Budapest’s Museum of Fine Arts (Szépmüvészeti Múzeum) has loaned Pablo Picasso’s watercolour Mother and Child (1905) and Artemisia Gentileschi’s oil Jael and Sisera (1620) to Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery
until February 2013.
The gallery’s Curator of European Fine Art, Xanthe Brooke, told us why the two works fascinate her:
“Artemisia Gentileschi was one of the most celebrated woman artists of her time and in her art, to some extent, she was a female equivalent of Caravaggio. The painting we’ve borrowed from Budapest is an important work in her early years, at a time when she was just finishing her work in Florence, where she had been working in particular for the Medici Grand Duke, before she moved on to Rome in the early 1620s.
Artemisia Gentileschi, 'Jael and Sisera'. © Szépmuvészeti Múzeum (Museum of Fine Arts), Budapest.
"It’s very characteristic, as the subject matter is tense and brutal, although it is painted in not such a gruesome a manner as some of her other paintings. The Biblical heroine Jael is about to assassinate a tyrannical Canaanite general called Sisera whilst he’s asleep. She is shown creeping up on the sleeping body of Sicera and just about to drive a tent peg through his head.
"The brutality comes with our anticipation of what is going to happen next, rather than the image, which captures the split second before the hammer comes down. It is a dramatic painting, theatrically lit, with the action set against a dark background in quite Caravaggesque way. The loan from the Budapest is an opportunity to make this painting better known outside Hungary and it fits very well within our own collection, as although we don’t own any work by Artemisia Gentileschi, we do have quite a few paintings and drawings by Renaissance and Baroque female artists.
Pablo Picasso, 'Mother and Child'. © Szépmuvészeti Múzeum (Museum of Fine Arts), Budapest. "The Picasso watercolour is important as it's a transitional work between his Blue Period and his Rose Period. It shows that transition very well in the actual image, which is predominantly dark and blue in tones but has some flashes of red and pink as well. He’s just beginning to experiment with a new palette.
"We’ve been able to create a small ‘Picasso in focus’ display with Mother and Child as the centerpiece, alongside a Picasso drawing that we own from 1903 and some much later lithographic prints that Picasso designed in the late 1940 and early 1950s.
"The model for the watercolour was identified by John Richardson as Madeleine, one of Picasso’s Blue Period models chosen by the artist partly for her angularity of features, which fitted with the melancholic imagery that he was painting during that period. She was also one of his mistresses at the time. The subject itself is relevant to what was happening in her life at the time, because in the summer of 1904 she became pregnant – she agreed, after Picasso’s persuasion, to abort the child. By the time Picasso painted that watercolour in 1905 she would have lost the child. It’s a very tender image and in some sense it anticipates his change of imagery in the Rose Period, in which he had much more focus on families.
"By the autumn of 1905 he had moved in with Fernande Olivier, with whom he definitely developed a much stronger intimate relationship, which lasted quite a while. On the back of the watercolour there is what appears to be an unfinished portrait drawing of Fernande, so that helps to date, and give a context, to the image of Mother and Child on the recto. It's a very interesting contrast between the two.”
Sam Phillips is a London-based arts journalist and contributor to RA Magazine