Picasso's Lovers

Picasso's Lovers

by Jeanne Mackin
Picasso's Lovers

Picasso's Lovers

by Jeanne Mackin


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“A complex, absorbing portrait”—People

A tangled and vivid portrait of the women caught in Picasso’s charismatic orbit through the affairs, the scandals, and the art—only this time, they hold the brush.

The women of Picasso’s life are glamorous and elusive, existing in the shadow of his fame—until 1950s aspiring journalist Alana Olson determines to bring one into the light. Unsure of what to expect but bent on uncovering what really lies beneath the canvas, Alana steps into Sara Murphy’s well-guarded home to discover a past complicated by secrets and intrigue.

Sara paints a luxurious picture of the French Riviera in 1923, but also a tragic one. The more Sara reveals, the more cracks emerge in Picasso’s once-vibrant social circle—and the more Alana feels a disturbing convergence with her own life. Who are these other muses? What became of them? What will become of her
Desperate to trace the threads, Alana dives into the glittering lives of the past. But to do so she must contend with her own reality, including a strained engagement, the male-dominated world of art journalism, and the rising threat to civil rights in America. With hard truths peeling apart around her, it turns out that the most extraordinary portrait Alana encounters is her own.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781101990568
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/23/2024
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 83,937
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Jeanne Mackin is the author of several historical novels, including The Last Collection, which has been translated into five languages, and The Beautiful American, which won a CNY award for fiction. She has taught in the MFA Creative Writing program at Goddard College and won journalism awards. She lives in the Finger Lakes area of New York State.

Read an Excerpt




Irène Lagut

Pablo Picasso, my lover, the greatest artist who ever lived, almost didn't.

At birth, he was a blue-and-white wax statuette of a newborn who didn't move, didn't cry. "Stillborn," the nurse whispered. His mother was almost too exhausted from the birth to notice. But an uncle who had been pacing in the hall with Pablo's father had never seen a stillbirth before and was curious. He leaned over the infant, so close that the burning tip of his cigar touched the baby.

Pablo, white and blue, squirmed. He whimpered. His face turned angry red. He wailed lustily. The greatest artist who has ever lived-and that's not just my opinion, I assure you-decided to live. Fire brought him to life. Fire keeps him alive.

"Born of fire," I say.

"What was that?" Pablo, many years after that miracle birth, turns away from the washstand mirror and glares at me with those all-seeing black eyes. We had dined together at Café de Flore and spent the night at his studio in the Quai des Grands Augustins. We had bedded down among the crates and canvases and statues, decades of his work crammed into the one space he had hoped would be safe from the Germans during the occupation. Mostly, it had been. In fact, they had come sometimes to buy from him, though their regime had declared him a decadent. He sold them a few paintings.

And he listened. Listened very carefully, in case he heard anything useful for the resistance. He made jokes to those German soldiers who marched down our avenues and sat in our cafés during the occupation, jokes in secret French slang, which the soldiers only pretended to understand. Those jokes insulted them, as Pablo intended.

People used to say of my lover that he lived only for art, that women and politics did not matter to him the way his art mattered. But people change. When Franco and Hitler destroyed that Spanish town, Guernica, Pablo changed. You cannot look at that painting, at the screaming mothers and murdered children and violence of it, and think, This is a man who does not care about people and politics.

And I have seen how his face changes when he speaks of Françoise, the woman who is leaving him.

"I think it will be a fine day," I said. "But come back to bed, Pablo. It is still early." I smoothed and patted the rumpled sheet that was still damp from our little bacchanal.

"The car will be here soon. If I'm not ready, Paulo will honk the horn and make a scene in the street. He's as mad as his mother."

"Has Olga really turned insane? I always thought she had that tendency. Though you are enough to madden any woman. Why don't you just divorce her?" I wonder what my life would have been had I married Pablo when we were young. Not happy, I think. No, I made the right choice. But still . . .

How good it is now to be away from maids and menus and all the domestic duties that eat away at a woman's life, that make it so difficult to work at her art. We aren't allowed closed doors, the way men are.

Pablo returns his gaze to his own image in the mirror and studies it, drawing the razor through the white foam on his cheek and making a curve, olive flesh showing through a white background. Another work of art.

