- The Washington Times - Friday, December 3, 2004

Thanks to the foresight and recent gift of Robert H. and Clarice Smith, one of only two signed 1904 strikes of the iconic and storied “The Frugal Repast” in blue-green ink has just come into the hands of the National Gallery of Art.

The Picasso masterpiece is on display as part of the museum’s “Six Centuries of Prints and Drawings: Recent Acquisitions,” a rare opportunity to see a cornucopia of outstanding works by masters from the distant and recent past. The star of the show, “Frugal Repast” comes to the National Gallery with a singular history and a love story for the ages.

In late August 1904, a sudden summer storm crackled over the glistening mansard roofs of Montmartre, the epicenter of the art world in the era known as the belle epoque in France. To get out of the rain, a black-haired 23-year-old artist and “la belle Fernande,” as Gertrude Stein would later dub her, hurried for the shelter of a low warren of artists’ ateliers. As they arrived, Fernande Olivier noticed that the young Spaniard with the great smoldering black eyes held a white kitten. He held it out to her, laughing. She took it, laughing as well, feeling the pull of the young Picasso’s kind smile and his magnetism. All of this she describes in her journal for 1904.

Picasso and Miss Olivier went to his messy studio. At the time of this first visit, she records, Picasso was working on “an etching, which later became famous; it was of an emaciated man and woman seated at a table in a wine shop, conveying an intense feeling of misery with terrifying realism.” Profoundly impressed by the work’s “agonized appeal to all human compassion,” she wrote that it “seemed to demonstrate a deep and despairing love of humanity.”

On at least one occasion, Miss Olivier grew bored with the penniless painter and left for another. Nonetheless, they continued as a couple over most of the next five years. She is credited as the muse who drew Picasso out of the funk of his Blue Period. Although celebrated by many today, that period’s characteristic melancholic morbidity was a tough sell in the belle epoque.

Picasso’s love for Miss Olivier was quick to influence his work. The young artist’s palette lightened as he segued into his still expressionistic though much more marketable Rose Period and, several years later, into nascent cubism. Picasso’s years with the French artists’ model Fernande Olivier were among the most productive and celebrated in the annals of modern art.

Now 100 years old, “Frugal Repast,” the engraving in progress Miss Olivier saw, is a work whose power speaks to viewers today just as it did to Picasso’s love-to-be in 1904. That work, soon printed in bluish-grayish-greenish ink, was really only an attempt at an etching and was done on a zinc that Picasso’s teacher, Ricardo Canals, had already used. In his biography “Picasso: Life and Art,” French art critic Pierre Daix expressed amazement that Picasso’s “first true engraving, a trial run, turned out a masterpiece.”

The “Frugal Repast,” however, is not precisely “realism,” as Miss Olivier labeled it. Rather, the etching reflects the expressionist aesthetic that was sweeping fin de siecle Europe’s avant-garde. In the etching, faces, limbs, upper bodies, arms, breasts, and especially the hands and fingers are all stylized, distorted and elongated to express the soulfulness of the couple’s melancholy poverty. A shadowy quality contributes to the overall effect.

El Greco had used a similar kind of distortion and elongation in the 16th century to make his painted saints look more ascetic and soulful. Picasso adapted and secularized this technique from saints to his down-and-out urban couple.

Today, some of Picasso’s critics dismiss such Blue Period work as morbidly sentimental and cleverly manipulative. Yet despite the kernel of truth in such carping, the fact remains that 100 years ago, a brilliantly creative young artist etched a masterpiece. It has spoken to viewers in its profoundly melancholy way ever since. It will continue to compel as long as compassion dwells in human hearts.

Taylor Staples is a freelance writer living in Arlington.

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