Francis Picabia

Portrait of a Doctor


Not on display

Francis Picabia 1879–1953
Original title
Portrait d'un docteur
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 920 × 728 × 18 mm
frame: 1117 × 924 × 50 mm
Purchased with assistance from the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1990


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.

Further reading:
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

Amy Dempsey
February 2000
Revised by Matthew Gale March 2001

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Display caption

This was originally a relatively naturalistic portrait of a man pointing to a skull, the traditional reminder of death. After it was returned unsold, Picabia chose to obliterate the features of the face, transforming it into a void overlaid with strange symbols that may have been derived from medieval Catalan frescos. Picabia surrounded his figure with sexually-suggestive hanging objects based on these symbols, while the horns are a reference to cuckoldry. The misleading date ‘1925’ was also painted in later, reflecting Picabia’s subversive sense of humour.

Gallery label, July 2008

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Technique and condition

The support was prepared by Lucien Lefèbvre Foinet, Paris. The fine linen canvas is primed with an off-white oil ground and attached to a stretcher with tacks.

The oil painting is in many layers encapsulating the reworking of the canvas over several years. The original portrait with skull was overpainted sometime after it was exhibited in 1936 obliterating the details of the face. A thick layer of varnish, now brown in colour and slightly opaque, was applied, and the top layer of additional images and reworking of the portrait and skull applied, which appear cool in colour and high in contrast against the earlier work below the varnish. The later repaintings often penetrate contraction cracks within the earlier painting.

The painting has developed an extensive network of brittle age cracks with slightly raised edges and suffered several minor damages. It has been varnished, cleaned, retouched and revarnished in the past.

The black lacquered frame had been fitted recently, prior to acquisition. The painting was surface cleaned and the frame glazed on acquisition.

Roy Perry

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