Anne Girard’s beautifully written novel Madame Picasso – on Pablo Picasso’s most influential lover and muse – features a carefully detailed depiction of the late Belle Époque era in Paris, France. Picasso, Spanish-born and -raised, was seen as an outsider by the French, though embraced by the artist-and-writer set, particularly those who frequented the salon of Gertrude Stein. Throughout the engrossing narrative, the author scatters mentions of people and places well-known in the Third French Republic, creating a tangible reproduction of the Golden Era in France and its relatively unknown inhabitant, Marcelle Humbert – also known as Eva Gouel.
The most notable setting is the legendary landmark, the Moulin Rouge, a popular cabaret establishment in the Montmartre district topped by a red windmill. Founded in 1889 and still open to this day, the Moulin Rouge has launched the career of many entertainers, and has even been visited by Great Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II. There have been countless movies and books based on or including the Moulin Rouge and its signature dance – the can-can. Within the scope of this novel, it is the starting point for the half-starved seamstress-turned-muse, meeting place of her love and the scene of her ingenious geisha act. The kimono that inspired this scene in the novel can be seen in a photograph taken by Picasso, and is one of the few existing images of Eva. Before she takes on the role of Madame Picasso, the protagonist is a fixture at the Moulin Rouge, quickly winning over the stern proprietress and even the tough-as-nails star of the show, Mistinguett.
Another often visited site of the novel is the Bateau Lavoir at 13 Rue Ravignan, Picasso’s early residence and art studio. Frequented by impoverished bohemian artists, writers and actors, it was a shambling old building placed on the hills of the Montmartre, resulting in one side being street level and the other three stories. The square around the building remains a charming site, though the building itself is closed to the public, only housing a window display of the former famous occupants, and a caricature painting of Picasso on the outside wall. It is considered the birthplace of Cubism. In Madame Picasso, the artist is no longer obliged to rent the cold and shabby rooms, but finds inspiration and peace inside its walls. It is the place he chose to begin his love affair with Eva.
More than a famous location, the salon of Gertrude Stein – the single most influential supporter of Picasso’s newly minted artistic style – was the pinnacle of prosperity and fame for those of the art scene. Every Saturday at 27 rue de Fleurus the honored guests would gather to swap opinions on modern art, discuss current events, gossip and admire the Steins’ collection of famous paintings, including works by Cézanne and Matisse. Girard’s characterization of Gertrude Stein depicts a thoughtful and generous friend to Picasso, and one of the few in his circle of acquaintances who is accepting of Eva over his previous lover, Fernande Olivier.
Equally supportive of Picasso was fellow artist and co-inventor of Cubism, Georges Braque. More than once throughout the story Picasso travels to Céret in the French Pyrenees to escape his troubles in Paris, or simply to paint with his dear friend and collaborator. They were not only the pioneers of what is now termed Analytic Cubism, but also of a new technique with collage art. Along with Stein, Braque also welcomed Eva’s presence in Picasso’s life, as he realized that his friend had found a new inspiration under her quiet influence.
Pablo Picasso, son of an art teacher, was producing advanced drawings and paintings at an early age, and had mastered the traditional realistic style long before his own inclinations drove him to push the boundaries of convention. After the death of his dearest friend, Carlos Casagemas, he went through a phase called the Blue Period. This was followed by the Rose Period, during which he was in a tempestuous relationship with Fernande, who, in this novel, befriends Eva before she knows of Picasso’s interest in the slight, mousy seamstress. Eva is introduced into Picasso’s life during a time when his style was shifting and he felt unsure of himself and his place among the other artists. Her mark is upon several works, particularly his 1913 painting, “Woman in an Armchair (Eva)”, which holds certain significance to the storyline.
Madame Picasso covers the final years of the Belle Époque era (1911 – 1914). The World’s Fair (Exposition Universelle) of 1889, in which the Eiffel Tower was built as the entrance to the fair, and the similar exposition of 1900, featured the scientific wonders and great inventions of the age, and affected all aspects of the cultural changes, including the art scene. With photography and motion pictures taking center stage, it is no wonder Picasso felt the need to shake up the old-fashioned styles and begin a new wave of modern art. Girard’s story takes readers expansively through the influential years of the artist’s Cubist era, and brings to light a little-known, though obviously significant relationship, while detailing the landscape of France just before the beginning of World War I.
About the contributor: Arleigh Johnson has worked in the book industry for more than a decade and is an active member of the book-blogging community with her websites Historical-Fiction.com and Royal-Intrigue.net. She has been reviewing books online for eight years and with Historical Novel Society since 2011.