Dueling Mandolin Girls

As an artist’s model it pains me to say this, but I’ll say it anyway: very often in art, subject is secondary to style. Certainly, the first thing the viewer notices about a painting is the subject, but soon after that initial observation, the artist’s individual rendering of that subject – his style, technique, personal vision – takes over and becomes the dominant aspect. We art models look at paintings of ourselves and think, “That’s ME! My pose! My body!”. Other people look at the same painting and think, “Look at how he painted that nude person. Look at his palette and his brushstrokes.” Boo!

On the positive side, it’s the existence of those incredibly diverse styles which allow the same subject to be painted over and over again without boring the hell out of people. Imagine if everyone painted a vase of flowers the same way? Or a landscape? Or nudes? Yes, even nudes would get monotonous after a while without a variety of representations.

For “Music Monday” this week, I had planned to post and discuss just one of the following works – the Lefebvre. But then I came across a Picasso of the same subject, with the exact same title no less! Typical Picasso, disrupting the status quo. Messing up my plans, Pablo! So I thought it would be fun to put them side by side and do a little compare and contrast.

Both of these paintings are called Girl With a Mandolin. The first is circa 1870 by Jules Joseph Lefebvre, a French academic painter who focused mainly on female subjects, mostly nude, some clothed, often idealized, always beautiful. “Ugliness”, even if artistic in nature, had no place in Lefebvre’s work. His girl here is a somber and forlorn gypsy, a moody brunette with expressive, soulful eyes, dressed in dark colors, clutching her mandolin as though it’s all she has in her vagabond life. And what a fabulous model. Lefebvre used many great ones.

Next is Picasso in heavy Cubist mode, from 1910. His mandolin girl is not depicted with a finely-drawn personality, ethnicity, or identity of her own like in the Lefevbre. However that is not to say that the model, Fanny Tellier, has no individual presence in the piece. She certainly does. But this is Cubism after all. Her forms, her contours and physical structure inspired the geometric shapes that Picasso employed to “translate” her onto the canvas. Note that the neck/shoulder/chest areas are especially strong and prominent. While the Lefebvre is more intimate and sensitive, the Picasso has vigorous rhythms and a strenuous, active energy that is perhaps lacking in the Lefebvre. On that last point, consider that Picasso’s girl is playing her mandolin while Lefebvre’s is holding hers rather submissively, a detail that significantly affects the action issue:

So my dear readers, what’s the verdict? In a battle of style, whose Mandolin Girl do you prefer? I have my preference 🙂

16 thoughts on “Dueling Mandolin Girls

  1. KL Foster says:

    Ohhh Claudia! On a monday morning? Start brain.
    I have to say that I prefer the Lefevbre. The reason being it represents to me, more of the world that I would like to inhabit..that and the way the black silk? and leaves are caught blowing in the wind. I look at it and see the cold, but in the end I feel warmth.
    I get lost in the Picasso..but it is like being lost downtown.

  2. Picasso’s, I’m afraid. While I like Lefebvre’s much more I find I look at Picasso’s much longer.

    I think it’s, as you say, Pablo’s contains ‘a strenuous, active energy’ while, on the other hand, Lefebvre’s two birches show just as much excitement as the gypsy girl beside them.

    None the less, the broken string on Lefebvre’s mandolin is a nice touch.

  3. Ilene Skeen says:

    Oh, Claudia, don’t despair. You’ve been around artists and art critics too long. Most people don’t ever get passed the subject. They stay on the who is depicted and the how many things they can recognize in the work. That may be why representational art is making a comeback. Content matters.

    Yes, Picasso is painting’s bad boy and did things that furthered the deconstruction of painting — what is a painting? What is enough in a painting? These questions were new, vital and cultural at the time. They had resonance with the confusion of postmodernist philosophy.

    Just like music rediscovered melody after the disaster (sales-wise) of atonalism, and fiction rediscovered plot (which is now called arc), art (painting and drawing) is in the process of rediscovering …what? If I say truth, it would imply that there is no truth in Picasso, and that would be false. If I say emotion, it would imply that there is no mood, another falsehood. If I say form, I would also be wrong, certainly Picasso’s nude has form, just not the form we see with our ordinary vision.

    So here is what I will say — art is in the process of rediscovering reality, and rediscovering that reality and the skill to present reality in art can give us truth, mood, form and do it with the legerdemain that makes us think the most lifelike of paintings and drawings are made by an ordinary vision.

