Having worked as a producer on a PBS documentary on Picasso in conjunction with the grand Bill Rubin curated MoMA retrospective after his death, I thought I had seen so many of the early Picassos. But this beautiful one of 1901 of his younger sister Lola was new to me. Its provenance shows that it was first owned by Olivier Sainsere, one of Picasso's earliest collectors and later, by Paul Mellon. Her glance, which is both sober and haunting, is but one view of this very beautiful woman, but Picasso was still suffering from the death of his best friend Casagemas and was gradually working his way into his full-on blue period. Here the background is more muted and her left eye is almost drifting, looking towards something she too is possibly concerned about. But he image of her in her traditional black mantilla is ambiguous on that point.
I checked with Marilyn McCully, who had been an advisor on our film and who is considered the expert on Picasso's early Spanish years. She said, "Picasso was always close to his sister, and he kept up with her children later in life, when two of her sons left Spain at the end of the Civil War for France. She was married to a doctor called Juan Vilató and they had seven children: Fin and Xavier, both became artists. Lola and her husband eventually settled in Barcelona, and she became the “head” of the family, in a sense, after their mother died in 1939. As a girl, Lola was Picasso’s principal model, and she also did drawings in the late 1890s.This suggests that Picasso painted the little panel in Barcelona and then took it with him to Paris (there were other small works he brought with him) in the spring of 1901. There is no evidence this painting was in the Vollard show (the first 'big show’ which Sotheby's suggests it was). Auctions sometimes give us the chance for a glimpse of things we would never get to see otherwise, and this jewel of a painting is a prime example of that. It goes under the hammer tomorrow night.