Pablo Picasso. "Ma Jolie". Paris, winter 1911-12

Pablo Picasso

"Ma Jolie"

Paris, winter 1911-12

Oil on canvas
39 3/8 x 25 3/4" (100 x 64.5 cm)
Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest (by exchange)
Object number
© 2017 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Painting and Sculpture
This work is on view on Floor 5, in a Collection Gallery, with 15 other works online.
Pablo Picasso has 1,242 works  online.
There are 2,374 paintings online.

Ma jolie (My pretty girl) was the refrain of a popular song performed at a Parisian music hall Picasso frequented. The artist suggests this musical association by situating a treble clef and music staff near the bold, stenciled letters. Ma jolie was also Picasso's nickname for his lover Marcelle Humbert, whose figure he loosely built using the signature shifting planes of Analytic Cubism. This is far from a traditional portrait of an artist's beloved, but there are clues to its representational content. The central triangular mass subtly indicates the shape of a woman's head and torso, and a group of six vertical lines at the painting's lower center represent the strings of a guitar, which the woman strums. In Cubist works of this period, Picasso and Georges Braque employed multiple modes of representation simultaneously: here, Picasso combined language (in the black lettering), symbolic meaning (in the treble clef), and near abstraction (in the depiction of his subject).

Gallery label from 2011

Numerous elusive clues connect "Ma Jolie" to reality: a triangular form in the lower center, strung like a guitar or zither; below the strings, four fingers, with an angular elbow to the right; and in the upper half, perhaps a floating smile. Together these elements suggest a woman holding a musical instrument, but the picture hints at reality only to deny it. Planes, lines, spatial cues, shadings, and other traces of painting's language of illusion are abstracted from descriptive uses; the figure almost disappears into a network of flat, straight-edged, semitransparent planes.

Yet "Ma Jolie," an example of high Analytic Cubism, is actually a painting on a very traditional theme—a woman holding a musical instrument. The palette of brown and sepia is reminiscent of the work of Rembrandt, and Picasso emphasizes the handmade nature of the brushstrokes, underlining the artist's human presence. At the bottom of the canvas Picasso also inscribes a treble clef and the words "Ma Jolie," (my pretty one)—both a line from a popular song and a reference to his lover Marcelle Humbert. A kind of stand-in for the woman who can barely be seen, the phrase "Ma Jolie" is clear, legible, colloquial, and suggests conventional prettiness—although this was one of the most complex, abstract, and esoteric images of its day.

Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 66

This work is included in the Provenance Research Project, which investigates the ownership history of works in MoMA's collection.
Galerie Kahnweiler (Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, stock no. 706, photo no. 180), Paris [1]; seized by the French government in 1914 and sold through Hôtel Drouot, Paris to Paul Guillaume (1891-1934), Paris, May 7-8, 1923 [2]; purchased by Marcel Fleischmann, Zurich, by 1929 [3]; sold through Paul Drey, New York to The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1945 (Acquired through the Lillie P. Bliss Bequest).

[1] Auct. cat. Tableaux, Aquarelles, Gouaches, Dessins & Estampes [4th Kahnweiler collection sale]. Paris: Hôtel Drouot, May 7-8, 1923 (lot 361: Femme à la cithare).
[2] Colette Giraudon, Paul Guillaume et les peintres du XXe siècle: de l'art nègre à l'avant-garde, Paris: La bibliothèque des arts, 1993, p. 132.
[3] Lender to the exhibitions Abstrakte und Surrealistische Malerei und Plastik, Kunsthaus Zurich, October 6-November 3, 1929; Picasso, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, June 16-July 30, 1932 (no. 79); and Picasso, Kunsthaus Zurich, September 11-October 30, 1932 (no. 66). First exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in the exhibition Picasso: Forty Years of His Art, November 15, 1939-January 7, 1940 (no. 99). On extended loan from Fleischmann to The Museum of Modern Art, New York, from 1939-1945.

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