In 1931, Ambroise Vollard had suggested that Picasso illustrate Histoire Naturelle, générale et particulière by Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon (1707-88), originally published in forty-four volumes between 1745 and 1804. Buffon’s timeless treatise on the animal world “though scientifically out of date, remains nevertheless a well-known monument of eighteenth-century French literature for its lively style, both classical and innovative” (Brigitte Baer in Picasso the Printmaker: Graphics from the Marina Picasso Collection, Dallas Museum of Art, 1983, p. 102). Picasso, who was an animal lover, agreed. However, as was his custom he took his own time turning his attentions to this project, and once he did, approached it in his own way.
Much later, in early 1936, Picasso was spending nearly every day in Lacourière’s intaglio workshop, presumably to escape his troubles. He had recently gone through a difficult year in which his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter had borne a daughter, prompting his marriage to Olga Khokhlova to dissolve under difficult circumstances. After renouncing painting for a period, he returned to art through prints, finding solace in the professional atmosphere and collegiality of Lacourière’s print studio. For unknown reasons, he was suddenly inspired to work on this long-delayed project. Baer surmises that he found the subject of animals to be a respite from the emotional turmoil of his life (ibid, p. 102). Museum of Modern Art curator Deborah Wye, however, imagines Picasso may have been interested in providing amusing images for the pleasure of his baby daughter Maya (A Picasso Portfolio: Prints from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2010, p. 87). At any rate, the thirty-two etchings for the Histoire Naturelle were primarily created in February of 1936.
Vollard, who was traveling in Rome at the time, was delighted with this turn of events. He sent a postcard of Romulus and Remus to the artist and wrote, “Dear Mr. Picasso, the other side shows a magnificent animal that is not in our collection but deserves to be, except that in the last century someone added the two children, who do not strike me as entirely necessary. I’ve told those who love you here that you were reviving Buffon and they can’t wait to see the book…” (as quoted by Gary Tinterow in “Vollard and Picasso,” in Cézanne to Picasso: Ambroise Vollard, Patron of the Arts. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2006, p. 113). In the end, the wolf was included in Picasso’s bestiary—perhaps inspired by this correspondence from his friend.
By necessity, Picasso did not illustrate every animal in the book. He also did not refer to Buffon’s test at all, instead choosing animals that caught his fancy and illustrating them according to his own ideas. He worked primarily in sugar-lift aquatint, which he had perfected over the previous two years (the technique first appears in a plate from January 1934, Femme nue assise et trios têtes barbues, Bloch 216).
When Ambroise Vollard died in a car accident in 1939, the book had not yet been published but ten of the plates had been printed in a run of forty-seven proofs. Martin Fabiani—a dealer whom had befriended Vollard and became involved in the settlement of his estate—purchased a number of paintings and unpublished book projects from the family, including the Histoire Naturelle prints. He asked Lacourière to edition them in 1942 and the book was published later that year. Due to wartime paper shortages, Lacourière used the paper that had been produced for the Suite Vollard, which existed in surplus.
The process by which text was selected to accompany Picasso’s images is unclear—it may have been done by Vollard before his death, or it may have been Fabiani. In any case, they are not complete. Of the thirty-one etchings that were included in the final book, only twenty-one include appropriate excerpts from Buffon’s text. Incongruously, Fabiani did not include Picasso’s plate for La Puce (The Flea). The official reason was because Buffon did not write about the insect, but perhaps the real motivation was because he found the subject itself and Picasso’s portrayal of it to be undesirable. (It shows a nude young woman resembling Marie-Thérèse from behind with the parasite on her buttocks.) Therefore, this image was only included in the deluxe suite that was issued with the first thirty-six copies of the book (the total edition was 226). Picasso had also given titles to each of his plates, which he wrote in drypoint below, but these were not included in the book edition. They do appear, however, in the deluxe suite.
In spite of the failings of the accompanying text, the thirty-two animals Picasso depicted in his plates for Eaux-fortes originals pour les texts de Buffon remain among the highest level of achievement in the sugar-lift aquatint technique in the history of printmaking. Perhaps equally important, “there is great charm in these beasts: among them is a comical ostrich speeding by, a friendly monkey holding out a paw, a ram posing with great daintiness, and a cat that seems almost to purr” (Wye , p. 87). They have captivated and delighted everyone who sees them since they were published, possibly more so at the time of their release in 1942, as the world was at war and was in desperate need of light diversion.