No artist is better known, or has been written about more or in greater detail, than Pablo Picasso. Hardly a year passes without some major book or exhibition being devoted to him. Hence all the pitfalls that await biographers of artists—particularly the need to move back and forth from the life to the works—are greatly magnified for anyone courageous or foolhardy enough to tackle a full-scale biography of Picasso. John Richardson’s A Life of Picasso, the first of a projected four volumes, deals with Picasso’s life from his birth in 1881 until the time that he prepared the canvas on which he would paint Les Demoiselles d’Avignon. In it Richardson has managed to confront many of the problems inherent in such an undertaking and to produce an account of the artist’s first twentyfive years that is so absorbing and stimulating, so detailed and so evenhanded, that it should remain the standard biography for many years to come.

Richardson has made many of the potential pitfalls of writing such a biography work for him rather than against him. His success in doing so seems to be a direct consequence of the clarity of his approach to his subject. Although Richardson’s stated goal was to “set forth the facts as clearly and accurately as possible,”1 his book offers a version of Picasso’s life that is at once “objective” and personal, balanced and fairminded—and bracingly opinionated.

As if to provide a fixed point in a narrative about someone as mercurial and contradictory as Picasso, Richardson has placed himself firmly at the margin of the narrative—somewhat in the way that Renaissance painters sometimes included themselves at the edges of large compositions. He starts his book with an account of how he met Picasso in the south of France in 1953 and how their friendship grew; he writes in the first person (which seems at the start somewhat jarring, but which in the end works well); and he lets the reader know right off that his immense admiration for Picasso’s art has not blinded him to the man’s many shortcomings. One of the qualities of this book that sets it apart from most other biographical studies of Picasso is that it is neither hagiography nor demonology.

Nor is it a book that looks for easy answers. Having known the artist himself, and having apparently read just about everything that has been written about him, Richardson is willing to accept both the contradictory nature of the man and the different ways in which his work may be interpreted. Richardson’s open-mindedness and willingness to accept these contradictions gives his narrative a refreshing directness. He has no particular ideological axes to grind and tries his best to let the story tell itself.

At the outset, Richardson informs us that Picasso used to tell biographers, “My work is like a diary.” To which Richardson adds, not without a note of exasperation, “as if this facilitated their task.” No other biographer of Picasso seems so aware of what a mixed blessing this “diary” is, or how confusing the wealth of “factual” information about this artist can be. For if certain aspects of Picasso’s ongoing diary are fairly straightforward in their chronicle, other parts, Richardson observes,

are arcane or in code. And then we should remember that diaries are none the less interesting for fantasizing, embroidering and reordering the truth. This is very much the case with Picasso. He was such a mass of contradictions that, according to his son, he used to repeat again and again, “Truth is a lie; truth is a lie….”

A Life of Picasso is particularly impressive in the way the facts behind the narrative are constantly reconsidered and reevaluated. The book gives a clearer idea of who Picasso was, and how he lived and developed as an artist during this period, than anything else that has been written about him. Along the way, a number of the hallowed myths about Picasso are called into question. Richardson convincingly casts doubt upon a number of Picasso’s later claims about his childhood and youth, in which the artist tried to exaggerate the degree to which he stood apart from other people. Exceptional as he was, he felt impelled to make himself seem even more so by embellishing and reinventing parts of his past. In this undertaking he found a number of willing accomplices, notably Jaime Sabartès, his longtime secretary, general factotum, and eventual biographer, as well as other friendly biographers who were quite willing to take the artist at his own word.

Richardson is skeptical. He takes nothing for granted, and with the help of the art historian Marilyn McCully he has unearthed much new documentary material that (among other things) debunks some of the persistently repeated myths about Picasso’s early life. Richardson convincingly challenges Picasso’s claims that he never drew like a child, that he was a dunce at school barely capable of reading or adding numbers, and his claim that when he was thirteen his artist father turned over to him his brushes and palette and declared that in the face of his son’s genius he would never paint again. (In fact, whatever profession of faith he may have made to his son, the dismally mediocre Don José continued to paint for many years after this alleged incident.)


