La Vie en Rose: Picasso and Au Lapin Agile

Essential to the development of modern painting were the cheap, slightly seedy cabarets of Paris, where artists in a creative ferment met, drank, smoked tobacco and opium, loved, fought, lost, sang, and in some cases died. Pablo Picasso, who arrived in Paris in 1900, lost the close friend who had brought him there one year later to suicide. That death and its emotional fallout formed a central themes in Picasso’s work in the ensuing years, and culminated in what might be the ultimate “cabaret” painting: the three-figure portrait Au Lapin Agile (now part of the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art). David Norman, art historian and former co-head of Impressionist and modern art at Sotheby’s — and part of the team that sold the picture at auction — explains in the lucid and passionate essay the intertwined histories of the cabarets and the art their habitués produced.

In 1875, the artist Andre Gill painted a sign for a well-known Montmartre tavern called the Cabaret des Assassins. (It took its name from the fact that its walls were lined with portraits of famous murderers.) The image Gill put on …

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