The Vollard Suite - Picasso over 7 years
“The Vollard Suite” was created by Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973) between 1930 and 1937 for the great avant-garde Parisian art dealer Ambroise Vollard (1866 - 1939), who gave Picasso his first Paris exhibition in 1901. The suite itself compromises of 100 etchings and shows all of Picasso’s passions of the time: sculpting, bullfighting, sex, and his current mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter (1909-1977). The 17-year-old lived across the street from Picasso’s marital home and started out as a model for him in 1927 after he noticed her classical features - in particular her straight nose. Marie-Thérèse clearly had a huge impact upon Picasso at this time as she appears in almost every etching of “The Vollard Suite” as well as his other work constructed during this period. The passionate love affair began to dwindle after the birth of their daughter Maya in 1935, partly because Picasso’s wife Olga Khokhlova was made aware of the affair around this time but also more significantly by 1936 Picasso had already begun to fall for his next muse, the photographer Dora Maar, who would document the creation of Picasso’s 1937 masterpiece, “Guernica”. “Guernica” was Picasso’s response to the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and is still regarded by many as one of his most important works; it has become an iconic statement on the horrors and atrocities of war. Many of the motifs in “Guernica” have a direct relationship to the work Picasso developed and produced for “The Vollard Suite”.
Most of the images in “The Vollard Suite” have no connection to the others however there are several overarching themes that link the work. Generally scholars agree on the following five categories (discounting around twenty-seven miscellaneous images and the three portraits of Vollard): ‘Battle of Love’, ‘the Sculptor’s Studio’, ‘Rembrandt’, ‘the Minotaur’ and ‘the Blind Minotaur’. These categories were put in place in the 1950’s after the suite’s reemergence onto the art market. It’s also worth noting that neither Picasso or Vollard ever referred to the suite as “The Vollard Suite”, this was another convention that occurred later. Similarly none of the prints were named or ordered by Vollard or Picasso. The series came about as part of a bargain between Picasso and Vollard. In Musée Picasso there is an unsigned typed document that details the sale or a Renoir painting for 130,000 francs and a Cézanne for 80,000 francs. The document is dated 19th February 1934 and so it is supposed by most scholars to be Picasso’s payment for the “The Vollard Suite”. Vollard was well known for his verbal agreements and never keeping much of a written record so this document is especially significant. Eleven plates that make up “The Vollard Suite” were created between September 1930 and July 1932, then a flurry of activity in mid-March 1933 led to forty plates being completed within six weeks, after this Picasso continued to create plates and Vollard selected those he liked in 1933 and 1934. By June 1936, ninety-seven prints had been selected, to make the suite into a more commercial number Vollard convinced Picasso to make three portraits of the art dealer, all of which were completed in one day (4th March 1937). There is a suggestion that Vollard was simply undertaking some self-promotion by asking Picasso for those portraits as he was publishing his book Recollections of a Picture Dealer in France that year. In any case what is particularly significant about “The Vollard Suite” is the manner in which it was commissioned. There was no set number of prints or timetable. The way that Vollard selected the works allowed for an organic collection that shows off Picasso’s passions and interests over the course of almost seven years. Something that is singularly unique in art history and especially significant when we understand the talents of Picasso and his ability to span several art movements and styles throughout his creative life.
Vollard died in a car accident on 22nd July 1939, this sent shock waves throughout the Parisian artistic community and put an abrupt end to a number of projects, “The Vollard Suite” included. There is much evidence to suggest that at least some of the plates had been destined to form a book as illustrations that would have accompanied the texts of André Suarès’s Minotaure and Minos & Pasiphaë. Vollard’s illustrated books rarely held much coherency between the written text and the illustrations, instead they were to be viewed as two parallel narratives. This is perhaps one of the reasons that artist’s liked Vollard’s style of publication; their artistic freedom was rarely impinged upon. While this book collaboration was never to be, before Vollard’s death there existed 315 printed sets of “The Vollard Suite”: 260 printed on Montval paper, approximately 44.5 x 34.0 cm, each bearing a specially made ‘Picasso’ or ‘Vollard’ watermark; fifty sets existed on Montval paper but in the larger size of 50 x 38.5 cm and carrying a different ‘Montgolfier’ watermark and three sets were printed on vellum. The printing was undertaken by Roger Lacourière, at Montmartre at rue Foyatier and was not completed until 1939, two months before Vollard’s death. Vollard had arranged for Picasso to sign ten plates from the larger set in a limited edition of fifteen and the three on vellum. This could have all been intended to make up a deluxe separate album.
Vollard’s will left most of his estate to his siblings and family friends although it was written in 1911, years before he attained any wealth and as such no provisions were set out to ensure that his projects were completed. Vollard’s print-stock was purchased in bulk in the mid-1940s by the Paris print dealer Henri Petiet from Vollard’s brother, Lucien. It is thought that Petiet purchased all ninety-seven prints of ‘The Vollard Suite’, minus the three portraits for 10,000 Swiss Francs. The portraits were sold to Petiet’s rival Marcel Lecomte forcing Petiet to negotiate with Lecomte every time he sold a full set of the prints. The outbreak of the Second World War meant that the prints were largely forgotten about until the 1950s when Petiet began distributing “The Vollard Suite” on the open-market as both individual prints and as full sets, and from 1954 he began sending the prints to Picasso for him to sign. Supposedly Picasso charged 10,000 Francs for his signature on these prints and charged both Petiet and Lecomte separately. It was a tactic that gave him a return from the prints and also discouraged the dealers from sending too many for him to sign, he wished to be left to work on his current artist projects rather than be bogged down in endless signatures. In 1969 Picasso was so involved with his 347 series that he stopped signing the prints altogether, which is why so many are left unsigned today.
In 1956 the art historian Hans Bolliger reproduced ‘The Vollard Suite’ in a book that is no longer in print and is rarely seen on the open market. In fact no one is really sure how many of these books survive today. We currently have a number of prints here at the gallery which are pages taken from one or more of these books. They are gorgeous period reproductions that truly enjoy a place within the history of art.