All his life, Picasso had ambivalent feelings toward authority. On the one hand, he disdained social conventions and official institutions, on the other he had a deep fear of officialdom, especially policemen. (Richardson gives a perceptive account of the young artist’s troubled relationship with his rich and pompous. Uncle Salvador, who reluctantly bought his nephew’s exemption from military service despite fears that his bad habits and seedy friends would bring disgrace to the family.) Some of this ambivalence seems to be reflected in the myths Picasso circulated about his early training, especially his accounts of his school experiences, in which he made it seem that he obeyed only his own laws. He convinced Roland Penrose and other biographers, for example, that in 1895 he had passed in one day the entrance examination for the La Llotja art school in Barcelona, which normally took a month. Richardson shows that only two days were normally allotted for the examination and he provides evidence that Picasso used both days to complete it.

Richardson similarly debunks the legends that have surrounded Picasso’s entrance examination and student activities at the Royal Academy of San Fernando in Madrid a couple of years later. This does not mean that Richardson is entirely immune to such mythologizing, as when he acceptingly repeats Picasso’s mother’s testimony that her son “could draw before he could speak”—overlooking the fact that most children can. Still, Richardson makes clear that Picasso was not only one of the most naturally gifted artists of all time but also one of the most hard-working.

Although Richardson rightly emphasizes the quicksilver changeability of Picasso’s personality, he also points out two very important, and very Spanish, constants in Picasso’s character. These are his “duende” (translated rather summarily as “soul” and meaning here particularly his intense perception of a sacred element in life, and a constant awareness of death), and his obsession with “mirada fuerte” (“strong gazing”). Quoting the anthropologist David Gilmore, Richardson reminds us that in Andalusia, where Picasso grew up, “the eye is akin to a sexual organ…looking too intently at a woman is akin to ocular rape.” To which Richardson adds. “So is painting a woman, especially when Picasso wields the brush.” Richardson rightly characterizes the aggressive scrutiny of mirada fuerte as one of the keys to Picasso’s work as a whole, and he insists that although Picasso spent most of his working life in France, he is best understood as an essentially Spanish artist.

According to Richardson, his Spanishness is evident in his limited palette, his “tenebrism”—a term usually applied “to the dark religious works of Spanish painters”—and his emphasis on the underlying ideal of duende. This viewpoint gives us a very particular understanding of Picasso and his art, by throwing into sharp relief the contrasts between the Spanish experiences that were so important to the formation of his talents and predispositions, and his experience of France, where these talents and predispositions came to their first full fruition. The degree to which Picasso retained his Spanishness, even though he spent most of his working life in France, is often underestimated. But Richardson perhaps errs a bit in the other direction. Picasso’s French experience was absolutely essential to his art, not only because it allowed him to escape from the relative provincialism of Spain, but because being in France brought out different, one might say the more experimental, aspects of his character.

In fact, the French-Spanish duality of Picasso’s art was paralleled by a similar duality in his personality, remarked by his mistress Fernande Olivier when she traveled to Spain, with him during the summer of 1906. Noting that the atmosphere of his own country gave him a special inspiration, she wrote that

the Picasso I saw in Spain was completely different from the Paris Picasso; he was gay, less wild, more brilliant and lively and able to interest himself in things in a calmer, more balanced fashion; at ease in fact.

Olivier goes on to say that Picasso “would have been happier if he had lived in Spain.” But of course, as she learned to her regret, happiness was not what he was looking for.



John Richardson is remarkably alert to social situations and to the small but telling detail, both in events and in pictures. Unlike previous biographies of Picasso, which are skimpily illustrated and deal only superficially with the artist’s work,2 Richardson’s book discusses many works extensively and includes 675 black-and-white illustrations. These include many well-chosen photographs of the artist and his surroundings, but most of them reproduce works of art by Picasso and others. Moving back and forth between Picasso’s life and work, Richardson gradually builds a rich network of incidents and images. As the narrative progresses, the account becomes increasingly complex, and although it would be impossible for anyone to cover all the mutual implications of so rich a mixture of events, people, and pictures, Richardson makes a number of telling connections.

In order to do so, he moves up and back through Picasso’s entire oeuvre. He suggests, for example, that the early copies Picasso made in the Prado anticipate some of his late works and relates Picasso’s youthful paintings of female martyrs to his later harrowing portrayals of his wives and mistresses. Richardson also astutely observes how a series of portraits done in Barcelona in 1899 marked a turning point in Picasso’s working method. It was at this time that he began to work on linked series of paintings and drawings, frequently abandoning himself to a single theme or subject until he had exhausted it, a phenomenon remarked by Gertrude Stein when she wrote that “Picasso was always possessed by the necessity of emptying himself, of emptying himself completely, of always emptying himself….”

