When Sylvette David was just 19, she met the ageing Picasso, who was immediately entranced and immortalised her in a series of works. Alastair Sooke looks back at the moment the artist met his muse.

According to Françoise Gilot, who lived with Picasso in the the 1940s and ’50s, the artist was like Bluebeard, the aristocratic folktale serial killer who murdered his many wives. In her memoir Life with Picasso (1964), Gilot recalled visiting the artist’s chateau at Boisgeloup, north-west of Paris. “I began to have the feeling that if I looked into a closet, I would find half a dozen ex-wives hanging by their necks,” she wrote. “He had a kind of Bluebeard complex that made him want to cut off the heads of all the women he had collected in his little private museum.”

Certainly, few of Picasso’s female companions met happy ends. His mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter and his second wife Jacqueline Roque both committed suicide. Yet one woman who became entangled with Picasso for several months survived unscathed. Her name was Sylvette David.

The pair met in the spring of 1954, when the prolific artist, who was by then an international celebrity in his early seventies, was living on the Côte d’Azur. Picasso had a studio on Rue du Fournas in the small town of Vallauris. That year, his eye was drawn to Sylvette, a beautiful 19-year-old woman who wore her blonde hair in a distinctive high ponytail. A few months earlier, Sylvette and her fiancé Toby Jellinek had moved to Vallauris to live with her mother. Toby, who was an avant-garde furniture designer, had a workshop not far from Picasso’s studio, and Sylvette would often walk by the artist’s window en route to meet him.

Portrait of a lady

Her first encounter with Picasso came after the Spaniard bought a couple of chairs from Toby, who delivered them to his modest villa, La Galloise, in the hills above Vallauris, accompanied by Sylvette. A few weeks later, Sylvette was chatting with friends while smoking and drinking coffee on one of the big terraces of the town’s potteries. Over the wall of his studio next door, Sylvette spotted Picasso holding up one of his pictures. It was a simple image of a young woman with a fringe and a ponytail; it was a portrait of her, executed from memory. “It was like an invitation,” she later recalled, so she and her friends went to knock on his door. Picasso was so happy to see Sylvette that he embraced her immediately. “I want to paint you, paint Sylvette!” he cried.

In the months that followed, between April and June, Picasso persuaded Sylvette to sit for him regularly and created an intense series of more than 60 portraits of her in various media, including drawings and sculptures as well as 28 paintings. Perhaps surprisingly, it was the first time he had worked successfully from a model. It was also one of the most concentrated bodies of work inspired by a single woman that he ever executed.

When the finished works were exhibited in Paris that summer, they elicited ecstatic responses. People were dazzled by the versatility of the series, which ranged from detailed, highly naturalistic portraits to more experimental, Cubist depictions of Sylvette, mostly in black, white, and grey. They were also intrigued by the nature of the artist’s relationship with this shy yet fashionable young beauty. Life magazine announced a new epoch in Picasso’s art: his ‘Ponytail Period’.

New view

Since then, though, art historians have tended to dismiss the Sylvette series. When Picasso met Sylvette, his personal life was in turmoil. The previous summer, his long-term partner Gilot, with whom he had two children, had left him – becoming the first woman to do so. Bruised, vulnerable, and anxious that he was close to death, Picasso found solace in Sylvette’s youthfulness.

But they never slept together – Sylvette was too timid even to pose for him in the nude – and the series petered out soon after he began a relationship with Roque, whom he would marry in 1961. As a result, the Sylvette series is often written off as a shallow interlude lacking Picasso’s characteristic emotional engagement with his subject. For some critics, it is also overly concerned with ephemeral trends – the ponytail, the hooded coat with large buttons, designed by her fiancé, worn by Sylvette in many of the paintings – to be considered serious art.

But Christoph Grunenberg, the director of the Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany, which is currently exhibiting half of the Sylvette series, disagrees. “The idea that this series lacks emotional engagement is a rather superficial psychological argument,” he says. “I don’t think you can reduce Picasso to a kind of flesh-eating vampire who feeds on other women and his subjects – it’s more complex than that.”

“Maybe it was her resistance to be seduced by him that made him need to see her: because he didn’t conquer her, he needed to conquer her on canvas and on paper and in sculpture,” he says. “But even in the very sketchy portraits, where he tries to capture Sylvette in just a few lines and strokes, there is always great painterly expression. So one has to be very careful not to be judgemental.” 

For Grunenberg, the Sylvette series provides evidence of Picasso’s “incredible virtuosity, where he really does jump from one style to the next”. In addition, Grunenberg believes that the folded-metal sculptures, which emerged out of Picasso’s paintings of Sylvette, were especially groundbreaking. “Suddenly, Picasso goes back to sheet metal, which he had used in his Cubist assemblage Guitar [1914],” he says. “But now he uses it in a very innovative way. You get this interesting dialogue between painting and sculpture: they [the folded-metal sculptures] are almost cut out of the canvas, which then becomes three dimensional.”

More than half a century after the series was made, its subject, who now goes by the name Lydia Corbett and is an artist in her own right with an exhibition marking her 80th birthday at the Francis Kyle Gallery in London, still feels grateful to Picasso. A few years ago, I met her in her studio in rural Devon in south-west England. Leafing through the contents of a battered leather bag that she called her “memory suitcase”, because it was filled with newspaper and magazine cuttings and black-and-white photographs documenting her time with Picasso, she pronounced herself “really moved”. “I never thanked him enough,” she said softly. “He immortalised me. I’m like the Mona Lisa. Amazing, don’t you think?”

Alastair Sooke is art critic of The Daily Telegraph.

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