The other day I was reading about the relationship between Michel Georges-Michel and Pablo Picasso. Michel was a French painter and author who was known among artists in Avant-garde Paris. Picasso was, well you know…Picasso! In Michel’s book “From Renoir to Picasso: Artists in Action” an anecdote is presented in which Picasso encounters a surgeon with whom a painting is exhanged. This past week there was an attempt to track down the details of this relationship. The following is what is known thus far.
Let us begin with the raw story:
“Picasso has a son, Paulo, whom he loves dearly. One night when Paulo was a child, he suddenly fell gravely ill…The next morning Dr. Grosset, the well-known surgeon, operated on little Paulo, and saved his life.”
Paulo was born in 1921 to Picasso, who was 40 years old at the time, and Olga Khokhlova, his first wife. Picasso was an amorous lover, having many affairs, some resulting in children. When Olga was informed that Picasso had impregnated Marie-Thérèse Walter in 1935, she left Picasso and moved to the south region of France. The above event involving Paulo must have taken place between 1921-1935. However, a 14-year time span is not very specific. At this stage in Picasso’s career he had an apartment/studio in No. 23 rue La Boétie, Paris, located in the ritzy 8th district. Picasso also was living in a château at Le Boisgeloup as early as 1930.
After researching extensively, there has been no other reference to Paulo’s grave illness that night. In this scene, Michel draws reference to the fact that Picasso never owned a telephone. Thus, he could not call for help. Olga had to use a neighbor’s phone. After the incident, Picasso adopted the technology. Again, there are no other mention of Picasso not owning a telephone. It could be assumed from the telephone that the event took place in Paris. No comment can be made regarding the population density of Le Boisgeloup in the 1920’s, but the apartment Picasso occupied in Paris would have been a nucleus surrounded by readily present, wealthy neighbors who probably owned telephones.
Another disheartening result from the search is that Dr. Grosset was not as “well-known” to medical history. There was no available information about him through Google, medical journals, or art journals. Even his first name evaded discovery. The elusive Dr. Grosset may be all but lost to history. He may have indeed been “well-known” in the community. From Michel’s account, Dr. Grosset was a very compassionate, humanistic surgeon.
“The next morning Dr. Grosset, the well-known surgeon, operated on little Paulo, and saved his life. And when the doctor refused to charge any fee for his services, Picasso sent him one of his finest canvases: a portrait of a young boy dressed as Pierrot.”
This painting, “a portrait of a young boy dressed as Pierrot,” is the key. Pierrot is a generic stage character usually the butt end of jokes and insults. Michel does not give us the exact name of the painting, and Picasso painted many depictions of Pierrot. There are two, strong potential paintings narrowed down based on the year they were produced, both located in the Musee Picasso in Paris. One named “Paul en Pierrot” from 1925 and the other “Portrait d’adolescent en Pierrot” from 1922. The latter translates literally to “Portrait of an adolescent as Pierrot.” Though not a canvas painting, is this the work in question? Has the mystery been solved?
The answer rests in the provenance of both paintings. There is no information regarding the source of each work on the Musee Picasso website. The next step was to access the French Archives. Despite my inability to read French, I was able to navigate the database. Remarkably, both paintings are collated in the archives. However according to the French archives, both of these paintings were donated by “Picasso heirs.”
There is not much information to unify the relationship between Picasso and the elusive Dr. Grosset, but some negatives have been ruled out. Michel was accurate about Dr. Jules-Émile Péan, so there is no reason to doubt his account of Dr. Grosset. My theory is that Dr. Grosset may not have been as well-known as Dr. Péan, but was well-known among his patients and their families, like the Picassos. The gouache and watercolor above may have been a study to Grosset’s painting. The portrait of a young boy dressed as Pierrot may be still hanging in the home of one of Grosset’s descendants, an old family heirloom with a charming story. This search may not have solved the mystery, but certainly remembers the legacy of Dr. Grosset’s kindness to his patients.
And who knows, some day this painting may surface. I will keep looking!
UPDATE: Dr. Grosset was a physician in Paris. He performed an operation August 9, 1943 on Chaim Soutine. However, Soutine did not survive the surgery, having suffered from a gastric perforation. I will keep researching and follow up with another article. Source