    There is almost nothing ordinary about the vision of a great artist, except the feeling that makes ordinary people think that to produce such reality is easy.

  4. DaveL says:

    Pablo gets my vote here. I love the energy and the way the “reality” emerges from the cubist rendering. It’s abstract and yet it’s perfectly clear what the subject is. And I’d hang it on my wall long before the Lefevbre.

    I often say that the models are not the subjects of my photographs, but rather, an object within the composition. But the models are absolutely essential to what I’m trying to do, so that doesn’t lessen or belittle their contribution at all. My models do all the hard work and I just take photos of them while they do it. And I really appreciate all that hard work.

  5. I second KL Foster on Lefevbre. Your writing is superb! I love learning new things on your blog.

  6. Andrew says:

    Those Cubist girls have such angular features. 😉

  7. Ron says:

    Gotta go with Picasso here. His mandolin girl is much better. As you note she’s actually playing it, rather than cradling it, protecting it against some unseen threat. Hey you, leave my mandolin alone, Lefebvre girl seems to be saying. The Picasso girl looks like she’s be right at home standing on stage playing in a rock band. In general, the Picasso has a lot more energy.

    And no, nudes will never get monotonous.

  8. dougrogers says:

    Although beautifully and technically accomplished the lefebreve is an allegory, the picasso is music. Maybe not music we would want to hear, but the lefebreve is a story we don’t know.

    At least its not girls playing ukeleles… which my spell checker just tried to correct to ‘useless’.

    All three talk to their own time.

  9. artmodel says:

    What wonderful comments!! Thanks to everyone who “voted” on this post. I really enjoyed reading the opinions and interpretations. They’re all marvelous.

    Looks like Picasso is in the lead, and his lead will increase right now with my vote. The “preference” I mentioned at the the end of the post belongs to Pablo 🙂

    I’d like to point out that the Lefebvre, I think, is much more evocative. It’s haunting, elegiac quality ensures that it won’t be easily forgotten. So in that regard it is certainly a memorable painting. The model’s stare alone is indelible. However, the Picasso is really a superior painting in my opinion. It also happens to be one of the very best examples of Cubism at its finest. It is resonant and assertive, while still graceful and gestural. Decidedly modern, Picasso’s piece works brilliantly in every way. Of course, it is not sentimental, but Picasso rarely is. Another point I’d like to make which pertains to this work is my long-held view that Picasso is at his strongest when he uses a limited palette.

    Kudos to both artists for their beautiful paintings. And double kudos to Museworthy readers for a terrific discussion! What a pleasure 🙂


  10. 3fingersmcgurk says:


    Sorry I’m coming to this a little late – story of my life.

    I’m going to chime in for the Picasso. I feel that there is too much detail in the Lefevbre mandolin. The wood grain, the strings, the complex of pegs at the top. The woman is all drab colored and wrapped in an amorphous shawl. For me the painting is all about the instrument when I would rather know more about the person. The Picasso is more balanced.

    Great idea to compare the two.


    • artmodel says:


      it’s never too late to comment on a post. I’m glad you did – and welcome!

      You present a unique take on the Lefebvre. I hadn’t thought about the emphasis on the instrument. Interesting perspective. Picasso is dominating this poll!

      Thanks for your comments.


  11. By the way, I was in Boston a while back and visited the Museum of Fine Arts there. They have a collection of musical instruments:


    I thought it was a nice addition and a little bit of a change of pace from the usual “art museum” stuff.


  12. Jennifer says:

    I’ll stand on the fence and vote for neither, as they represent such different attitudes towards art! The Le Febvre is a beautiful evocation of realist art that may seem ‘old fashioned ‘ these days but has much to recommend it in terms of painterly skill and empathy for the subject. But then there’s the ‘shock of the new’ and the vitality of the Picasso – certainly one of the more interesting Cubist paintings. Thanks for bringing them both to our attention!

  13. Bee says:

    Normally I’m not so much into Picasso, but I’d have to say I really do prefer that style more for this particular theme. Lefebvre’s I could walk past without looking twice. Picasso’s makes me want to follow the edges of each cube around the figure as if I were tracing each contour on a map.

    • artmodel says:

      Hi Bee!

      Great to hear from you. Picasso pretty much clobbered Lefebvre in this “contest”. I like your description a lot, about following the edges of the cube. What a fun little exercise! The “interest factor” is much stronger in Picasso’s piece, that’s for sure.

      Thanks for commenting!


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