The kinds of connections that Richardson makes also stimulate us to make others. This I consider to be one of the main virtues of the book: its engaging openness seems to invite us to go further with the detailed information that it offers. Richardson’s chapters on Picasso’s early years, for example, made me more aware of the complexity of Picasso’s relationship to language. Picasso was born in Málaga, but his family moved to Corunna, on the northwestern coast of Spain, when he was only nine. In Corunna, where his father unhappily taught painting and the family never felt welcome, his Andalusian accent would have been quite conspicuous; and the local people used the Galician dialect as well as Castilian. Four years later, the family moved to Barcelona, where Catalan was widely spoken, especially in the catalaniste circles he frequented. Two years after that, Picasso went to study in Castilian-speaking Madrid, and it was not until the summer of 1898, when he went to the mountain village of Horta de Ebro with his friend Manuel Pallarès that he was at ease speaking in Catalan.

When he first visited Paris in 1901, his French was virtually nonexistent and he hung out mostly with Spaniards. And when he returned to Paris later that year his French was still so poor that he and his new friend Max Jacob had to communicate largely with gestures. Jacob introduced Picasso to such writers as Racine, Baudelaire, and Verlaine, and helped him learn to speak idiomatic French. But Picasso continued throughout his life to speak French with a marked Spanish accent and to use a very idiosyncratic form of spelling, no matter which language he was writing. Some idea of how his spoken French (and his views about women) appeared to the French can be got from Apollinaire’s novel La Femme assise, in which the Picasso-like painter Pablo Canouris tells his mistress, “Si tu né m’obéis pas, jé té touerrai avec mon rébolber.” Later in the book Canouris remarks that “Pour aboir braiment une femme, il faut l’aboire enlébée, l’enfermer à clef et l’occouper tout lé temps.”

During most of his formative years, Picasso used language as an outsider. Thus, even before he arrived in Paris, he was already a kind of “vertical invader”3—a maverick who was able to occupy a place at the center of the group he frequented through the sheer magnetism of his personality. (In Montmartre, his French artist and writer friends came to be known as members of la bande à Picasso. In the Spanish manner, he made himself the center of a tertulia, or circle of cronies.) Picasso’s sense of dislocation and his fluid relationship to language must have given him an extremely strong sense of the arbitrariness of all forms of communication, including visual ones, and may even have been a contributing factor to his extraordinary freedom from self-censoring—in his speech, his actions, and his art.

Richardson, with his lively interest in the interplay of personalities, is especially good when describing the urban milieus in which Picasso worked—first among the bohemian artists and writers that gathered at Els Quatre Gats Café in Barcelona, and later in the midst of a similar but more sophisticated enclave in Montmartre. Discussing the Barcelona group, Richardson remarks that although the various members tend to blur together, it is worthwhile to distinguish among them “because each in his different way was an indispensable source of the admiration, support and stimulus that fueled the early stages of Picasso’s rocketlike ascent.”

Richardson gives vivid verbal portraits of Picasso’s friends at this time, particularly Isidre Nonell, the anarchistic son of a pasta merchant, who took up with gypsies and Cuban war veterans and caused a sensation with his drawings of goitrous idiots in Catalonia. The discussion of this period provides not only a full and lively account of Picasso’s life in Barcelona, but makes Picasso’s early portraits come to life as they never have before, calling our attention to how “Picasso always registers the sitter’s gaze…[he] diagnoses ambition or anguish, slyness or faint-heartedness, with insight and wit that has yet to acquire a lethal edge.”

Richardson is also acutely aware of small gestures and mannerisms, and even details of dress. He evokes Picasso and two of his Catalan friends arriving in Paris wearing corduroy suits of the same cut, from the same tailor; and he memorably describes the penurious Picasso and his friend Angel De Soto sharing “their one and only pair of gloves, each of them keeping the uncovered hand in a pocket while conspicuously gesturing with the gloved one.”

