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Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
dated '25.10.54.' (lower right)
oil on canvas
65.5 x 53.7cm (25 13/16 x 21 1/8in).
Painted on 25 October 1954
Estate of the artist (no.13292).
Perls Galleries, New York.
Brook Street Gallery, London.
Private collection, Texas.
Collection Dobe, Zurich.
Anon. sale, Christie's New York, 13 May 1999, lot 499.
Paris, Grand Palais, Hommage Pablo Picasso, November 1966 - February 1967, no.236 (illustrated).
Zurich, Collection Dorbe, Urban Cityscapes, summer 1989.
The Picasso Project, ed., Picasso's Paintings, Watercolours, Drawings and Sculpture: The Fifties I, 1950-1955, San Francisco, 2000, no.54-236 (a), p.242 (illustrated).
The authenticity of this work has kindly been confirmed by Madame Maya Widmaier-Picasso.
Landscapes played an integral role in Picasso's development as an artist, and his groundbreaking landscapes of 1909 marked the very beginnings of Cubism. They destroyed ideas of one-point perspective and manipulated senses of scale, light and shade, whilst communicating great sentiment. As a later work, Notre Dame de Paris illustrates the way in which Picasso used his early Cubist landscape techniques to influence his later landscape painting. Furthermore, and more symbolically, as Notre Dame de Paris is one of the very few landscape subjects painted by Picasso, it begs the question - why this subject at this time?
Picasso's early landscapes were influenced by Cézanne, whose paintings seemed to fuse the mountains and sky together in order to change viewer perspectives and flatten the dimensions of the landscape on the canvas. This complete blending of elements was crucial to Picasso's development of Cubism and is visible in this later painting.
Figure 1 depicts La rue des Paris, painted by the artist in the summer of 1908 and, as one of the very significant landscape works painted during Picasso's early Cubist phase, it acts as an interesting comparison with Notre Dame de Paris (painted much later). At first glance, the two works may seem to be completely different in approach, however there are key visual elements that remained constant throughout Picasso's landscape painting language. Firstly, the composition of La Rue des Paris appears to be split down the middle by the tree shown centre canvas. It acts as a separation between two areas of the subject – the linear, solid building to the left, and the fluid shading of nature to the right – whilst also acting as a focal point to create impact, and literally root the composition. Echoing that technique, Notre Dame de Paris depicts the Pont Saint-Michel bridge, which divides the composition into two areas. The area above the bridge is vigorous and curvilinear whilst the area below the bridge is more recognisably Cubist and geometric in its simplicity of shapes.
Secondly, both paintings raise more questions than provide visual answers; in La Rue des Paris the viewer seems to be looking at the tree from an elevated position whilst looking up at the building from below and there is no sense of perspective at all – the composition has been flattened by a complete subversion of scale and halting of the 'journey' that the viewer's eye takes through the painting. Again in Notre Dame de Paris, the sense of Picasso's viewpoint is multi-dimensional wherein the cathedral itself is viewed as if from the right bank, whilst the bridge is viewed as if standing on the left bank.
Picasso toys with the artistic conventions of perspective and scale to leave the viewer separated from reality and immersed instead into Picasso's own pictorial truth. Picasso certainly knew the Notre Dame landscape himself very well, via his walks to, and the view from, his studio, but chose to challenge it in order to explore aims other than realism.
It is possible that Picasso was pursuing special effects in his canvases that he had witnessed through using early cameras. It is well recorded that Picasso was interested in the effects of photography in regard to landscape painting. Undeniably, although Fauvist in style, Notre Dame de Paris, references the main themes the artist explored in his landscape photography and it is interesting to note which areas of this composition relate directly to his skill with the camera. The interlinking of the roofs of the Notre Dame with the curlicues of clouds echoes Picasso's intrigue with the way that foreground could merge with background in photography, and the way in which rooftops could merge into the sky (P.H. Tucker, Picasso, Photography and the Development of Cubism, The Art Bulletin, vol.64, no.2, 1982, p.295). In fact a description of one of Picasso's landscape photographs is familiar to both Notre Dame de Paris and La Rue de Paris:
'...this photograph bears evidence of the camera's ability to generalise. The left side of the curving reservoir wall fades into the landscape; the left side of the house in the foreground blends into the ground beside it...The light...seems to flicker across the surface in an arbitrary manner, minimising the different textures of the site and decreasing the sense of space in the picture.' (Ibid, p.295)
There is a far greater sense of contrast and vigour of light in Notre Dame de Paris than La rue de Paris but it is a painting that plays with luminosity just as his early Cubist works did. The light and shade on the Seine is reflected with sharp triangles of blues and whites underneath the Pont Saint-Michel, whilst heavily blackened shadows to the left and right of the composition close in the space and frame the central image of the cathedral.
The location of the landscapes that Picasso chose to paint were not coincidental but were places that he had emotional as well as geographical attachment to. For example, at the time of painting Notre Dame de Paris, he was spending a great deal of time in Vallauris and painted the surrounding French Riviera many times. He had also painted the Notre Dame before, most notably in the wake of the German occupation during the Second World War, and it was a work that expressed a poignant sense of liberation for the city that he knew and loved. In fact, the same degree of spiritual deliverance and freedom is notable in the present work, which is probably due to circumstances in his personal life at the time of painting.
By October 1954, when this painting was completed, the artist and his former partner, Françoise Gilot, had parted and he was falling in love with a woman who would later become his wife - Jacqueline Roque. Her portrait only appears in his paintings from May 1954, and at the time of painting Notre Dame de Paris, they were in the springtime of their passion, having recently returned from Vallauris together to live at his studio in Paris. Picasso's happiness at the time of working on this painting is self-evident. The vibrancy and impasto on the surface of the paint suggests Picasso's spirited movement as he painted the canvas, whilst positivity exudes from the subject itself. It is a painting depicting one day - marked '25.10.54' in the lower right of the painting - and as such, is a moment captured. It is as if it is a summer's day rather than a day in late October, and Picasso's new found love of Jacqueline and rediscovered love of Paris communicates beyond the picture plane.