Picasso’s “Mother and Child (and Father? Oh my!)”

Pablo Picasso, Mother and Child, 1921, Oil on canvas, 56 1/4 x 68 in. (142.9 x 172.7 cm)signed and dated l.r.: "Picasso / 21",  © 2013 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Pablo Picasso, Mother and Child, 1921, Oil on canvas, 56 1/4 x 68 in. (142.9 x 172.7 cm)
signed and dated l.r.: “Picasso / 21”, © 2013 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

I have seen Pablo Picasso’s 1921 painting Mother and Child countless times during probably one hundred visits to the Art Institute of Chicago. It usually sits in the center of a gallery wall, immediately engrossing passers by who need a respite from some of the more abstract works in the AIC’s Modern Wing.

motherandchildgallery

After visiting the new “Picasso and Chicago” exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago–which everyone in the Chicagoland area should certainly do in the coming months–and hearing a lecture from exhibition curator Stephanie D’Alessandro, I saw this painting in an entirely new light.

While discussing the details of Picasso’s long-standing relationship with Chicago, D’Alessandrotalked about the discussions that took place between Picasso and architect Richard Bennett in the mid-1960s, as Bennett pushed Picasso to accept a commission from the city of Chicago for his now famous sculpture in Chicago’s Daley Plaza.

Untitled, Pablo Picasso, 1967, Daley Plaza, Chicago

Untitled, Pablo Picasso, 1967, Daley Plaza, Chicago

While Picasso was drafting concepts for the sculpture, Bennett brought a catalog from the Art Institute to his studio for inspiration, the contents of which featured many of Picasso’s own works from years past.

When Picasso was flipping through thecatalog, he saw his painting Mother and Child and stopped. He looked at it for a few seconds, closed the catalog, and quickly left the room, shouting to Richard Bennett that he’d return in a few minutes. As promised, he came back, but this time holding a rolled up canvas. He handed the canvas to Bennett, and said: “Take this to the Art Institute, they’ll know what to do with it.”

Bennett did as Picasso had instructed, and took the canvas to the Art Institute. When staff at the AIC unrolled it, they found this:

Detail of Picasso Painting, © 2013 Mary C.K. Hayes

Detail of Picasso Painting, © 2013 Mary C.K. Hayes

And they immediately saw the connection.

Photo of "Picasso and Chicago" at the Art Institute of Chicago © 2013 Mary C.K. Hayes

Photo of “Picasso and Chicago” at the Art Institute of Chicago © 2013 Mary C.K. Hayes

To further inspect the connection, they ended up removing the canvas of Mother and Child from its stretcher (which is what holds the canvas taut, before it is framed and hung), and used x-ray technology to see the various layers of paint. They found that originally the painting did include a male figure who, with arm outstretched, dangled a fish over the young boy’s head. With this new knowledge, upon second look, the boy who at first appears to lovingly gaze at his mother, may
have originally been looking at the fish in his father’s hand.

But why would Picasso remove the male figure from his finished painting? D’Allesandro stated that a few historians alluded to Picasso’s personal life while he was painting Mother and Child, suggesting that while he was married at the time, he also had a wandering eye. Perhaps he decided not to portray a family, complete with a paternal presence, while he was feeling distant from his wife. However, D’Allesandro said that her personal opinion was that Picasso would not have been–as he had never really been–so literal within his artwork. She suggested instead that perhaps he was looking to Greek mythology, and originally intended to refer to Perseus and Danae, which could explain the presence of a
fish.

Regardless, in my opinion, perhaps the most stunning part of this story is that Picasso–then in his 80s–not only remembered that the extra roll of canvas existed, but still had the extra canvas piece in his possession nearly 45 years later, and knew exactly where to find it in his house. Nothing short of impressive, even for Picasso!

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