"Hurry up and get dressed," he says. "Olga won't give me a divorce. You know that."

"So you have said for years. Perhaps it is very convenient, having a wife who lives separately and keeps you from marrying any other woman."

He throws a wet towel at me. "Get up. The car will be here soon."

"Listen to you, my love. A car. A chauffeur. I remember when you had holes in your boots, when you were my young love."

"That was long ago. And he's not a chauffeur, he's my son."

"Yes, much has changed." I roll over and light a cigarette, and the sheet falls away from my naked breasts.

I see where his eyes are, and they are not on my face, so I lift my shoulders and give my breasts a gentle push.

He grins. Gazes from Pablo are like brushstrokes. Some are long, lingering, full of texture and pigment. Some are short, shallow, even accidental. His gaze on me now falls somewhere between the two.

Once, his gaze would have found enough for an entire painting. He would have seen flesh, and the bone and muscle under the flesh, the question or certainty of the eyes. He would have seen past, present, and future and painted them in a way that made time irrelevant.

Yes, that was how he painted me. Everything and at once, all the angles and geometry of the body, and he made of me something eternal and always beautiful. That is what an artist can do for a woman. When most men looked at me, all I saw in their faces was desire, the urge to possess. When Pablo looked at me, his face filled with wonder waiting to be translated to lines and brushstrokes.

Spring, the second year of the Great War. I wasn't twenty yet, and had returned from cold, starving Moscow, where a loaf of bread cost as much as a silk dress. My protector, the Russian grand duke, had taken to sitting in his garden under the bare despairing trees and wringing his hands. He sensed his own ruination approaching. Most of the old aristocracy did. I did not care enough for him to face ruination with him. Back to Paris for me!

When Pablo first saw me, I was sitting on the rim of the Wallace Fountain in Place Émile, face turned up to the sun like a basking cat, enjoying the fine day and wondering what adventure I might find, and if my new love would be a man or a woman, and if they would have anything good to eat. It was early summer. I had stolen a bunch of cherries at Les Halles and a roll, but my stomach rattled.

I still had a fur cape I could sell, but I would need that for winter. I had a pearl necklace, but it looked so pretty on me that I could not part with it, not even for a good meal.

Pablo found me. I opened my eyes and there he was, this little handsome Spaniard with the black eyes, staring at me as if he had never seen a woman before.

I looked behind me to make sure there was nothing in the fountain capturing his attention like that, but no, he was looking at me. I sat up straighter and turned my face slightly to show off the better side.

Pablo and his friends had just finished lunch. I could smell the rosemary of a stew on their breaths. But while his friends were sloppy with cheap wine, Pablo was sober as a stone.

"Come with me," said this boy-man, extending his hand.

"I will not. Why should I?" I took a step backward, pretended I was not interested.

"Because I will paint you and make you live forever." He stepped closer and put his arm around my waist.

"Before or after bed?" I laughed, leaning away from him. I had no objection to bed, but I had just left a grand duke who gave me pearls before breakfast. Why take up with this fellow- an artist, judging by the paint under his nails-who probably hadn't a sou to his name?

I stepped out of his embrace and walked away. But we both knew something had begun.

Did he follow me or did I follow him? For a week, we bumped into each other almost daily-Paris is not so large that artists do not know where to find other artists, and I also had paint under my nails-and each time he said the same thing. "Come with me." And I said no.

Late one Saturday evening, I was returning to my room on Rue Lepic-I was singing in a café then, in exchange for free meals-when my handsome Spaniard crept up behind me and pushed me into a carriage. I was curious, not frightened. Where would he take me? What kind of lover would he be?

We went to an old villa outside of Paris. Missing doors, the smell of cat piss, ivy growing through broken windows into the faded, damp-stained rooms. When he opened the villa door for me to reveal those ruins, I laughed in his face. To go from a grand duke to a hovel! When he went out to find supper for us, I made my way back to Paris.

A week later, I still hadn't found any other adventure to my liking, and I kept thinking of his black eyes and the way he looked at me, the strength in his arms. I thought of sharing with him the bread and oranges he would put on the table, the slices of ham. I was more curious than ever to know what he would be like as a lover. So I found my way back to the villa, to Pablo. He was there waiting.

