Pablo Picasso. Mrs. Canals [Benedetta Bianco]. Paris, [autumn of] 1905. Oil and charcoal on canvas. 90 x 70 cm. Museu Picasso, Barcelona. Contribution of Barcelona City Council, 1963. MPB 4.266
In a previous post, we already talked to you about the origin of Mrs. Canals, one of the most outstanding portraits of the collection of the Museu Picasso of Barcelona, which the artist from Malaga painted in the autumn of 1905 while he was living in Paris. But, without putting to one side the relation with Picasso, on this occasion we want to delve in a little more into the figure of a woman who also appears in works of other artists of the period, and who would often become the heart and soul of parties.
Her name was Benedetta Bianco Coletta and she was born in 1870 in Cervaro, a town of fewer than five thousand inhabitants located around 150 km to the south of Rome. We don’t have any details about the early years of her life, but at the beginning of the 20th century we can already find her settled in Paris. There she worked as a model for artists such as the impressionist Edgar Degas and the sculptor Albert Bartholomé, and where she met Ricard Canals, who would become her husband.
Canals had arrived in the French capital in 1897 and had a studio in the Boulevard de Clichy, which would soon become the residence of the couple, close to the legendary cabaret Le Chat Noir. Afterwards, they would move to the street of Víctor Massé and, later, to the street of Girardon; always close to Montmartre. Of course, they also frequented the famous Bateau-Lavoir, where the Parisian bohemians would meet up: it was here that Canals and Bianco would become intimate friends of Pablo Picasso and Fernande Olivier.
According to an article published in “La Vanguardia” on 26th January 1961, Benedetta “did a bit of everything” in that period: apart from posing for Canals and his friends, she would look for purchasers of paintings, prints and drawings, and would assume the role of housewife and secretary. She “comforted, encouraged and stimulated” Canals to the extent of convincing to continue painting after a hard day’s work. The couple got married in 1906, and shortly after had a son that they called Octavi.
However, not all was work and responsibility: the different homes where the Canals couple lived were characterized by the holding of many parties and celebrations which would last until the early hours of the morning. In these parties, Benedetta produced “veritable culinary miracles” to fill the stomachs of the guests, and often had to resort to dishes of Italian pasta that she had surely learned to cook in her hometown.
Ricard Canals. A box at the bullfight, 1904. Oil on canvas. Private collection.
We can contemplate Benedetta Bianco in the painting of Ricard Canals A box at the bullfight, in which our protagonist appears in the centre of the image dressed in a typical Spanish dress with fan and shawl. The woman who can be seen by her side, leaning on the railing and almost touching her hair, is Fernande Olivier.
Canals did this painting a year before the portrait by Picasso, which as we had already explained was included in the painter’s rose period, not so much for the theme, but for the warm colours that he used.
Another notable work of Ricard Canals in which we find Benedetta Bianco is Portrait of the wife and son of the artist, from 1912, in which she appears with the same energetic and disturbing pose as in the painting by Picasso but accompanied by her son Octavi, who has a similar expression.
A widow from 1931, Benedetta Bianco reached the age of 88 and died in Barcelona in 1958. Now that you know her biography, the only thing you are lacking is to take a close look at her portrait if you haven’t already done so. You will find it in our exhibition room very close to the sculpture of her friend Fernande Olivier.
In Barcelona, there are still people who have very fond memories of her. On the occasion of the publication of the post we mentioned above, where we talked about her portrait, we received the following comments: “I was always moved to contemplate this painting. Ricard Canals was the sister of my maternal grandmother; I didn’t know him, but I did know “aunt Benedetta”, she was already very old. She taught me how to walk!!!! at her property of Piera, and her elder son was best man for my parents. She was a very lovely woman and I adored her. I happily awaited her visits, speaking her “Catalan-Italian-French-Spanish”, which made her even more singular. A very special woman indeed, of whom I cherish fond memories. She died when I must have been 6-8 years old, and that was a very sad day for me, one that I will remember forever”.
Written by the Museu Picasso