PARIS -- More than 400 works by Picasso that belonged to his late widow, Jacqueline, spanning 70 years of his life and his most inspirational romantic liaisons, went on public display at the Grand Palais this weekend in what France has proudly proclaimed a rare triumph of art over money.
The priceless collection of paintings, sculptures, drawings, sketchbooks, ceramics and engravings was turned over to the government by Picasso's stepdaughter, Catherine Hutin-Blay, in partial payment for the exorbitant inheritance taxes she owed following the suicide of her mother in 1986.
The unique French law enabling heirs to pay estate taxes with art has provided French museums with an extraordinary windfall of masterworks at a time when the meager acquisition budgets of most governments cannot match the buying power of Japanese tycoons and insurance companies willing to pay astronomical prices at art auctions.
In 1979, after years of sorting through the immense inventory of Picasso's private collection bequeathed to his family, the French government agreed to accept as tax payment almost a quarter of his possessions, or more than 1,000 paintings, drawings and sculptures that were eventually ensconced in a 17th-century Paris hotel transformed into a museum named after the modern Spanish master.
Since then, the heirs of Max Ernst, Mark Chagall and Alexander Calder have all paid off their French taxes by handing over a portion of their family collections to the Museum of Modern Art in Paris. Curators here are glowing with excitement as they await the final tax inventory of the estate of Baron Edmond de Rothschild, much of whose remarkable trove of art, furniture and archaeological treasures will soon end up in state hands.
The newest batch of Picasso's works to go on public view features Jacqueline Roque, the smoldering, dark-haired beauty who entered his life in 1954. He portrayed her that year in the Sphinxlike "Jacqueline With Hands Crossed," the centerpiece of this collection. For the last 19 years of Picasso's life, she remained his favorite model, posing almost daily and serving as a kind of Mediterranean muse who helped the artist rediscover his Southern European roots.
Her dark almond eyes, aquiline nose and angular cheekbones suffused so many paintings, sculptures, drawings and ceramics during their time together that the period is known as "the Jacqueline years." In 1961, the year the couple were married, Picasso painted her more than 70 times in a variety of guises and expressions.
But other women from Picasso's life play a prominent role in the collection. The Blue Period is represented in a 1902 portrait of Corina Pere Romeu, the redoubtable wife of the owner of El Quatre Gats, the celebrated Barcelona nightclub where Picasso encountered a group of adventuresome writers and artists who introduced him to modernism.
His classical phase in the 1920s is dominated by two exquisite portraits of his first wife, Olga Koklova, the dancer from the Ballet Russes whom he met in Rome in 1917. The paintings depict her in contrasting visions: one in which she sits in her bathrobe, quietly reading a book; the other in which she seems out on the town, radiating elegance and refined grace. There is also a masterful collage, in pencil and pastel, that blends classicism with Cubism in yet another startling example of his originality.
The geometrical style of "Guitar," painted in 1927, clearly displays the initials of Marie-Therese Walter, Picasso's new companion who would become the model for a series of sculptures in the 1930s. The artist's vaunted cruelty toward women is exposed in two harsh caricatures, like multidimensional circus masks, of photographer Lee Miller and Nusch Eluard, wife of the French poet Paul Eluard.
The entire collection is further testimony, if any were necessary, of the remarkable breadth of Picasso's talents and his restless imagination. Besides the 47 paintings and two sculptures, there are 40 drawings, 24 sketchbooks, 19 ceramic pieces and 247 engravings and lithographs. The selections were made personally by Hutin-Blay, and include some works from Picasso's private collection, such as Georges Braque's 1913 cubist masterpiece "The Guitar."
While less abundant than the first hoard of Picasso's works turned over to the French government, the latest offerings will fill important gaps in the public collections of his adopted homeland. The vast array of work brought to light from the last two decades before Picasso's death at the age of 91 is expected to yield fresh critical assessments of a phase, long seen as a period of decline, that may now win greater admiration. The notebooks in particular reveal Picasso's boundless energy and seem destined to serve as invaluable source material for art historians probing the mysteries of his creativity.
The collection will remain on display in Paris for four months. After January, it will go on tour and later be scattered around the country. Some works will be consigned to the Picasso museums in Paris and Antibes, and others will be given to museums in more than 20 French towns that could never hope to purchase a work by Picasso in today's art market.