Francis Picabia painted Portrait of a Doctor in 1935 but substantially reworked it shortly after. These two separate campaigns of work exemplify his ability to change styles in quick succession and to challenge directly the accepted notions of continuities in an artist's production. In the painting's present state, the figure is partially obscured by signs which were overlaid when the canvas was reworked. Early photographs prove that the misleading inscription '1925' was also an addition, and this is indicative of Picabia's mischievous subversion of artistic conventions.
The original composition was a relatively realistic, half-length portrait of a balding man in a white shirt (reproduced in Camfield, fig.366, between pp.296 and 297). The elements were simplified, with emphasis placed on the heavy outlines. The doctor, who has been identified as Picabia's friend Dr Raulot-Lapointe, is shown pointing at a skull in the foreground. This detail serves as a memento mori (reminder of mortality) and recalls Hamlet's soliloquy over Yorrick's skull in Shakespeare's Hamlet (Act 5, Scene 1). The painting seems to have been completed at the Château de Mai, Mougins in the South of France, as it is recorded in a photograph of the artist's studio there (reproduced in Camfield, fig.36, between pp.72 and 73). This indicates that it was painted before August 1935, when Picabia sold the house following the collapse of his marriage to Germaine Everling. In this first state, Portrait of a Doctor reflected Picabia's recent reversion to a relatively straightforward realism, after the overpainted images of his 'Transparencies' series. In 1934 he told the writer Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) that he felt that the new style was 'more vigorous, simpler, more human' (29 July 1934, quoted in Borràs, p.377). Related works dominated the exhibition Paintings by Francis Picabia organised by Stein and held at the Arts Club of Chicago in January 1936. It is unclear whether Portrait of a Doctor was included but, according to William Camfield, Picabia considered such realistic works to be 'significant paintings, not jokes or burlesques of contemporary naturalistic art', as they were often understood (Camfield, p.249).
The reworking of Portrait of a Doctor, which resulted in the present composition, may have emerged from Picabia's disappointment with the Chicago exhibition. Only two of the twenty-five paintings were sold and, in what Camfield calls 'a period of dissatisfaction', Picabia destroyed several of those returned to him (Camfield, p.249). Repainting Portrait of a Doctor was a less drastic intervention and one which fitted his established practice of overpainting. To make the second version of Portrait of a Doctor, Picabia painted over the background and skull in black, and obliterated the details of the face with markings that may be derived from medieval Catalan frescos but are simultaneously suggestive of medical instruments. He also added protuberances to the head which look like floppy horns, or like the legs in Max Ernst's Men Shall Know Nothing of This, 1923 (Tate T00336), a painting he would have known. These forms introduced a sexual symbolism which recurs in his paintings of the late 1940s, and which provides a balance to the reference to death, epitomised by that found in the skull in this painting.
The exact date of this change is difficult to determine, as is the significance of the artist's addition of '1925'. However, a story recounted by Camfield illustrates the ease with which Picabia may have undertaken the changes. In 1962 Picabia's daughter, Jeannine, recalled that 'this painting was offered to her, but when she indicated she did not like it, Picabia said to return in a few days. Upon returning, she was presented with Portrait in its present form' (Camfield, p.249 note 19). In its new version, Portrait of a Doctor was not exhibited until March 1949 when it was included in Picabia's retrospective 491, 50 ans de plaisir at the Galerie René Drouin, Paris.
Maria Lluïsa Borràs, Picabia, London 1985, p.379, reproduced p.405, no.839
William A. Camfield, Francis Picabia: His Art, Life and Times, Princeton, New Jersey 1979, reproduced between pp.296 and 297, fig.367
Picabia 1879-1953, exhibition catalogue, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh 1988, reproduced p.93 in colour
Revised by Matthew Gale March 2001