Inhabitants of the Museum: Yvette Guilbert

La fi del númeroPablo Picasso: The End of the Number. Paris, 1901. Pastel on canvas. 72 x 46 cm. Contribution from the Barcelona City Council, 1963. MPB 4.270.


On occasion of the presentation, this September, of a selection of works from the Musée d’Orsay within the context of our permanent collection, which we have given the title of “Picasso discovers Paris”, we want to enlarge our gallery of inhabitants of the museum with a biographical profile of the singer, actress and composer Yvette Guilbert. Star of the chanson from the end of the 19th century, Guilbert is most likely the protagonist of two of the paintings that Picasso did on his first trips to the French capital: The End of the Number and The Fortuneteller.

The real name of our protagonist was Emma Laure Esther Guilbert, and she was born in Paris on 20th January 1867. Even though as a teenager she worked in sewing workshops and department stores, her passion was interpretation. That’s why, when she became 18 years old she began her studies of dramatic art, which allowed her to make contacts so as to initiate her career as a singer of operettas in various cafés and theatres.

The beginnings were complicated.  The style of Guilbert was a mix of fragments sung and spoken, and she got many negative reviews. She also won the nickname of la diseuse” (“the fortuneteller”). It wasn’t until 1889 when she began to win the public’s praise, becoming a habitual artist of the café-theatre of the street of the martyrs or of the Théâtre Eldorado, where Sigmund Freud expressly went to see her. The father of psychoanalysis liked her so much that he even asked her for a signed photograph.

But the key moment in the career of Guilbert arrived in 1893. After a triumphant tour of Belgium and one that the writer Marcel Proust dedicated an article to, in the magazine “Le Mensuel”, the singer signed a contract with the director of the legendary Moulin Rouge, Charles Zidler. That same year, the painter Toulouse-Lautrec dedicated numerous portraits of her which would turn her into an unmistakable icon of Bohemian life. Everyone in Paris knew who the woman was, wearing long black gloves and told stories of comic and tragic love.


La diseusePablo Picasso: La diseuse. Paris, 1901. Charcoal and pastel on paper. Pastel on canvas. 47 x 30 cm. 68.5 x 51.5 x 6 cm. MPB 4.276.


So, when Picasso arrived in Paris in the autumn of 1900, Yvette Guilbert was already a celebrity. Captivated by the vibrant cultural life of the City of Light and by the portraits of Toulouse-Lautrec, Picasso often visited cafés and theatres to see the dancers, cuplé-style singers and other singers who performed at night, and he also ended up including this experience in his paintings. The End of the Number and La diseuse are dated 1901 and, although there is no direct confirmation, both the face of the character and the costume and the historical context indicate that the vedette who appeared was Guilbert during one of her performances at the Olympia theatre.

From 1906 on, Yvette Guilbert changed her routine and began touring around the world, getting to perform at the Carnegie Hall in New York and in the Casino of Nice. Furthermore, during the following years she opened a singing school in Brussels, she acted in films of cinema directors as prestigious as F.W. Murnau, she participated in radio programmes and published some books where she reflected her artistic life.  She remained active until just before the Second World War, and died on 3rd February 1944, at the age of 79.

The exhibition “Picasso discovers Paris”, an exchange of works between our museum, the Musée d’Orsay and the Musée National Picasso-Paris, is therefore a major moment to get to know Yvette Guilbert closer. Both The End of the Number as well as La diseuse form part of a series of works by Picasso and other artists with which we are easily able to travel to the Paris of the Belle Époque. Remember you can visit it until 20th January.



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