Installation view of Picasso in Fontainebleau, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, October 8, 2023–February 17, 2024. Photo: Jonathan Dorado

In 1921 Pablo Picasso rented a villa in the French countryside 35 miles southeast of Paris. The location was Fontainebleau which was renowned as the location of a royal palace as well as the birthplace of French Neoclassicism. He spent most of his time in a 10 x 20 foot garage and it was there that he painted four of his greatest masterpieces. His pair of Three Musicians was in a late cubist style while Three Women At the Spring are tour de forces in a neoclassical style.(neoclassical art arose in response to the extravagance of baroque and rococo art. It is characterized by an interest in classical (i.e. Roman and Ancient Greece) aesthetics, principles, and subject matter.) During the three months that Picasso was at Fontainebleau he created 80 pieces of art including paintings, drawings, prints and pastels.

Picasso was not the only artist after World War I to embrace neoclassicism. Neoclassicism which stressed classicism, antiquity and order was also seen in some of the works by his contemporaries, including Braque and Matisse. In both versions of “Three Women at the Spring,” their earthen palette and monumental, statuesque forms recall Greco-Roman temple columns; the Parthenon sculptures; the massive, tree-trunk limbs of late Renoir; Spanish peasants; the tranquility of Poussin. The other version in red chalk on canvas, invokes Leonardo, a Pompeiian fresco, a Renaissance cartoon.

Both renditions of “Three Musicians” have been interpreted as Catalan musicians, masked Carnival revelers, portraits (of poets, composers and artists, including Apollinaire, Stravinsky, Picasso as Harlequin and Max Jacob as the bearded monk). But what we experience is an animated amalgamation, a rhythmic, Cubist folding and unfolding of brightly colored planes, all stacked like a house of cards, buckling and bursting forth from out of deep blacks and browns—paintings recalling the refractions of El Greco, the darkness of Francisco de Zurbarán, the elusions of Cézanne.

Overall the exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York is a fascinating vignette into a narrow period of Picasso’s life and a fitting tribute to the master who died 50 years ago.

This article is based in part on a Wall Street Journal review by Lance Esplund.

Picasso – Greatness in a Garage