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"Retracing Picasso's Footsteps in Paris"

American Way, 2020


Forty-nine. The number oddly startled me when I found it enameled on a little blue rectangle nailed to an unassuming town house above Rue Gabrielle's cobblestones. I'd been researching the history of this site, and others in Paris' 18th Arrondissement, for months, attempting to understand what a 19-year-old Pablo Picasso might have experienced at these places for my novel, The Blue Period. I'm not sure what I was expecting at the address already etched in my brain—a gaggle of tourists aiming iPhones, maybe a gift shop, something resembling fanfare?


But the only acknowledgment of the location's significance was a small granite plaque also affixed to the bone-white wall. In French, it read, "Here in 1900 Picasso had his first studio in Paris." I knew, however, that inside this simple five-story building, nearly 120 years ago, a real-life drama played out that altered the course of Western art.


Around Picasso's 19th birthday in late October 1900, he and his best friend, a mercurial poet-painter named Carles Casagemas, boarded a train in Barcelona heading from their native Spain to Paris, where they sublet a disheveled live-work space at 49 Rue Gabrielle. They'd come to see Picasso's Last Moments, a somber, realistic painting, unrecognizable from his later abstract work, hanging in the world's fair.


At first, Picasso and Casagemas' stay resembled bohemian bliss, with Picasso winning interest from art dealers for his works styled after Toulouse-Lautrec's café scenes, while the travelers also explored a land far more liberated than anything back in Barcelona. In Paris' hillside enclave of Montmartre—a destination for intellectuals, artistes, radicals and late-night revelers alike—they drank at dimly lit boîtes, visited raucous dance halls and painted free-spirited models.


But a doomed love affair between Casagemas and one of those free-spirited models, a dark-haired woman named Germaine Pichot, led to Casagemas' suicide, bringing this carefree time to an end. Picasso spiraled into years of depression, a spell during which he caromed back and forth between Paris and Barcelona, depicting the cities' lost souls in a moody palette of cobalt, ultramarine and Prussian blue. This early, socially conscious phase in Picasso's decades-long career transformed his precocious but unoriginal canvases into a groundbreaking exploration of empathy that set the stage for later achievement.


As a writer in search of a story but without an art-history background, I had scant interest in Picasso until a friend and editor pointed out a year earlier that the young painter was actually desperately poor and severely depressed during his famous Blue Period, a term I thought referred only to the colors he used. Slowly, I learned Picasso's early life was not so effortless and became intrigued.


Born in Andalusia in 1881 to a mother from a modest background and a struggling artist father, Picasso and his family moved to Barcelona after his sister died of diphtheria when he was 13. Admittedly, these facts were hard to reconcile with the picture of Picasso in my mind as an aging, self-absorbed celebrity dashing off abstract mishmashes that would become priceless as soon as he signed his name.


While I had visited Paris before, I mostly overlooked the now quaint Montmartre in favor of more recently edgy spots, such as Belleville. But, as I was now considering a side of Picasso I'd never known, the time felt ripe to revisit the city's iconic locale. I was here to hunt for vestiges of the heady milieu Picasso found in the early 1900s, to glean insight into what made him a prolific artist. After all, Picasso created many of the hundreds of works he produced during his nearly four-year Blue Period within this two-square-mile district.


To start, I was thrilled to book a stay on VacationRentals.com in the very apartment building Picasso and Casagemas inhabited, for the exciting price of about $100 per night.


I pressed the bell, waited for the buzz, and stepped through the vestibule decorated with faded cement tiles. Jean-Yves, the bookish, middle-aged owner of the apartment, handed over an old ward key. After so many years, he explained, walking up the rickety staircase, no one knows for sure on which level Picasso resided.


The flat I rented on the first landing turned out to be simple but cozy, with oak floors, a small writing desk and a poster for the 2001 film Amélie, Montmartre's more recent celebrity.


Light poured through the windows. This would please a painter, I thought. After Jean-Yves left, I set my laptop on the desk and visualized the layout before me cluttered with the objects Casagemas described in a worn postcard: "1 table, 1 washbasin, two green chairs, 1 green armchair, two chairs which are not green, 1 bed with trimmings, 1 corner seat which is not in a corner, two easels, 1 oil lamp, a heater, a Persian rug, twelve blankets, an eiderdown … glasses, bottles, paintbrushes, a screen newly arrived from a war zone."


That afternoon, I hit the streets, soon rambling through the Place des Abbesses, where a vendor's roasting chestnuts summoned me. The curved-iron, art nouveau entranceway to the Métro seemed like a gateway to yesteryear. Paris' underground transit system, a quintessential feature of modern life, was unveiled only months before Picasso arrived, though, and I realized how futuristic it must have appeared in 1900. When I strolled past the bulbous white domes of the Sacré-Cœur—one of the city's most recognizable landmarks where tourists crowd the steps at sundown to catch stunning views—I reminded myself the church was still in scaffolding when Picasso first laid eyes on it.


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Read the full article at American Way's website.