This first volume also sheds new light on a number of Picasso’s personal relationships. For many years, scholars have discussed Picasso’s friendship with Carles Casagemas, the young Catalan artist with whom he first went to Paris and who posthumously figures in some of his most gripping early paintings. Apparently driven to despair by his sexual impotence, Casagemas committed suicide in a Paris restaurant, while Picasso was back in Barcelona. Richardson convincingly suggests that Casagemas’s impotence very likely resulted from his repressed homosexuality rather than from some physical disorder, and he gives a disturbing picture of how Picasso used Casagemas to fulfill his “urgent need for a subservient friend,” and then “eased him out of his life” not long before he committed suicide.

Despite Richardson’s great admiration for Picasso, he is deeply aware of the artist’s dark side. Time and again, Picasso would abandon, betray, or simply ignore the needs of people who were close to him. “For all his artistic courage, Picasso lacked moral courage,” Richardson remarks, and the book is full of instances when friends and lovers were sacrificed to Picasso’s moral cowardice and ruthless egotism.

This is not to say that Picasso wasn’t also a delightful companion to his friends and his lovers alike. In many cases he must have given the people around him as much as he got; but he had a better capacity for taking than they did. In particular, he was greatly helped by his writer friends, who included Apollinaire, Jacob, André Salmon, and many others less well known. They helped him to enlarge his horizons by sharing with him their knowledge and enthusiasm for avant-garde writing—much of which he would have found virtually impossible to read on his own, even though he does seem to have read more in French literature than is generally thought. The sketches that Richardson gives of Picasso’s friends and acquaintances are models of their kind, and are remarkably free of factual errors (although a few do creep in, as when Matisse is said to have acquired his Cézanne Bathers in 1901 instead of 1899).

One of the most fascinating chapters is about Picasso’s relationship to Alfred Jarry, the wildly unconventional author of Ubu Roi, who had an enormous effect upon Picasso’s developing image of himself. Like a character in a Spanish picaresque novel, Picasso was constantly at odds with figures of authority and was drawn to antisocial, anti-establishment behavior; and Jarry, the specialist in blasphemous scatology who, in “Le Père Ubu,” had created a supremely grotesque caricature of an authority figure, could serve as model. According to Richardson, Jarry also anticipates “a problem at the very heart of Picasso’s work: his contradictory use of symbols.” This is related to Jarry’s idea of “identity of opposites” in which “not only are the signs plus and minus identical but so too, ultimately, are the concepts of day and night, light and darkness, good and evil, Christ and Antichrist.”

In view of the powerful influence that Jarry had on Picasso, previous biographers believed that the two men were friends. In fact, Richardson shows, they never met. Although it is true that Picasso did indeed inherit the writer’s rusty old Browning revolver, this symbolic transfer of property was probably arranged by Jacob or Apollinaire:

Jarry’s hold on Picasso’s imagination was the more palpable for being vested in something as menacing as a gun, especially one that the writer had carried around with him and fondled, brandished and frequently fired.

And, indeed, in the ensuing years Picasso would himself carry around the original Pataphysician’s weapon, and often fire it, in order to rid himself of bores and dullards.

Richardson also has some trenchant things to say about Picasso’s deep distrust of art dealers, largely the result of his bitter feelings toward the men who had preyed upon him during his early years. Richardson’s portraits of the different dealers—such as Pere Mañach, Léon Angély, Eugène Soulié, Clovis Sagot, Berthe Weill, and Ambroise Vollard—are in their own way as fascinating as those of the poets. (The avaricious Sagot set up his gallery in a former drug store and his “only charity,” Richardson writes, was to treat needy artists with patent medicines from his predecessor’s stock, however inappropriate: when Fernande was suffering from a bad cold, he gave her medicine for diabetes.)

Indeed, so unpleasant were Picasso’s experiences with the Parisian art scene that after February 1905 he virtually stopped exhibiting there. In part, this was to avoid direct competition with such artists as Matisse, who regularly showed at the Salons and in private galleries, in part to avoid having to deal with the dealers. Unfortunately, Picasso continued this policy right through the heyday of Cubist painting. As a result, some of his most revolutionary paintings were not exhibited in Paris until after World War I, and this has severely limited our ability to know what people thought about them at the time.

