Long before Pablo Picasso's works made it to major American museums, an art collector in Brooklyn identified the artist's talents and believed his works should be displayed. In fact, he wanted to hang Picasso's works on his very own walls.
In 1910, Hamilton Easter Field commissioned Picasso to adorn a room in his Brooklyn Heights home with murals, but Picasso didn't finish the works before Field died. Now, for the first time, the Metropolitan Museum of Art is bringing together six paintings linked to the commission. "Picasso: A Cubist Commission in Brooklyn" opens on Thursday, September 14 and runs through January 14, 2024.
"It's an important aspect of Picasso's work that has been not researched on that level, has been not known before we embarked on this project," The Met's director Max Hollein said. "I hope the exhibition will be as revelatory to our audience as it has been to us."
In addition to the six paintings linked to the commission, the exhibition also features related sketches and even the letter in which Field detailed his specifications to Picasso.
Field asked the artist to create paintings for the library in his Brooklyn Heights home, a small room with a single window. Some of the paintings would hang atop bookcases, while others were intended as long horizontal pieces over doors.
"In any case," Field wrote in the letter to Picasso, "I give you complete freedom. Do whatever you think best suited for the room."
The commission presented Picasso with his first opportunity to move beyond easel painting and apply his radical Cubist style to decorative painting formats of challenging size and proportion, staff at The Met explained.
It seems that Picasso began to create the paintings, working in various studios in France. But a decade after Field and Picasso first met in Paris, Field died without ever seeing Picasso's works in his home.
"If Field has his way, the entire room would have been enveloped with Cubist paintings," the exhibition's guest curator Anna Jozefacka said. "While Picasso was waiting for Field's letter with all the details so he can begin working on this project, he took Cubism into absolutely new directions and took it to the brink of abstraction."
During Picasso’s lifetime, no paintings were linked to this commission, but experts eventually realized that some of his unusually-sized Cubist paintings matched the exact dimensions Field specified. It’s thought that Field’s hands-off approach and Picasso’s challenges in dealing with some unusually large and some unusually narrow dimensions caused delays.
While no designs or sketches for the commission have yet to be identified in Picasso's artwork, a group of figurative works dated to 1910—all centered on a vertical female nude—explore the time period when Picasso began working on the commission.
Though Field never got to see his library decorated in the way he'd hoped, the art collector was certainly ahead of his time. In 1911, photographer and art promoter Alfred Stieglitz mounted Picasso's first U.S. exhibition in his Fifth Avenue gallery. Stieglitz tried to convince The Met to buy all of the exhibition's contents. The museum refused, and only two pieces sold: One to Stieglitz and one to Field.
Now, more than a century later, both of those pieces are on view at The Met.