Unfinished Portrait by Pablo Picasso

Portrait of Spanish artist Pablo Picasso (1881 – 1973) as he smokes a cigarette, Cannes, France, September 11, 1956. Photo credit: Arnold Newman/Getty Images

Pablo Picasso was one of the pioneers in the modernist revolution of portraiture, which is called “portrait situation”, engaging the psychological interest of the artist for the subject (the model).

Pablo Picasso, « Les Demoiselles d‘Avignon », oil on canvas. 1907. Photo credit: Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Pablo Picasso’s approach to portraiture is similar to an analysis where the psychological dynamics, translating the artist’s feelings and experience, is the key. Picasso phrased it as “I cannot make a portrait of just any person.” The artist was extremely sencere in his portraits and it might be the reason why he usually didn’t portray his close friends and never painted in the presence of his models.

Helena Rubinstein. c. 1930s. Photographer unknown. Musée Picasso, Paris

Helena Rubinstein had for years desired to be eternalised by Picasso but he was not eager to paint “that Rubinstein woman.” The grande dame asked their mutual friend Marie Cutolli for help – in spite the fact that Helena Rubinsten and Pablo Picasso were friends – to make things going her way. Finally, after twenty years of waiting, the preliminary appointment had been made and Rubinstein arrived to Cannes with her amanuensis to meet Pablo Picasso. However, Picasso would play a kind of Kafkaesque games with her.

Helena Rubinstein and Pablo Picasso. Photo credit: @Helena Rubinstein

After several attempts to call the artist’s villa and getting through only to anonymous intermediaries saying that the artist was “at work”, “sleeping” or “absent” (Madame Rubinstein claimed, they were Picasso himself), the cosmetics magnate finally showed up unannounced on August 15, 1955. Thus, she was admitted for an early evening sitting and another sitting the following night.

Study of a Portrait of Helena Rubinstein (I) & (II). August 15, 1955.

The first night Picasso was making a serious effort and the seven sketches of a few the artist did then belong to the best ones he did that year. The seventh drawing clearly reveals Picasso’s attitude towards Madame Rubinstein as it looks like a man’s profile within her full face.

Study of a Portrait of Helena Rubinstein (V) & (VII). August 15, 1955.

The second night the master could see nothing but Helena Rubinstein’s lavish costume and exuberant jewellery. It is amazing how fashion has left its detailed message created by Picasso in a furious searching mood.

Study of a Portrait of Helena Rubinstein (I) & (II). August 16, 1955.

Nevertheless, the final sitting took place in November 27, where the drawings rhetorically speak for themselves. However, after three sittings that resulted in numerous drawings, the portrait went unexecuted due to the “portrait situation” – an unfavourable psychological dynamics. Thus, after twenty years of waiting to be portrayed by Picasso and further ten year of hope to recieve the portrait, Madadame Rubinstein would die in 1965 without having even seen any of the sketches. Picasso died eight year later, leaving the portrait so dreamed of unfinished.

Study of a Portrait of Helena Rubinstein (XIV) & (XVIII). November 27, 1955.

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