In 1936 the notable art dealer, collector and publisher Ambroise Vollard commissioned engravings from Picasso to accompany his intended publication of an anthology of extracts from the Histoire naturelle of the 18th century naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon. However, with the exception of a sequence of 11 etchings with a print run of 47 copies, nothing was published before Vollard’s accidental death in a motor car accident in July 1939. It was left to Vollard’s fellow art dealer Martin Fabiani to publish in 1942 Picasso’s complete set of 31 etched plates with sugar aquatint and drypoint, which he did in a limited edition of 226 copies, entitled Picasso : eaux-fortes originales pour des textes de Buffon.
In The artist and the book, 1860-1960, in Western Europe and the United States (404:45.b.95.23) Eleanor Garvey writes that “The Buffon is one of the greatest bestiaries of the 20th century … The spontaneity of the plates is attested by the freehand margins, the rapidly drawn line, and the use of fingerprints for textual variety”. Picasso chose thirty-one descriptions of animals from the Histoire naturelle as the basis for his illustrations, of which only twenty-one are accompanied by abbreviated versions of Buffon’s texts, the remainder only by titles. A copy of Fabiani’s publication, sold at Christie’s in December 2010, realised $50,000. The work is all the more remarkable when it is remembered that it was produced during the German occupation of Paris, a time of great practical difficulties when artistic freedom was severely restricted.
On 17th January 1943 Picasso gave a copy of the book to Dora Maar, for some years his favourite model and his mistress. When he made another visit to Dora Maar a week later, he covered the volume with a further 44 pen drawings and ink wash paintings, 35 of them each occupying a full page. They comprise a range of animal heads, but also pictures of bearded men and portraits of women. The half title is inscribed by Picasso in Catalan – “Per Dora Maar tan rebufona” (for Dora Maar who is so charming) – complemented by a drawing of Dora Maar on the facing page, presented ambiguously both as a glamorous and attractive woman, and as a femme-oiseau, a harpy with vicious claws.
Dora Maar’s copy of the book entered the collections of the Bibliothèque nationale de France in 1999, but only now has it been reproduced in its entirety, under the catch title Buffon-Picasso. The facsimile, of which 2,000 copies have been printed, is accompanied by a study by Antoine Coron, director of the Réserve des livres rares et précieux de la BNF, which explains the importance of the volume in the work and life of the artist, (F201.a.4.4). It is an extraordinary item because of the number and quality of the drawings, and the relationship between the drawings, plates and selected texts. At a more intimate level the gift also foretells the cruel end of a love affair, for in the same year Picasso took a new lover Françoise Gilot. Dora Maar lived on until July 1997, spending her last years between Paris and Provence in the house which Picasso had given her. Another of Picasso’s portraits of Dora Maar, Dora Maar au chat, fetched US$95,216,000 when it was sold at Sotheby’s in May 2006, making it the world’s second most expensive painting ever sold at auction at that time.