Suite Vollard (Bloch 134 – Bloch 234)

Around 1927, the famed dealer Ambroise Vollard commissioned a suite of one hundred prints from Picasso that have become known as the Suite Vollard, or the Vollard Suite. The artist worked on the etchings over a period of seven years, beginning in 1930. A large number of the images in the series refer to classical art and mythology, and in the later prints Picasso introduces the Minotaur, one of the more important themes in his work. Within the overall group of one hundred is a smaller set of forty-six prints that are referred to as the “Sculptor’s Studio” series. They depict a mature, bearded sculptor in his light-filled and tranquil studio contemplating or actively modeling his work, usually accompanied by a beautiful young model. The figures and sculptures are often adorned with headpieces and garlands of leaves or flowers, and the artwork is displayed on Greek columns. The style of these plates is clean, elegant, and linear; the figures appear to be in a tranquil and languorous state of mind. By contrast, the later “Minotaur” and “Blind Minotaur” prints in the suite are intensely emotional, symbolic, and deeply worked. Picasso’s skill as an etcher grew by leaps and bounds in the early 1930s, and he achieved a mastery of the medium that is evident in each image of the suite.

Picasso completed his work on the Suite Vollard in 1937 with four etchings of Vollard, his patron. Of the four, Vollard selected three to be included in the final publication. To borrow musical terms, these final images serve as a coda to the aforementioned movements of the suite. They also recall the tradition of acknowledging a benefactor or patron with a small dedication—a common practice for artists in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. All of them show Vollard from a similar angle with the same neutral expression, however, each is executed in a different style—the first two are aquatints, a technique that Picasso perfected in the mid-1930s, and the third is a line etching. Several stories have circulated about how these portraits came to be, including an anecdote in which Picasso suggested that he sketch a new portrait each time he saw Vollard.i However, recent scholarship shows that the pose in each of the plates closely resembles a photograph taken of Vollard in 1915 that Picasso likely used as a basis upon which to make his etched portraits.ii

The span of seven years during which Picasso worked on the Suite Vollard was marked by several major changes in Picasso’s life, and the psychological implications of these events are reflected in many of the images. His secret affair with Marie-Thérèse Walter, which began in 1927, intensified in the mid-1930s and her likeness began to appear in most of his work. She is the model and muse for many of the female figures in the Suite Vollard. Their carnal bliss is evident in the “Sculptor’s Studio” images, the majority of which were etched at the peak of their relationship in 1933 and 1934. This idyllic arrangement began to unravel in late 1934 when Marie-Thérèse told Picasso she was pregnant and his response to this news unfolds in the dramatic, surreal, and anguished “Blind Minotaur” prints of late 1934 and early 1935 (S.V. 94 - S.V.97). In the summer of 1935 Picasso’s wife, the Ukrainian ballerina Olga Khokhlova, learned of his affair and expected child—she promptly left him and took their son, Paulo. Though Picasso had been unhappy in the marriage for years due to Olga’s high-strung temperament, he was anguished over the loss of his respectability and his son. In response to this upheaval, he gave up painting, drawing and printmaking for a period, instead devoting his energies to writing Surrealist poetry.

Picasso and Marie-Thérèse shared informal living arrangements for a time after their daughter Maya was born in September of 1935. Though Walter’s unassuming and yielding personality had provided a haven to him during his tempestuous marriage, her docile nature and lack of intellectual curiosity became problematic once he found himself alone with her. As a result, Picasso began a new affair with the accomplished and beautiful avant-garde photographer Dora Maar in the spring of 1936. However, Picasso continued to see Marie-Thérèse and their young daughter on occasion. Maar, who was from an intellectual family, was a member of the artistic circles that Picasso frequented and was his equal in drive, intellect, and passion; they often collaborated or worked side by side late into the evening. Shortly after their relationship began, the Spanish Civil War broke out. Though he had lived in France for decades, Picasso still proudly considered himself a Spaniard and had a number of friends and family there—the conflict was a source of pain and agitation for him. Shortly after he created the final portrait plates for the Suite Vollard in the spring of 1937, German and Italian planes bombed the town of Guernica, prompting Picasso’s masterwork of the same title, created in May and June of the same year.

The early 1930s were an extremely fertile and fortuitous period for Picasso’s printmaking. He developed a close relationship with the exceptionally skilled intaglio printer Roger Lacourière at this time (the precise year is a matter of debate), whose advice on technical matters had an immense impact on the artist’s development as an etcher. Lacourière influence is evident in the Suite Vollard, with a number of plates demonstrating exceptional skill with advanced intaglio processes. Around this time, Picasso began to mark each of his plates with the day, month, and year of its completion—a practice that continued throughout his career (albeit somewhat inconsistently) and has allowed scholars to better understand his working process. The Suite Vollard also demonstrates his astonishingly prodigious output—at times he created up to four plates in a single day. As he worked on the Suite Vollard, Picasso simultaneously created a number of other prints and suites, including Le Chef d’Oeuvre Inconnu, Les Métamorphoses, Eaux-fortes originals pour les texts de Buffon, and his master intaglio plate La Minotauromachie (Bloch 288)—indeed, this intense period deepened his commitment to intaglio printmaking and it became an important aspect of his work from this point on.

