Provenance research can be like looking for a needle in a haystack, where sometimes what you find is a strong thread. Such was the case with a Picasso drawing that will be sold on May 16, 2014 in the American & European Works of Art auction at Skinner in Boston.
George Leslie Stout, the Fogg Art Museum’s first conservation department head, articulated the best practices for art authentication as a “three-legged stool,” and his model is still generally accepted today. The three legs are: art historical documentation, stylistic connoisseurship, and technical analysis. Provenance research falls under the first leg.
Literature and provenance
Our Pablo Picasso drawing was well-supported by the literature – it was documented in Zervos’s catalogue raisonné, well-regarded for its breadth and accuracy as it was compiled with Picasso’s guidance. While some entries in this catalogue identify the original owner, our entry unfortunately did not, but dated the work to 1923. (Figs. 1 and 2)
While the work appeared to be identical to the illustration and stylistically consistent with works of the same year, it still needed to be verified in person by Claude Picasso of the Picasso Administration who holds the droit moral and represents the artist’s estate and four heirs.
Before the work traveled to Paris, however, we had to verify its provenance for their consideration.
The Pickmans in Paris
According to the consignor of the Picasso drawing, it descended in the family of Hester Pickman, who lived in Paris in the 1920s, and likely acquired the work during this time. A record of the drawing in her estate appraisal supported her ownership, but more questions remained—who was Hester Pickman, exactly when did she acquire the work, and how?
An extended obituary of Hester Chanler Pickman in the Boston Globe revealed that she was a Radcliffe-educated, multilingual intellectual and aesthete, as well as an accomplished translator and artist. She was married to Edward M. Pickman. Of particular interest was the following:
“The Pickmans lived in Paris in the 1920s and through friends there met F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and other famous Americans. She also studied with the Russian emigree painter Natalya Goncharova… prominent American writers were frequent guests at the Pickmans’ home in Bedford, including the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead and William Alfred, the poet and playwright.” (1)
More questions arose: Who was Edward M. Pickman, and was there any documentation of their friendships with these writers and artists?
Further research revealed Edward Motley Pickman to be a Harvard-educated scholar who descended from the affluent and powerful merchant sailing family of Salem, Massachusetts. It became clear that the Pickmans’ held cultural and social influence over both their Beacon Hill and Bedford communities, as Edward was a Trustee of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Boston Athenaeum, and a representative of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston. Of particular note was the following: “In the autumn of 1921 Pickman went abroad with his family for two years….he followed lecture courses at the Sorbonne, studied for some months in Berlin, and spent the summer of 1923 in Italy.” (2)
Another reference for their trip appeared in the Harvard Square Notes of the Cambridge Tribune, November 3, 1923, which helped to establish a timeline: “Mr. and Mrs. Edward Motley Pickman, who have lived for the past two years in Paris, France have returned to this country and for the greater part of the Winter will be in this city on account of Mr. Pickman’s association with Harvard University.” (3)
Further, the Pickmans’ records through Ellis Island indicated that they departed Genoa, Italy on August 29, 1923 aboard the SS Conte Verde, arriving in New York on September 9, 1923. (4) If the work was created in 1923 and was acquired by the Pickmans before their departure, then it must have been acquired sometime between January and August 29th, 1923. Could we look further to establish their whereabouts during the first part of the year?
A clue leads to the Murphy family
We found the next clue at Harvard University’s Houghton Library, which happens to hold an archive of Pickman and Chanler family papers. A letter from Hester to her sister, Laura Chanler White (Stanford White’s daughter-in-law), dated July 4th, contained a curious reference to a “Villa Germaine/Houlgate/Calvado” and to “…the Murphies [sic].” The year was parenthetically noted by the archivist as 1922 or 1923. A Boolean search for “Houlgate” and “Hester Pickman” revealed a link to the Sara and Gerald Murphy papers at the Yale University Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library as well as an excerpt from a biography on the Murphys, confirming that the two families had summered together at Houlgate in 1922. (5)
The friendship between the Pickmans and the Murphys was well-documented—they were lifelong friends since their days in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Gerald and Sara Murphy knew Sergei Diaghilev (6), and through him established relationships with the Parisian avant-garde—including Picasso, Natalia Goncharova, Jean Cocteau, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others. The Murphys and Hester Pickman took art lessons from Goncharova in Paris in 1921 and on her good word, were given an opportunity by Diaghilev to paint the Ballet Russes backdrops for the spring season. In the process, they met and received criticism from Picasso, Georges Braque, and Andre Derain. (7)
The Murphys socialized with Picasso frequently from 1921 through 1923 — they threw a preview party in June 1923 for the opening of Igor Stravinsky’s Les Noces which Picasso notoriously attended, and both had summered at the Hôtel du Cap on the Cap d’Antibes in 1923, frequently playing at La Garoupe beach. (8)
Sara Murphy is widely believed to have served as a model for Picasso during the summer of 1923. (9) Amanda Vaill, author of Everybody Was So Young: Gerald and Sara Murphy, A Lost Generation Love Story, notes certain verisimilitudes in Picasso’s nudes of this period after examining the Musée Picasso’s microfilms of Picasso’s 1923 sketchbook (now in Marina Picasso’s possession) and speaking with art historian William S. Rubin. “Sometimes the woman is holding a child on her lap, her hair twisted lightly at the back of her head, as Sara’s often was, then streaming loosely down her back. In some sketches she is shown in one of the long, classically flowing dresses that Sara favored. In one she is wearing the turban Sara was photographed in with Picasso. In others she is naked except for a rope of pearls.” (10)
While it is unknown at this time where in Italy the Pickmans were during the summer of 1923, given their close relationship and mutual social connections, it is tempting to speculate that the two families met up during the late summer, possibly on the French Riviera at their Villa, or the Italian Riviera closer to their port of departure.
It is also tempting to speculate that the figure in our drawing may be based upon Sara Murphy.
While it remains to be known how exactly the work was acquired—whether directly from Picasso or from the Murphys—the answer may surface in the future through additional archival research.
The Pickmans’ connection to the Murphys, and thus to Picasso, however, was useful as circumstantial evidence in support of their acquisition, and the Picasso Administration—who provided their insight into the other two legs of the stool—affirmed the work as by the hand of the master.
We look forward to passing the research torch on to the next owner, and hope you’ll join us at the auction on May 16, 2014 in Boston.
(1) Edgar J. Driscoll, Jr. “Hester M. Pickman of Bedford, Artist and Literary Figure, at 95.” Boston Globe, March 10, 1989, p. 85.
(2) Hugh Whitney, “Edward Motley Pickman.” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Third Series, Volume 72 (October 1957 to December 1960), pp. 365.
(3) “Harvard Square Notes,” The Cambridge Tribune, November 3, 1923, p. 4.
(4) Ellis Island passenger manifest records, 1892-1924. https://www.ellisisland.org/
(5) Amanda Vaill, Everybody Was So Young: Gerald and Sara Murphy: A Lost Generation Love Story (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998), p. 109.
(6) Honoria Murphy Donnelly with Richard N. Billings, Sara and Gerald: Villa America and After (New York: New York Times Books, 1982), p. 13-14.
(7) Vaill, 106.
(8) Vaill, 124.
(9) Vaill, 126.