Oiseau sur une branche (Oiseau empaillé)

Bird on a Branch (Stuffed Bird)

Artist Pablo Picasso


Accession year before 1993

Oil on canvas, 33 x 15 cm

Inscription on the back: “Picasso Céret”

Collection Fondazione Francesco Federico Cerruti per l’Arte

Long-term loan Castello di Rivoli Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Rivoli-Turin

Inv. no. CC.11.P. PIC.1913.A153

Provenance: Galerie Kahnweiler, Parigi (Archives photo. no. 307); Galerie L’Effort moderne (Léonce Rosenberg), (cf. photograph Centre Pompidou/MNAM-CCI/Bibliothèque Kandinsky, Fonds Léonce Rosenberg LROS 45); Sotheby’s Parke Bernet, London, 3 July 1979 (lot 3); private collection, New York; Marina Picasso Collection, Paris.

Exhibitions: New York and other venues 1939-43 (p. 86, no. 118); Philadelphia 1945; New York 1948; New York-Chicago-Philadelphia 1957-58 (p. 45, no. 71); New York 1962 (no. 14); Venice 1981 (no. 102).

Bibliography: Raynal 1920, pl. 2; Zervos 1932-78, vol. II, t. II, no. 532 (ZII**, 532); Minervino 1972, no. 772; Daix, Rosselet 1979, no. 651; Palau i Fabre 1990, II, 924; Wofsy 1995-2016, vol. XIII, p. 206; Richardson 1996, vol. II, p. 278; Mallen 1997-2018, vol. XIII, entry 079; The Cerruti Collection 2019, p. 28, ill.

Picasso appears to take up the genre of vanitas painting to express the futility and inevitable end of all things with a probable reference to the death of his father, who specialised in painting birds. This small canvas is, however, also marked by great vivacity, almost suggesting the song of the bird with its shimmering plumage

The back of the painting.

Though dated 1914 by Christian Zervos,1 this painting appears from the inscription “Picasso Céret” on the back, described by Palau i Fabre,2 to have been painted in 1913 at Céret, where Pablo Picasso spent a few months between July 1911 and August 1913.3 After endeavouring to represent the object from different angles, Picasso adopts here a freer technique than the Cubism of previous years. The reference to reality is far more evident. The bird is perched on a branch mounted on a base in the way that taxidermists usually present stuffed animals. Picasso juxtaposes the pictorial space born out of Cubism and natural space through stylised references to reality and perfect compositional control. The surfaces are marked out with some fragmented brushstrokes and a gritty material that gives the work its granular texture. Space is suggested by means of a few details like the table and base. While the bird’s support with its moulding is illusionistically presented from above and below, in profile and frontally, this spatial rearrangement gives way to rhythms of colour that play the part of spatial syntax.

With this Oiseau empaillé (Stuffed Bird), the title given at the New York exhibition in 1962, Picasso appears to take up the genre of vanitas painting to express the futility and inevitable end of all things with a probable reference to the death of his father,4 who specialised in painting birds. This small canvas is, however, also marked by great vivacity, almost suggesting the song of the bird with its shimmering plumage, reminiscent of a green woodpecker or a goldenthroated barbet, which has green feathers, purple-edged wings and a red face in addition to its yellow throat.

While the depiction of the bird can of course be seen as a pure and simple pictorial motif, the ambiguous combination of life and death also appears to recall Picasso’s mistress Éva Gouel,5 who was often associated with birds, a frequent subject in his work of the period 1911-15.6 There is no explicit link between the bird and Éva, however, but rather a host of memories suggested by this metaphor. Holding a fish in its beak, the bird also brings to mind the Oiseau du Bénin,7 a splendid sculpture from Dahomey8 owned by Apollinaire, who referred to his friend Picasso by this name in Le Poète assassiné.9 Could it not therefore also be a tribute to the poet, who had just presented him with a copy of his collection Alcools?10 As we have seen, the structure and brushwork endow the composition with a strength that contrasts with the idea of the fleetingness of life suggested by the dead bird. While different interpretations are possible, the artist was concerned with going beyond the apparent contradictions to explore the relations between beings and objects, and give shape to the ungraspable.11

[Jeanne Sudour]

After entering the collection of Marina Picasso in Paris, the painting was purchased by Francesco Federico Cerruti before 1993. Indeed, on 30 June of that year it was recorded in the handwritten inventory of the collection [Ed.].

1 Zervos 1932-78, vol. II (1961), fig. 532.

2 Palau I Fabre 1990, p. 511 (PiF II, 924).

3 It was around 10 March 1913 that Pablo Picasso and Éva Gouel (Marcelle Humbert), who was ill at the time, returned to Céret (see Penrose 1958, p. 230), where they stayed until 20 June and then again in August. They appear to have left Céret before 19 August 1913. “We had some arguments and preferred to go back to Paris for some peace,” letter from Picasso to Kahnweiler, 19 August 1913. Archives Kahnweiler-Leiris, quoted in Rubin 1990, p. 395.

4 Picasso’s father died on 3 May 1913.

5 Éva Gouel, who probably became Picasso’s mistress in November 1911, fell ill in 1913 and died on 14 December 1915.

6 The bird reappears in Le Pigeon aux petits pois (Z.II,308), in sketchbooks 110 of 1912 and 111, sheet 28, Oiseau blessé ou Le Pigeon (Z.II,338), Colombe couvant (Z.II,346), Les oiseaux morts (Z.II, 339) and in the canvas Femme lisant un journal, 1915 (Z.XXIX, 165).

7 L’Oiseau du Bénin, a sculpture from Dahomey (Kingdom of Danhomè, Republic of Benin, late 19th century), shows a bird with incised plumage holding a fish in a beak of hammered copper. It was probably brought back from Benin after the surrender of King Béhanzin in 1894. The work was shown in the exhibition Apollinaire le regard d’un poète, Paris, Musée de l’Orangerie, 2016.

8 M. Murphy, “Apollinaire et l’oiseau du Bénin (Picasso): le primitivisme en question”, in Paris 2016, pp. 83-95.

9 Le Poète assassiné (Apollinaire 1916) is a collection of pieces written between 1900 and 1913 and published in 1916. Apollinaire continued to associate the painter with the bird motif in the watercolour Les oiseaux chantent avec les doigts (Paris, Musée national Picasso – Paris, MP3588), which he painted for Picasso in 1916, and in La Femme assise (posthumous publication, Paris, Éditions de la Nouvelle Revue Française, 1920), where the surname of Pablo Canouris suggests a canary.

10 Picasso wrote to Apollinaire on 29 May 1913 from Céret: “Dear Guillaume, I have received your book Alcools. You know how much I love you and the joy it gives me to read your poetry […]” (Paris, Musée national Picasso, Archives Picasso).

11 “[…] the very meaning of painting. It is not an aesthetic process but a form of magic that stands between us and the hostile universe, a way of taking power by imposing a form on our terrors as on our desires” Picasso in Gilot-Lake 1965, pp. 248-249.