"I knew you would come back," he said. "I knew when I first saw you, this is a woman who wants to live forever."

He began a painting of me as soon as the oranges were finished, before we went to bed.

Thirty years ago.

"Would you like to paint me again?" I ask, getting out of bed and posing in a chair, one leg draped over the side, the other at an angle that the cubists used to adore.

He studies me. And then, "No, your face is too familiar. There is nothing new in it." But I can see his eyes moving, his right index finger drawing a small circle in the air. Some line in my posture has caught the artist's eye.

I laugh. "I will not let that hurt me, because that is what you intended to do. I will always be younger than you, Pablo. Remember that."

Some of last night's tenderness returns to him, and he smiles at me.

The razor still in his hand, he turns to stare back at the foam-covered face of the man in the mirror.

"At this moment of the morning, Françoise comes into the bathroom with my son, Claude. I make them laugh by dragging my finger through the shaving cream and making a sketch on my face. A clown with question marks over my eyes."

Pablo puts his razor down on the edge of the basin, and there is a suggestion of sadness in his proud face.

He does not spend a great deal of time in Paris, this older Picasso. There is the house in the south, the sun, the woman, the children. He says the light is better there, but I think, too, the heat and sun feel good on his skin. We are both at an age of wanting comfort.

He tells me stories of the woman, Françoise, to make me jealous. Because he once asked me to marry him and I refused, his need for revenge is always there, in the background of whatever else we are feeling.

Françoise Gilot, dark-haired, black winged brows, long, strong limbs. His flower-woman. He has painted her, sketched her, sculpted her. Hundreds of times. Good paintings. I am jealous of the paintings.

Françoise, with whom he has lived for almost twenty years, who has given him two children, is threatening to leave him.

Poor little Marie-Thérèse, his lover before Françoise stepped in for the role. She was seventeen when Pablo first stopped to speak with her in front of the Galeries Lafayette. And she had never heard of him! He began painting her immediately, though, for decency's sake, did not bed her till she was eighteen. In his paintings of her, she is transformed into plates of fruit. The edible woman, the domestic woman.

Marie-Thérèse has been waiting for him to come back to her for years, and if she has heard the rumors, she must be ecstatic. Wrongfully so. He won't be returning to Marie-Thérèse or any of the others. When Pablo is done, he is done. Except for me. He comes back.

Still. Françoise leaving him? Impossible. Or is it? And who, I wonder, will be the next new woman, shiny and bright and devoted? Has he already chosen her?

Pablo, still standing before the mirror, finishes carving through the foam to reveal his face. An older face, but women still turn to look and whisper together as he passes.

Françoise is also an artist, and of all the portraits that have been made of him, hers is the best-even I admit that. She captured the look of his eyes: dark, large, questioning, assessing. Seeing and not seeing, because an artist only allows himself to see what will be useful for the art.

And only feel what is necessary for the art.

"Do you remember our villa?" I ask. "When you carried me off?" Of course he does. But I want a word of remembered love from him, a sentiment. After all these years, my pulse continues to race when I look at him. No other man has affected me like this, and I want his pulse to race, too. I want more than the artist's gaze: I want longing. But it is not there. Friendship, sometimes lust. That is all.

Suddenly restless, I leave the chair and, sheet draped around me, wander through the studio, the old wood floor creaking as I move. In one corner there is a row of canvases carefully placed back to front, front to back, in order of size. A thick layer of dust covers the top edges of the paintings, and as I look through them, motes climb up like swarms of tiny insects.

Some of them I recognize, cubist paintings mixed in with the semiclassical works. Early 1920s, I think, placing their chronology the way other woman remember the birthdays of nieces and nephews. All born about the time he did that painting of me, the one he called The Lovers.

"It's not you," he insisted, even as I was posing for it in his studio. "It's a woman I cared about. How could it be you?"

"Well, it's certainly not Olga or Dora or Marie-Thérèse or any of the other hundred or so. And that is my nose; those are my eyes," I told him. "You did care. Once."

"You've always been vain. Now be quiet and tilt your head. You've got the pose wrong."

"Yes, my master," I said, but in our lovemaking, I made him plead for mercy, not vice versa.

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