The story of the publication of the Suite Vollard is complicated and marked by unforeseen setbacks. After the plates were completed in 1937, Vollard commissioned a special run of paper from the Montval paper factory for the edition (this paper was used for the Suite Vollard as well as a number of other later editions due to wartime paper shortages). Vollard then commissioned Lacourière to print the edition in late 1938: three deluxe impressions on vellum (signed and numbered in red); fifty deluxe impressions with wide margins on Montval laid paper watermarked “Papeterie Montgolfier à Montval” (signed and numbered at the time); and 260 impressions with modest margins on Montval laid paper watermarked “Vollard” and “Picasso.” Unfortunately, Vollard died in a car accident shortly after the printing was complete in the summer of 1939 and he did not have a chance to publish them. The details of Vollard’s intentions for the Suite Vollard remain unknown, though scholars have recently uncovered records that suggest he may have wished to group them with poems by André Suarès.* The nature of Vollard’s original agreement with Picasso is also unclear, though recent scholarship on the matter suggests that Picasso took two paintings by Cézanne and Renoir in exchange for his efforts.iii As the Vollard estate was settled, the prints remained in storage throughout the war and beyond. In 1948, the dealer Henri Petiet purchased the entire edition from the estate and began to sell them. He also arranged for Picasso to sign some of the impressions that were printed on the smaller paper, though a number remained unsigned.

In 1956, Hans Bolliger published the first scholarly assessment of the prints in a publication titled “Picasso’s ‘Vollard Suite’”, assigning each of the plates a number and categorizing them into several distinct groups by subject: “Battle of Love,” “Rembrandt,” “The Sculptor’s Studio,” “The Minotaur,” “The Blind Minotaur,” “Portraits of Vollard,” and a “miscellaneous” category. His classification and order remains in use today and is referenced with the shorthand “Suite Vollard,” or “S.V.” followed by a plate number. Approximately a decade later, Georges Bloch established a chronological order for the etchings in his catalogue raisonné of Picasso’s prints. He was not concerned with Bolliger’s categorization in terms of subject, but rather wished to establish the order in which Picasso completed them—therefore, the order of the two systems conflicts on occasion. Bloch’s chronology was further refined in Brigitte Baer’s extensively researched catalogue raisonné of Picasso’s intaglio and relief prints that was published in 1996.

From the outset, scholars have struggled with the interpretation of the prints due to the complex relationships between the images. However, in 2000, art historian Lisa Florman convincingly argued that the free-flowing structure of the images was intentional, and that Picasso’s ideas behind the Suite were steeped in the history of etching and painting, of which he was fully versed and keenly aware.iv In fact, Picasso once said, “[When I work] I have a feeling that Delacroix, Giotto, Tintoretto, El Greco, and the rest, as well as all the modern painters, the good and the bad, the abstract and the non-abstract, are all standing behind me watching me …”

In support of her argument, Florman points out that the web-like connections between the plates is similar to the tradition of the capriccio, a format first devised by the famed Mannerist printmaker Jacques Callot in his circa 1617 suite Capricci di Varie Figure, a set of loosely-related figure studies in which the artist demonstrated his skill with etching (a technique he perfected). She discusses several plates in which Picasso elaborates on a theme in the same manner as Callot. Florman also asserts that Picasso may have also had in mind Goya’s famous Los Caprichos suite of 1799, which was the last major attempt in the capriccio format before Picasso’s time. Goya’s suite established him as a master of sugarlift aquatint, and his skill had not been matched since. This was exactly the kind of challenge that fueled Picasso’s artistic output, and indeed, under the direction of Lacourière, Picasso challenged Goya’s skill in the technique during this time period. Additionally, Florman surmises that Picasso may have been inspired by the epic poetry of Ovid’s Les Métamorphoses, for which he had just completed a suite of thirty prints published by Alfred Skira in 1931. (The poem is comprised of nearly 250 myths from both Greek and Roman mythology that, though unrelated, are ingeniously woven together through the sheer storytelling talent of its author.) Finally, Florman suggests that the entire suite is an elaboration on Rembrandt’s famous print The Artist and His Model, ca. 1639. As she notes, Picasso viewed making art as an inherently passionate endeavor akin to making lovevi and found a similar sentiment in the Dutch master’s work. Like the Suite Vollard, Rembrandt’s The Artist and His Model has long been interpreted as an exploration of the Pygmalion myth (which, incidentally, appears in Ovid’s Metamorphoses), in which the sculptor falls in love with his own work of art that later comes to life. In conclusion, Florman posits the Suite Vollard is a grand statement on the creation of art and the role of passion in fueling its creation.

Though there have been many interpretations of the overall themes and ideas behind the Suite Vollard, it is universally agreed that it is among the greatest achievements in art. Each plate stands on its own as an accomplished example of intaglio printmaking, whether it is a simple line drawing or a complex and dense composition of overlapping line and pattern. Its variety and complexity allows for various entry points of evaluation and appreciation, and the variety of themes amongst the images plays an important role in the deep fascination the suite inspires amongst all who admire Picasso’s work.

i Johnson, Ambroise Vollard, Editeur: Prints, Books, Bronzes, Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1977, 39.
ii See Miller “Catalogue,” in Rabinow, ed. in Cézanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006, 391, no. 158.
iii Tinterow, “Vollard and Picasso” in Cézanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006, 113.
iv In Myth and Metamorphosis: Picasso’s Classical Prints of the 1930s. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press, 2000, 70-138.
v Parmelin, Picasso Says. A.S. Barnes, South Brunswick [N.J.], 1969, 40.
vi Ibid., 117.
*For further discussion, see Wye, A Picasso Portfolio: Prints from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2010, 174 (note 17); Tinterow, “Vollard and Picasso” in Cézanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Avant-Garde, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006, 113-4; and Rabinow.