Pemberton vs. Picasso

Pop quiz for all you aficionados of Vancouver Island art history: what do Sophie Pemberton and Pablo Picasso have in common?


OK, they were both painters, and they both lived in Paris in the very early years of the 20th century (Pemberton arrived before Picasso; he stayed on quite a bit longer than she did). But that only gets you part marks. More interestingly, they both painted portraits of the same guy, known around the Latin Quarter as Bibi la Purée. And for my money, she did it better.

Of course, those who aren’t Vancouver Island art history buffs might be asking at this point, “Sophie who?” And more than a few might also be asking, “Bibi who?”

Let’s start with Sophie Pemberton. Born in Victoria BC in 1869, she had a couple of big advantages for someone wanting to be a painter; her family was affluent and socially well connected, and they were willing to finance years of study abroad, notably in England (South Kensington) and later in Paris at the Académie Julian. She also had a couple of disadvantages: women weren’t exactly encouraged to have careers in the 19th century, and she periodically suffered from prolonged bouts of ill-health.

Still, despite whatever challenges she faced, by the time she was 30 she had some measure of success, becoming the first woman to win the Prix Julian for portraiture, and her work had been included in a number of important exhibitions, including the Royal Academy in London, and the Paris Salon of 1900. By 1906, she was an associate member of the Royal Canadian Academy.

Bibi la Purée was the nickname of André-Joseph Salis, who lived in Paris in the last half of the 19th century (born 1847 and died in 1903, according to Wikipedia). He has been described as one of the more footnotey-er footnotes to cultural history, and shows up in various accounts of the period as a living embodiment of the romantic impoverished bohemian, something out of the pages of Murger. He appears to have been chiefly known for helping the poet Paul Verlaine stagger home after drinking too much, and for obsessively stealing umbrellas. He had walk-on parts in a number of contemporary accounts of the Latin Quarter, sometimes even a whole chapter, and was enough of a celebrity that he, or his persona, was the central character in a play and a couple of films many years after his death.

So one can see why the young Picasso would want to rope Bibi into the cast of down-and-outers that inhabit his Blue Period. But the connection between Sophie Pemberton and Bibi la Purée is way more puzzling. Because although she exhibited considerable independence for a woman of her era, she never strayed very far from her social class. Certainly her other works betray no indication of a fascination with the seedy underbelly of modern life. In fact, looking at the works that hang in the Spencer wing of the AGGV, the word “genteel” seems to sum up her oeuvre pretty well. She favoured genre scenes: a dreamy young woman sitting in a field, or two young women reading by the fire, that sort of thing. Most of her portraits are of family members, or various respectable society types, like the former Lieutenant-Governor of BC.

So given the wide disparity in their respective situations, how did she come to paint a portrait of the notorious “King of the Latin Quarter”? How did their paths even cross?

As it happens, we know the answer, sort of. Sophie Pemberton wrote short article about Bibi la Purée, published in Westward Ho! magazine in 1907, and thoughtfully included as an appendix to Nicholas Tuele’s excellent 1980 Masters’ thesis, “Sophie Theresa Pemberton: Her Life and Art,” (from which, honesty compels me to note, I have derived many of the facts included here). When he wasn’t cadging free drinks down at the Café Procope, Bibi moonlighted as an artists model, and Sophie met him posing for an evening class at Whistler’s atelier, which she described as the “dernier cri among the Parisian art students.” So we know where and how they met, but we don’t really know why, of all the subjects available to her, she decided to paint him. She says only, “I asked him to pose and next day he appeared at my studio and I decided to paint him for my salon.” From her description of that first meeting, it is likely that she was simply struck by his presence: “while his clothes spoke of misery his whole bearing had an indescribable alertness and bonhomie.” But I’m speculating, I’ll admit.

The portrait that resulted was one of her best paintings, and certainly the best I have seen of Bibi la Purée, though he was painted by other, better painters; not only Picasso but Steinlen and Jacques Villon. Why I think her portrait was the best will have to wait until I get around to writing part two.



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