As with most legends who loom larger than life, there isn’t much about Picasso that we don’t already know, that history hasn’t already picked and pored over in an attempt to understand an artist that was an electrifying lightning bolt to the very heart of modern 20th century art. We recognize instantly his sweeping swaths of color, the way he breathed life into jagged lines and hard-edged shapes, his delicate dance with the surreal, and the insatiable and unparalleled creativity that led him, as the story goes, to invent a new style of art-making each time he fell in love, which was often. We know he famously said, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” We know he painted, sketched, sculpted – dabbled in any and every medium that allowed him to playfully explore the vast depths of his imagination. We know he believed that maintaining a childlike sense of wonder was the most important thing any artist could do.
That’s why, when we discover a part of his story that history has glossed over, a brief yet shining footnote that summarizes the urgent and unrelenting way in which he made art, it feels like finding hidden treasure, like tripping over a rare gem while on the same path you’ve walked a million times. In this case, that rare gem is named Sylvette David, and she was the 19 year old muse that Picasso found himself enraptured by in 1954. She was his modern day Mona Lisa, a shy and enigmatic beauty with an ethereal energy and a killer high ponytail (Brigitte Bardot apparently copied it after seeing her at Cannes), and Picasso made more work in homage to her than to any other women in his lifetime (which is saying a lot, considering one of the things we know about him is that he was quite the ladies man).
The kicker? Their partnership was purely artist and muse and completely platonic. Sylvette, who was engaged to a photographer at the time, even went so far as to say that the famed painter was like a father figure to her. The pair met when they lived in the same small town on the Côte d’Azur: Sylvette would walk by Picasso’s studio every day, and the artist became enchanted by the mysterious girl with the cascading blonde ponytail and began sketching her face from memory. One day, he held up a sketch he had done of her face as she walked by, which she took as an invitation to introduce herself. After that, they were nearly inseparable, spending hours on end in his studio as he painted, sketched and sculpted her, attempting to capture the exuberant yet innocent warmth she possessed. They remained friends until his death, and Sylvette, who is still alive, is now a painter in her own right.
This so-called “Ponytail Period” reinforces Picasso’s staunch and obsessive belief in chasing inspiration in whatever form it appears to you, and well as a much needed reminder that there is often more to the story than what we have been told. It feels important to give the woman that history relegated to a footnote, merely because she was young and beautiful and not his lover, the final word: “He told me that creativity was happiness, and that any object can be interesting – that they all give you ideas. We would sit together in silence while he painted. This is where the artist goes – to an inner space, the visionary side of life. Through contemplation you go into another world…closer to your own soul. When you work spontaneously like this, beautiful things happen.”