Richardson’s book captures the sensuality of Picasso and his friends, and it gives the fullest account yet of the women in his life—from the unnamed whores in the Barcelona brothels to the women who were close to him and in some cases strongly affected his work. These include the circus performer Rosita del Oro (who may have inspired some of his circus pictures), Germaine Florentin (for the love of whom Casagemas ostensibly committed suicide), a model known only as Madeleine (who aborted a child conceived with Picasso in 1904), Alice Princet (later the wife of the painter André Derain), and Picasso’s first great love, Fernande Olivier (née Amélie Lang or Belvallé—the names of Picasso’s mistresses seem at times to mirror his own complicated relationship to fixed notions of language).

Fernande was Picasso’s first maitresse en titre and they lived together (on and off) for several years, starting in 1905. The portrait of her that emerges from these pages is the fullest in any book about Picasso, and tells us as much about him as about her. Picasso was insanely jealous of her, and in order to ensure her faithfulness he literally kept her locked up in the studio while he himself took care of the housework and shopping. (As in Apollinaire’s novel: “To have a woman properly you have to make off with her, lock her up and devote all your time to her.”) To make it difficult for her to leave the studio, he refused even to let her have proper shoes, allowing her only an old pair of espadrilles. Although Fernande was at first flattered by her lover’s Andalusian jealousy and possessiveness, after a while she began to resent it and would intermittently run away and try to live on her own.

It was with Fernande that Picasso also began to experiment with drugs, especially opium and hashish, to which he became devoted for a time. Although Richardson gives a good deal of attention to Picasso’s experiences with drugs, and even speculates that the dreamy atmosphere of Picasso’s 1904–1905 rose-colored paintings may to some degree reflect those experiences, he is wary of overemphasizing their importance to his work:

Picasso regarded his work as sacrosanct and always kept his physical and mental energies tuned to the highest pitch. Work, sex and tobacco were his only addictions.

In any case, Picasso’s use of drugs came to an abrupt end in June of 1908, when one of his neighbors, a German painter named Wiegels, hanged himself after taking an overdose.

As Richardson observes, Fernande changed the imagery of Picasso’s paintings. At the time he met her Picasso was concentrating largely on male figures, and it was not until many months later that he began to incorporate Fernande, and female figures generally, into his works. Although Richardson does not say so, one is tempted to speculate that the shift from classical youths to naked young girls is a reflection of an important psychic change within Picasso, in which his intense narcissism began to give way to his adoration of La Belle Fernande.


One of the subtlest and most welcome touches in Richardson’s book is that it does not categorize Picasso’s paintings according to specific periods—such as Blue, Rose, Circus, or Classical. To my mind these categories have always trivialized the works they are supposed to describe. Instead Richardson integrates his discussion of individual paintings into a nearly seamless narrative account of Picasso’s life, and manages to accomplish the ultimate in biographical legerdemain: to treat the life and the work equally. He provides the best analysis yet of Picasso’s early portraits and addresses the sentimentality of the paintings done between 1900 and 1903 in a most enlightening way. In response to recent discussion of the anarchist sympathies that are supposed to be expressed in Picasso’s paintings (as opposed to his life—the two, after all, are different), Richardson points out that Picasso’s predominantly blue paintings are the opposite of socially engaged pictures. In fact, they sentimentalize and prettify their subjects—beggars, cripples, poor people, whores—in a way that tends to neutralize any political and social implications. In later years, Picasso said he was not particularly fond of these pictures, which he dismissed as “nothing but sentiment.” One of the largest and most ambitious of them all, the allegorical La Vie, of 1903, which evokes the dead Casagemas, he later characterized as even worse than the rest, as “awful.”

In fact, La Vie is one of the most mysterious of Picasso’s early paintings, and Richardson has some very interesting things to say about it. His discussion of the possible Tarot symbolism in the painting is especially original, and if I am not convinced that it is the answer to the mystery of the painting, it nonetheless points to a dimension of Picasso’s art that has been previously overlooked. As Richardson points out, Picasso’s friend Max Jacob, with whom he had shared a room, was a part-time fortuneteller, interested in astrology, palm reading, and Tarot cards, and this must have had some effect on Picasso.

Richardson also discusses the early provenance of the painting, which is supposed to have been sold to a mysterious Parisian collector named Jean Saint-Gaudens shortly after it was painted. But as Richardson points out, Saint-Gaudens “has vanished without trace” and there is no evidence that Picasso ever received the money for the picture.

