La Libelule (La libellule)
La Libelule (La libellule) (Bloch 354)

1936 (Paris)
From Picasso Eaux-fortes originals pour les texts de Buffon
Sugarlift aquatint and drypoint with scraper printed on laid Montval with Vollard watermark
From the edition of 55 of the second (final) state
Printed by Lacourière
Published by Martin Fabiani as an illustration for Picasso. Eaux-fortes originales pour les textes de Buffon, Paris, 1942
10 3/8 x 8 1/4 inches (image)
14 1/2 x 11 inches (sheet) 
(Bloch 354; Baer 601.II.B.ß.4; Cramer 37)

In 1931, Ambroise Vollard had suggested that Picasso illustrate Histoire Naturelle, générale et particulière by Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (1707-88), originally published in forty-four volumes between 1745 and 1804. Buffon’s timeless treatise on the animal world, “though scientifically out of date, remains nevertheless a well-known monument of eighteenth-century French literature for its lively style, both classical and innovative”.i Picasso, who was an animal lover, agreed. However, as was his custom he took his own time turning his attentions to this project, and once he did, approached it in his own way.


Much later, in early 1936, Picasso was spending nearly every day in Lacourière’s intaglio workshop, presumably to escape his troubles. He had recently gone through a difficult year in which his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter had borne a daughter, prompting his marriage to Olga Khokhlova to dissolve under difficult circumstances. After renounced painting for a period, he returned to art through prints, finding solace in the professional atmosphere and collegiality of Lacourière’s print studio. For unknown reasons, he was suddenly inspired to work on this long-delayed project. Baer surmises that he found the subject of animals to be a respite from the emotional turmoil of his life.ii Museum of Modern Art curator Deborah Wye, however, imagines Picasso may have been interested in providing amusing images for the pleasure of his baby daughter Maya.iii At any rate, the thirty-two etchings for the Histoire Naturelle were primarily created in February of 1936.


Vollard, who was traveling in Rome at the time, was delighted with this turn of events. He sent a postcard of Romulus and Remus to the artist and wrote to Picasso, “Dear Mr. Picasso, the other side shows a magnificent animal that is not in our collection but deserves to be, except that in the last century someone added the two children, who do not strike me as entirely necessary. I’ve told those who love you here that you were reviving Buffon and they can’t wait to see the book…”.iv In the end, the wolf was included in Picasso’s bestiary—perhaps inspired by this correspondence from his friend. By necessity, Picasso did not illustrate every animal in the book. He also did not refer to Buffon’s test at all, instead choosing animals that caught his fancy and illustrating them according to his own ideas. He worked primarily in sugar-lift aquatint, which he had perfected over the previous two years.


When Ambroise Vollard died in a car accident in 1939, the book had not yet been published but ten of the plates had been printed in a run of forty-seven proofs. Martin Fabiani—a dealer who had befriended Vollard and became involved in the settlement of his estate—purchased a number of paintings and unpublished book projects from the family, including the Histoire Naturelle prints. He asked Lacourière to edition them in 1942 and the book was published later that year. Due to wartime paper shortages, Lacourière used the paper that had been produced for the Suite Vollard, which existed in surplus.
The process by which the text was selected to accompany Picasso’s images is unclear—it may have been done by Vollard before his death, or it may have been Fabiani. In any case, they are not complete. Of the thirty-one etchings that were included in the final book, only twenty-one include appropriate excerpts from Buffon’s text. Incongruously, Fabiani did not include Picasso’s plate for La Puce (The Flea). The official reason was because Buffon did not write about the insect, but perhaps the real motivation was because he found the subject itself and Picasso’s portrayal of it to be undesirable. (It shows a nude young woman resembling Marie-Thérèse from behind with the parasite on her buttocks.) Therefore, this image was only included in the deluxe suite that was issued with the first thirty-six copies of the book (the total edition was 226). Picasso had also given titles to each of his plates, which he wrote in drypoint below, but these were not included in the book edition. They do appear, however, in the deluxe suite.


In spite of the failings of the accompanying text, the thirty-two animals Picasso depicted in his plates for Eaux-fortes originals pour les texts de Buffon remain among the highest level of achievement in the sugar-lift aquatint technique in the history of printmaking. Perhaps equally important, “there is great charm in these beasts: among them is a comical ostrich speeding by, a friendly monkey holding out a paw, a ram posing with great daintiness, and a cat that seems almost to purr”.v They have captivated and delighted everyone who sees them since they were published, possibly more so at the time of their release in 1942, as the world was at war and was in desperate need of light diversion.


Picasso’s fidelity to detail is apparent in this dragonfly. Though he did not consult Buffon’s texts, it is clear that he referred to a model—or perhaps another technical drawing or photograph—to portray the minute details of this insect’s anatomy. To create this print, Picasso built his marks in layers. After the medium gray areas were painted in sugar syrup and etched, Lacourière cleaned the plate and presented a proof to the artist from which to work. From there, Picasso worked again on the plate, using a scraper to bring out the white strokes that appear in the dragonfly’s wings and the grasses below. He then painted new details, such as the legs and eyes of the insect and the darker contour lines in the branch, water, and grass below. These were then etched a darker gray by the printer. Finally, he went back in with the scraper and created the fine strokes of white and zigzag lines that appear in the branch and some of the leaves.


The current impression is the second (final) state from the edition of 55 printed on Montval by Lacourière in 1942 and published the same year by Fabiani in Eaux-fortes originals pour les texts de Buffon. This is plate twenty-seven in the series of thirty-one.


i Brigitte Baer in Picasso the Printmaker: Graphics from the Marina Picasso Collection, Dallas Museum of Art, 1983, p. 102

ii Ibid, p. 102.

iii A Picasso Portfolio: Prints from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2010, p. 87.

iv As quoted by Gary Tinterow in “Vollard and Picasso,” in Cézanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Arts. New York: Metropolitan Museum
of Art, 2006, p. 113.

v Wye , p. 87.