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Culture and Arts

Culture Watch

In this issue:

About a Boy

Picasso’s Boy with a Pipe, a Rose period masterpiece, tops the $100 million mark and becomes the most expensive artwork sold at auction

by Val Castronovo

Picasso’s classic Rose period painting, Boy with a Pipe (Garçon à la pipe), shattered the record books when it sold to an undisclosed buyer for $104 million at Sotheby’s, dwarfing the $82.5 million paid for Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr. Gachet in 1990, until now the most paid for a work of art at auction. The painting is reputed to be the last Rose-period Picasso in private hands.

Thirty-three other valuable works by Impressionist and Modern masters were sold off, with the $190 million proceeds going to the Greentree Foundation, a nonprofit organization founded by philanthropist-collector Betsey Whitney after her husband Jock’s death. But Picasso’s early, signed portrait of a working-class youth from Montmartre was the undisputed star of the show. Jock Whitney, a wealthy businessman, sportsman and former ambassador to Britain, paid $30,000 for the canvas in 1950.

A Rose period icon, less dour, more celebratory than the master’s Blue period works, Boy is a picture of adolescent charm and comeliness. Its subject, most probably “P’tit Louis,” was known to the 24-year-old Picasso from his northern Parisian residence, the Bateau-Lavoir in Montmartre, so named because it looked like a laundry barge. And though the youth is the inspiration for an early study, he did not actually sit for the final work.

As French art critic André Salmon explained it, “Picasso had painted, without a model, the purest and simplest image of a young Parisian working boy, beardless and in blue overalls: having indeed, more or less the same appearance as the artist himself during working hours. One night, Picasso abandoned the company of his friends and their intellectual chit-chat. He returned to his studio, took the canvas he had abandoned a month before and crowned the figure of the little apprentice lad with roses. He had made this work a masterpiece thanks to a sublime whim.”

Louis, according to Picasso, was a frequent habitué of his studio:

“He stayed there, sometimes the whole day. He watched me work. He loved that.”

But when he was not there, something magical happened to the unfinished work. Picasso, fresh from an outing with writer friends who were discussing poetry, not only added the laureate garland of roses to the boy’s head but he also painted two rose bouquets on the wallpaper behind, flourishes reminiscent of Odilon Redon’s late portraits.

The evening’s chatter about poetry is thought to have been responsible for the dramatic transformation of the canvas. As Picasso biographer John Richardson posits in A Life of Picasso, Symbolist poet Verlaine was probably the master’s muse:

“One of the most poetic Rose period images is the Boy with a Pipe. It conjures up Verlaine’s poem ‘Crimen Amoris,’ about a palace in Ecbatana where ‘adolescent satans’ neglect the five senses for the seven deadly sins, except for the most handsome of all these evil angels, who is sixteen years old under his wreath of flowers… and who dreams away, his eyes full of fire and tears.”

But as Charles Moffett, Co-Director of Impressionist and Modern Art at Sotheby’s, told CBS News shortly before the auction, no one really knows the significance of the wreath, or the pipe for that matter.

The overall effect is decidedly melancholy but a far cry from the dolorous figures of Picasso’s earlier Blue period. Legendary art critic Meyer Schapiro provides a lucid description of the artist’s new style in an essay in his seminal volume Modern Art: 19th & 20th Centuries:

“What is called the ‘Rose Period’ includes many paintings with a pronounced blue or with strong chords of blue and rose or with cool or finely neutralized red, just as the faces and even the bodies retain something of the earlier tristesse. But the trend is unmistakably towards the overcoming of the pathos of those works through a happier imagery of beauty, strength, agility and daring, in which even a large mass of blue acquires a more cheerful aspect through its context and the contrasts with neighboring tones.”

Mention Boy with a Pipe and comparisons are inevitably drawn with one of Picasso’s other signature Rose-period works, Woman with a Fan (Femme à l’eventail), also completed in 1905. Woman is painted in profile and clearly owes a debt to Egyptian bas-reliefs, but both pictures focus on a single person, each with remarkably similar facial expression and features. The eyes are heavy-lidded, the noses and fingers elongated in tribute to El Greco. The lips and slender chins echo one another. Both seem sad but at the same time profoundly detached as they gaze mysteriously into the distance.

Gushes Sotheby’s Moffett about Boy: “It is this haunting ambiguity that has ensured for Garçon à la pipe its status as one of Picasso's most celebrated images of adolescent beauty and as a masterpiece of his early years.”

Oh Boy!

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