Although Richardson raises questions about which of Picasso’s friends might have introduced him to this shadowy buyer, the sale, in my view, may well have been invented by Picasso in order to increase his standing and prestige in Barcelona. Our information about the sale of the painting comes from an anonymous article in the June 4, 1903 issue of El Liberal (probably written by Picasso’s friend Carles Junyer Vidal), which states that “Pablo Ruiz Picasso, the well-known Spanish artist, who has had so many triumphs in Paris, has recently sold one of his latest works for a respectable price to the Parisian collector M. Jean Saint-Gaudens.” In fact, Picasso was not particularly well-known at the time and had just returned from a series of dispiriting, even disastrous, defeats in Paris. When we consider that he doesn’t seem to have received the money from the sale, and keep in mind his penchant for creating his own legend, it seems quite possible that this article was planted—one of the earliest examples of Picasso’s talent for self-promotion.

Richardson gives unprecedented attention to the influence of El Greco and Gauguin on Picasso’s early development. El Greco, as he points out, had haunted Picasso’s imagination since his student days, and Picasso had clearly stated his ambition to become the new El Greco. (Around 1899 he had even inscribed a sheet of drawings, “Yo El Greco.”) Richardson has discussed El Greco’s effect on Picasso in these pages,4 but in this book he makes his case more fully and more persuasively than before; and one looks forward with great anticipation to seeing how he will treat the presence of both El Greco and Gauguin in his discussion of the Demoiselles d’Avignon at the beginning of his next volume.

Richardson’s readings of individual paintings are admirably open-minded. Although he makes strong suggestions about possible sources of imagery in Picasso’s personal life, work by other artists, and popular imagery, Richardson rightly insists that strong paintings tend to suggest more than one thing at a time and are open to multiple readings. Only occasionally does he violate his own ground rules, as in his discussion of the 1905 Saltimbanques, where he excludes what seem to be suggestive, if secondary, readings of the figures in the painting.

One of the most detailed and interesting discussions of a single picture is that of the Portrait of Gertrude Stein, begun in the fall of 1905. Picasso worked on the painting for most of the following winter, but toward the spring he painted out the head and told Gertrude that he could no longer see her when he looked at her. The picture was left unfinished until the following fall, when Picasso returned from his summer sojourn at Gósol, in the Spanish Pyrenees. It was then that he repainted the head from memory, remarking when he was told that it did not look like her, “but never mind, in the end she will manage to look just like it.” (And she did.)

Richardson, to put it mildly, is not one of Miss Stein’s admirers. He is quite testy on the subject of her egomania, her obsession with the word “genius” as it applied to herself, and her “sometimes inert and shallow” writing. He also has some amusing things to say about what he characterizes as her “excretory” notion of the creative process (which casts an odd light on her image of Picasso repeatedly “emptying himself”) and implies that in later years, at least, Picasso tended to agree with Douglas Cooper’s observation that Stein “confused being a genius with being a celebrity.” Whether or not one agrees with Richardson’s view of Gertrude Stein, his account of the creation of Picasso’s portrait of her, which he characterizes as having the “Sèvres-like sheen of Ingres, the heft of Cézanne, the sharp focus of a photograph…and, not least, the imperiousness of Stein,” is a tour de force.

Although the sculptural rendering of Gertrude Stein’s head is usually attributed to Picasso’s interest in ancient Iberian relief sculptures, Richardson argues convincingly for other sources, in particular a head of the Empress Livia by Ingres, studies that Picasso had recently made of Josep Font-devila, the proud old innkeeper at Gósol, sculptures by Gauguin, and especially Spanish Romanesque sculpture. It seems to me that Richardson’s contribution to the ongoing discussion about the significance of Picasso’s sculptural style of painting during 1906–1907 is absolutely crucial, especially his insistence that such a radical stylistic change cannot be tied to a single source. Here, as elsewhere, Richardson retells a familiar story in such a rich and vivid way that it comes alive again and reverberates with fresh meaning.

In fact, when you get to the end of his long and illuminating book, you feel somewhat the way you do when you come to the close of a particularly absorbing novel: you can’t wait to find out what is going to happen next. And I, for one, can’t wait to read the next volume of this inspired biography of one of the most inspired artists of all time.

This Issue

March 28, 1991