fernande." She was naturally beautiful, naturally intelligent, naturally creative, and naturally lazy. She painted and drew, but she preferred to expend her creativity in inventing a life, a past, and a new name for herself. The new name was Olivier, and it was as Fernande Olivier that she entered Picasso's world and became his first official mistress and his door to manhood. "There was nothing especially attractive about him at first sight," she wrote years later about meeting Picasso, "though his oddly insistent expression compelled one's attention. It would have been practically impossible to place him socially, but his radiance, an inner fire one sensed in him, gave him a sort of magnetism which I was unable to resist. "

For him, there was a sense of recognition and inevitability. And it was exhilarating to have such a beautiful, worldly woman beside him. He loved the way she looked and the way she dressed and wore her floppy hats with such instinctive grace. But there was also fear and anxiety, prompted by the challenge of adult sexuality and the prospect of a real relationship. In the fall of 1904 Fernande moved in with him. Yet his fears persisted. In Woman Sleeping he painted himself sitting by the bed, lost in anxious thoughts and imaginings, while Fernande lies blissfully asleep. She had surrendered, while he was still troubled by this dramatic change in his life.

Having overcome his anxiety about her living with him, he was now equally anxious that she be with him all the time. He asked nothing from Fernande but to exist as part of his life. He didn't care if she cooked, he didn't expect her to keep their place clean or even to sweep the floor, and he positively forbade her to do the shopping, his jealousy creating nightmarish visions of her being propositioned on the streets of Montmartre and succumbing to other men's advances. His needs perfectly matched her disposition. "Out of a sort of morbid jealousy," she wrote, "[Picasso] forced me to live like a recluse. But with some tea, books, a couch, not much housework to do, I was very, very happy.... I was, I admit, extremely lazy." Her youthful indolence and her unbridled sensuality were the cornerstones of their relationship. She offered Picasso passionate and abandoned sex, at any time that suited the unpredictable rhythm of his work and his equally unpredictable moods. By regularizing his sex life she brought stability to his whole existence. In fact, she brought more than that. Her equanimity balanced his anxiety, and her healthy optimism was an antidote to his depressions—not a potent enough antidote, however, as she herself observed. "This rather sad, sarcastic man, who was sometimes a bit of a hypochondriac, found no consolation but only forgetfulness in his work and in the love of his work, for he always seemed to bear a great grief within him."

With Fernande, Picasso was becoming a man, no longer the adolescent who searched for women in whorehouses and thought only of himself. Fernande's value to him was there for all to see in the metamorphosis that his work underwent. Rose became the dominant color, and circus performers and saltimbanques replaced the derelicts of the blue worlds He still portrayed outsiders, but there was more tenderness and more empathy in this world of the circus. Charles Morice wrote another piece in March of 1905, in which he saluted Picasso's new maturity and his deepened sensibility relative to his earlier work, when "he seemed to take delight in sadness without sympathizing with it."

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