Picasso’s Portrait of Jacqueline (1965)

This is not one of Picasso's best portraits but it does reveal meaningful features unknown to those relying only on conventional perception. Indeed several features are not original at all but part of a long, largely unknown tradition in art. Their style and presentation are original to Picasso but their content is ancient and ongoing, part of a continuous stream of wisdom conveyed in the work of one major artist after another. No individual will ever plumb all their content but they can at least begin on the right track.

What do the four red ovals or circles represent and that large black asterisk in between them? And aren't the colors a touch odd too? Red and white dominate the lower half; blue, silver and black the rest.

The upper pair of ovals are his wife's breasts shaped to resemble eyes, his own fertile "eyes". Thus the visual homonym between eye and breast is important, conveying meaning.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Picasso, Portrait of Jacqueline (1965) Oil on canvas. 

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The "eye" on the right is closed, its lid solid red with a thin line of white at the bottom for its lashes. The other "eye" is open. The open eye in such pairs always represents an artist's external vision, the closed one insight. What, though, are the partial ovals underneath them?

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Picasso's Portrait of Jacqueline (1965) 

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To indicate that an image is in their mind, artists often placed eye-shapes near the lower edge of a picture to indicate that all above is in their mind.1 Here, I am only guessing, Picasso superficially imagines his wife sitting close to a table, her breasts reflected below in its shiny surface. Poetically, though, the latter are the painter's real "eyes" which is why her odd hand sits between the upper pair, linking in his mind manual craft with visual imagination. Her hair then spirals over her shoulders like eyebrows above his "eyes."

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Captions for image(s) above:

Picasso, Portrait of Jacqueline (1965)

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This practice of placing eyes near the lower edge can be seen in Durer's 1500 Self-portrait as Christ (top). Joseph Koerner observed that Dürer's sleeve can just be seen above the bottom edge, so close that it is often cropped out in reproduction (below). Yet while the cuff with its fur-lining does draw attention to Dürer's missing hand, as Koerner argued, it also resembles an eye with its lashes.2 If historians had known this before, they might have noticed that Christ is inside Dürer's mind, explaining simply what previously seemed blasphemous: why Dürer is Christ.3

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Captions for image(s) above:

Top: Dürer, Self-portrait as Christ (1500)      
Bottom: Detail of upper image, near the lower right edge.

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In between the ovals some black lines criss-cross to represent a bunch of paintbrushes, their hairs conveyed by a light blue line around each stick4, seeming to form the P of Picasso's signature as well. Its star-shape suggests a high honor like Titian's gold chains around his neck, Velazquez's Order of Santiago on his chest or Manet's yearning for the Legion d'Honneur.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Picasso, Portrait of Jacqueline (1965)

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Jacqueline's head, meanwhile, is held in check by a black claw, an animal's "hand" resembling hair. On the same side as the closed "eye", the hand of craft emerges from the artist's sub-conscious. His wife's eyes, by the way, initially seem alike, a most unlikely happening in a Picasso. Eyes painted by Picasso are almost always different. On closer inspection the eyebrows are reversed, one pointing upwards for conventional perception (left), those on the side of insight pointing downwards.

Some of the lessons learned here, features that appear in the work of one great master after another, include:

  • the placement of the artist's "eyes" near the lower edge to indicate that the picture above is in the painter's mind
  • how two separate forms can be combined to convey one meaning succinctly
  • the close link in an artist's mind between his eye and hand
  • the artist's identification a sitter of opposite gender to suggest an androgynous mind
  • the combination of an open eye for external perception and a closed one for insight

There is more to this composition, much of which cannot be explained convincingly on its own. I will return to it later when I expand on a very important concept in art not fully explained yet and never seen in print: visual metamorphosis and how one composition can be turned into another.

Notes:

1. Other features placed by artists near the lower edge of a picture to convey a similar idea include freshly-dug graves as in paintings by El Greco and Courbet's Burial at Ornans (1849-50) and staircases descending below.

2. Koerner, The Moment of Self-Portraiture in German Renaissance Art (University of Chicago Press) 1973, pp. 141-3

3. Few art historians come as close to my approach as Moriz Thausing. He believed that artists depict all subjects in their own image, as great writers and poets do too. He wrote: “[Art] is the total subjectification of the object, the consumption of the master in the material of his images.” Thausig, Dürer. Geschichte seines Lebens und seiner Kunst (Leipzig) 1876, p.364 cited in Koerner, ibid., p. 74

4. The crossed paintbrushes resembling the strokes of an asterisk may have been intended to recall the crossed swords of David's Oath of the Horatii (1785).  Their swords are symbolic forms for paintbrushes too which is why they stand in shallow space on a theatre-like stage.

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 02 Dec 2012. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.