Tête d'Homme

Tête d’Homme [au Nez Cassé]

Head of a Man [with a Broken Nose]

Artist: Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Summer of 1914, in Avignon
Medium: Pencil on paper
Dimensions: 275 x 202mm, 10 7/8 x 8″
Signature: Signed “Picasso” in sepia ink , lower center
Reference: Mallen, Enrique, ed. Online Picasso Project. Sam Houston State
University. 1997-2017. OPP.14:266 (ills.)
Authentication: The work is sold with a photocertificate from Claude Picasso, with a photocertificate copy from Maya Widmaier Picasso, and with a signed letter from Picasso’s dealer, Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler. The letter, written in English, addressed to Richard Nathanson, and dated 15 February, 1967, states: “I have forwarded to Picasso the photograph of the drawing you sent me on January 25th. He has declared this work to be an original.”
Provenance: Sotheby’s London, 1967
Purchased by Richard Nathanson, private art dealer, London
Acquired from the above in 1978
We acquired it in 2010.
Price: On request

Picasso is generally considered to have begun his Classical Period (aka Neoclassical; think Greco-Roman) in 1917, when he journeyed to Italy to design the set and costumes for Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, and that is certainly when he began in full force. But three years earlier, during the height of his Cubist Period, while summering in Avignon, all the while creating many, many great Cubist works, he produced a handful of fully realized classical works. Except for the below painting, the most beautiful of them by far is this drawing, Head of a Man, with a broken nose.

You may have seen, or seen illustrations of, the most famous of these first Classical pieces, the unfinished masterpiece (intentionally so, as most writers conjecture), L’artiste et son modèle (OPP.14:027, Musée Picasso, Paris), which interestingly remained unknown until after Picasso’s death:

L'artiste et son modèle

To underscore the Classical nature of this work, John Richardson juxtaposes its illustration in A Life of Picasso right next to a photo of an Ingres, the great 19th Century Neoclassicist whose work influenced Picasso.  That summer, Picasso also made a few drawings of the male subject of this painting, as well as four drawings of a ruggedly handsome man with a broken nose.

Picasso’s interest in men with broken noses first found artistic expression in 1903, with the small but wonderful bronze, Tête de Picador au Nez Cassé:

Tête de Picador au Nez Cassé:

The picador seems sad, in that special Blue Period way.  His misshapen nose is a metaphor for the human condition—all of life’s pain and suffering are concentrated in it.  Yet this man bears his burdens proudly.  His visage evinces world-weariness and resignation perhaps, but at the same time his upturned lip hints at a snarl, betraying his fighting spirit.

When the broken nose next appears onstage in 1914, its bearer once again has a very expressive countenance, although stripped of all the Blue Period blues.  He impresses us now with his sensitive eyes and mouth, and with his proud bearing.

Though the titles of this and the several related portraits do not refer to the subject’s nose, Picasso provides a clue in one of them, Homme Nu, Brisant un Bâton (Palau i Fabre no. 1172; Picasso Project 1914-226), where this chap is seen breaking a stick:

1914 Homme Nu, Brisant un Bâton

By the way, if you’re still not convinced of the condition of the 1914 nose, note the study for above bronze, the 1903 Tête de picador [Étude] (Z.VI:597), where the bridge of the nose sports a similar if less pronounced biconvex distortion:

Tête de picador [Étude]


Picasso was certainly capable of realism, as he demonstrated as early as age 12 or 13 with one of his very earliest Classical works, a reproduction of a Greco-Roman statue (Z.VI:1, Musée Picasso, Paris) that you’ve probably seen illustrated before:

Reproduction of a Greco-Roman statue

But Picasso was never content to play it straight, at least not for long.  At first glance, our Tête d’homme also looks fairly realistic, but upon closer inspection, as is so often the case with Picasso, the realism begins to break down.  Bit by bit, the viewer begins to appreciate Picasso’s departures from reality: the rollercoaster lips, the bulbous cheeks, the wheat-like eyebrows, and, as usual, the asymmetric eyes and ears. And this one, which escaped me at first: the double philtrum (the vertical groove between the nose and mouth). Moving south, the left side of the neck and shoulders are what we’d expect to see, but on the right, with their misshapen contour and with the clavicles in between that much more resemble the wings of a bird in flight, Picasso has sacrificed naturalism in the service of anatomical invention.  Yet all the component parts, realistic and not, fit together to form this wondrously graceful, stunningly beautiful portrait.

The striking work at hand is by far the best of the series, the only great one of the four.   (See for yourself on the Online Picasso Project—the others are numbered OPP.14:112, OPP.14:113, and OPP.14:114.  There is also the somewhat related OPP.14:142.  While doing so, you could also convince yourself that his nose is actually broken, if indeed you don’t yet buy it.)  This drawing is also the only one of the four that Picasso signed.  In short, this is a highly important and exceedingly rare exemplar of the beginnings of Picasso’s Classical Period.

For an example of another exceptional drawing of the working man, four years later Picasso drew Le Pêcheur (The Fisherman; Z.III:250, OPP.18:083), whose greatness was recognized at least as far back as the MOMA’s monumental (and biggest ever) Picasso retrospective in 1980, in which it was included (and when it first cast its spell on me):

Le Pêcheur

Another neoclassical male portrait that recently did well at auction is the 1918 Pierrot (OPP18:127, Sotheby’s NY Evening Sale, Nov. 2, 2010). Although this is a nice portrait and no larger than the Broken Nose, as a matter of personal taste, I wouldn’t trade for it:


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