Pablo Picasso’s Life and the Sugar-Lift Aquatint—
Some of his most famous art

Pablo Picasso’s Art

Pablo Picasso is famous for producing unrivaled art. Picasso is, of course, known for many things, like his periods—Blue Period, Rose Period, Cubism, Surrealism, Neo-Classicism, African Period and Still Lifes. He was also great in different mediums—oil painting, printmaking, sculpture, collage and even tapestry. Some of his most famous paintings are known to everyone across the globe—Les femmes D’Alger, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, La Rêve, Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, Buste de femme and Garçon à la Pipe. The same can be said of his most famous prints—The Frugal Repast, La femme qui pleure I, Portrait of a Young Girl, after Cranach the Younger. II, and La Femme à la Fenêtre.

Picasso’s amazing ability to create great art in various mediums was due to his constant desire to push his abilities into new directions and new frontiers. He constantly wanted to grow, so where there was no path forward, he blazed a new trail. Where he lacked the ability to undertake a project, he developed the ability to do so. Where he found a limitation, he pushed the boundaries he faced into untested directions.

That is all well known. What is less known is his perfection in the printmaking medium. His use of printmaking dates back to the very earliest days of his career when in 1904, during his Blue Period, he created the etching, The Frugal Repast. Prints were no after-thought for Picasso. They formed one of the major threads that would continue, in various forms using various mediums, throughout his career.

Pablo Picasso Revolutionizes Printmaking

There have been a few times that the course of art history was changed by a printer. Picasso’s meeting Roger Lacourière was one of those occasions. Picasso had become frustrated with his printers, but when he began working with Lacourière in 1934, it turned out to be a turning point in Picasso’s artistic development. Lacourière introduced him more thoroughly to the aquatint technique and a deeper use of intaglio (a process that leaves crevices or voids on a plate so that ink can fill those spots in order to be transferred to paper, once pressed onto that plate.)

Many of the themes he explored during this time were influenced by the chaos in Picasso’s personal life as well as an anxiety about the onset of civil war in his Spanish homeland. Minotaurs, Spanish motifs and a look at the past are ever-present. Lacourière was the first printer to truly act as a collaborator with Picasso, in the sense of working in-depth with him to gain the technical means of expression equal to what he could already achieve in painting.

Sugar-life Aquatint

Lacourière taught Picasso the difficult and obscure “sugar-lift aquatint” etching process (also known as “lift- ground etching” or simply, “aquatint”). Picasso’s technical accomplishments cannot be overemphasized. Just after Lacourière had introduced him to the technique of sugar-lift aquatint, Picasso was eager to quickly test out this new printing method.

Picasso first used this process in the Vollard suite in 1933, then in 1936 to illustrate “Natural History” by Buffon.

The technique itself is a wonderful invention that produces subtle tones and varied texture. Picasso would first paint on the clean copper plate with a mixture of sugar and ink. The plate was varnished and immersed in water whereupon the sugar dissolved and lifted off the varnish. The plate was then grained and bitten (with acid) in those areas where the varnish had been stripped away. When the plate was inked and printed, the areas that were painted in sugar printed a rich black tone. Picasso used variations of ink and water to achieve different effects.

Pablo PICASSO (1881-1973) La Femme à la Fenêtre, 1952 Aquatint on Arches wove paper for sale. arina Picasso Collection, with her stamp verso;

Picasso—Woman at the Window

Next to his La femme qui pleure I, which uses several techniques (dry point, aquatint, etching and scraper,) perhaps his most famous aquatint is La Femme à la Fenêtre (“The Woman at the Window”.) This very fine impression is important both in terms of its relationship with key moments in Picasso’s life, but even more important because it demonstrates just how adept he is in expressing the breadth of his vision through the mastery of technique.

For Picasso, printmaking was a physical process and the struggle with materials an integral part of the creative journey. His vigorous, experimental approach led him to many radical departures from traditional printmaking in which the expressive potential of the plate or stone was stretched to its limit.

The artist’s obsession with capturing a particular moment in time is evident here. Françoise Gilot’s gaze is transfixed with an object or person outside of our (the viewers’) view. This absent, almost indifferent work, could be a commentary on the relationship Picasso had with Gilot—which ended just one year after this work’s creation, in 1953.

Aquatint allows for soft painterly effects, creating washes of dappled tone. Gilot’s elegant and prominent features are exaggerated and stylized into broad, inky sweeps, dramatically contrasting with the pitted plate tone of the background.
The effect is strikingly beautiful.
La Femme à la Fenêtre (1952)

Far from the earlier, colorful, beautiful and elegant portraits of Gilot—this work is stark in color and contrast. The angles are harsh, unwelcoming and create a sense of uneasiness. This is raw Picasso— forceful yet restrained in execution. The work showcases Picasso’s ability to convey feeling through sharp angles, rich texture and the highly saturated tones of black, grey and gossamer washes. Picasso is at his best when there is a sense of mystery in his work where a question goes unanswered.

Working in the aquatint medium, Picasso was able to paint with a brush directly onto the etching plate. This painterly technique captures Picasso’s energy immediately, and gave the printer the ability to create the same effect throughout the edition. In the case of The Woman at the Window, there was an edition of 50 impressions that would have been sold through Picasso’s dealer and galleries.

Galerie Michael Offering La Femme à la Fenêtre

Galerie Michael owns a remarkable example. The Galerie Michael impression is an anomaly, something Picasso never intended for sale. The work was simply an impression made before the reinforcement of the plate (through a process called “steel-facing”), and one of just six impressions pulled prior to the printing of the final edition. Because the plate was printed before it was steel-faced, there is a warm plate tone, and gives the viewer a true feeling of looking at a painting. As a point of note, impressions printed after the steel facing lose some of the luster as well as detail that is evident in the Galerie Michael impression.

Please contact Robert Avellanothe Gallery director, for more information

Richard P. van Pelt, Ph.D.  •  February 27, 2020