David et Bethsabée
David et Bethsabée (Bloch 442)

1949 (April 10)

Lithograph on Arches wove with Arches watermark
Printer's proof outside the edition of 50
Inscribed by the printer ”M109 bis definitif - Pour Eric - FM” in green ink, bottom right verso
Inscribed ”109 bis David et Bethsabée” in pencil, lower right verso
Inscribed ”109 bis” in pencil, lower left verso
Printed by Fernand Mourlot, 1949
Image: 25 5/8 x 18 3/4 inches
Sheet: 25 5/8 x 19 5/8 inches
Framed: 37 1/4 x 30 5/8 inches
(Bloch 442) (Mourlot 109)

Although the Old Masters had always been of great interest to him, it was not until his mature years that Picasso made his most explicit reference to them with a series of prints and paintings that constitute his own direct variations. In March 1947, Picasso began his own ambitiously enlarged version of Lucas Cranach’s small painting David and Bathsheba of 1526 (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) in the format of a lithographic print. Nearly doubling the size of his original, Picasso mapped out his image using pen and wash on a large zinc plate, expanding the figures in Cranach’s composition and compressing the architecture to bring David into closer proximity with the object of his gaze – the lovely Bathsheba. Although the Biblical story figured in the Renaissance painting came to him readymade and treated in the style and costume of Cranach’s time, Picasso was doubtless interested in it because it pictured one of his own principal preoccupations – the power of looking and being seduced by what you see. Bathsheba’s myth is pregnant with intrigue: David sees her bathing and is instantly smitten; although she is married, he sends for her and seduces her, causing her to conceive. Then, full of guilt, he orders her husband Uriah to be killed in battle. She then marries him and bears him two sons; the first dies (as a punishment by God) but the second – Solomon – eventually succeeds David as king of the Jews, although he does this by murdering his father’s oldest son. Throughout these events, the figure of Bathsheba is utterly ambiguous – the Bible gives no clues as to whether she is a victim of royal seduction and manipulation or is plotting for her own advantage and power, and that of her blood line. She may well have appealed to Picasso at this time as his own young mistress – the beautiful François Gilot (born 1921) – was heavily pregnant with their first child. An accomplished painter in her own right, the strong-willed and independently-minded Gilot was not the passive and easy subject that Picasso’s earlier lovers had been. At the time he embarked on this print, Picasso had been making portraits of Gilot that responded – somewhat rivalrously – to a painting by his friend Henri Matisse (1869-1954), and it has been suggested that he may have looked to Cranach’s treatment of a religious subject as a result of ‘his surprise that Matisse as an atheist had decided to do decorations for a Dominican chapel’ (Charles Stuckey ‘The Face of Picasso’s Lithography’, in John Richardson with Françoise Gilot, Picasso and Françoise Gilot: Paris-Vallauris 1943-1953, Gagosian Gallery, New York 2012, p.180).

 

Whatever the case may be, the lithograph – like his young mistress – was to cause Picasso some difficulty. After taking it through five states, during which it was completely redrawn using the scraper in regular fine white line after being entirely covered in ink, he laid it aside in the corner of his studio for a year. He picked it up again at the end of March 1948 and worked on it again with the scraper, but as Mourlot recounts, zinc is very hard and Picasso had to scratch very deep to enable the printer to ink the plate without blocking the fine lines. As a result, the plate suffered – as did Picasso’s hand – and at his request a transfer to stone was made after the sixth state had been completed (Mourlot, Picasso Lithographe, André Sauret, Editions du Livre, Paris 1970, p.81). “This stone was transported to the artist’s Paris rue des Grands Augustins studio in November 1948 and installed on a big font-like pot; but Picasso hardly went near it. ‘It frightens me, I daren’t touch it’ he said when I asked him how it was going. In spite of this, the stone was attacked, worked, scraped; one day several touching-ups with a pen, the next day a long session of scrapings, then taking up of blacks, etc.” (Ibid, p.82.)

 

In the event Picasso worked on the stone sporadically until May 25 1949. Although he reworked the zinc plate at the same time, it was on the stone that he was able to achieve his greatest success with his complex linear composition. The final version (109bis) is a veritable maze of intricate detail that echoes the delicacy of Cranach’s original in an utterly twentieth-century manner. The architectural planes of the balcony from which David views his Bathsheba are deconstructed into a cubist fold-out of surfaces covered in cross-hatching and parallel lines in which the human figures alternately recede and emerge in the company of large decorated leaves whose form echoes that of the leg-of-mutton sleeves. The rich black background provides a dramatic relief out of which areas of more three-dimensional modeling on faces, hands and other exposed flesh shine bright. The most naturalistically rendered flesh is fittingly the object of David’s desiring and all-powerful gaze – Bathsheba’s right foot and ankle in the lower right corner of the print. At the top center, David’s sun-like face haloed by his flowing hair and royal crown evokes the artist’s own omnipotent eye. 

 

After the stone was returned to Mourlot’s workshop that June, the usual edition of fifty was printed. This is one of the six proofs outside the edition and is inscribed “109 bis David et Bethsabée” at the lower right and “109 bis” at the lower left on the back in pencil. Mourlot added the dedication “M109bis definitif – pour Eric - FM” in green ink at the lower right on the back.