An Interview with Picasso's Famous Model and Muse, Sylvette David: 'The Woman with the Key,' by Rob Couteau.


I first became aware of Sylvette David thanks to “The Bust of Sylvette,” which was commissioned by architect I. M. Pei for the Silver Towers housing complex in Greenwich Village. Fashioned after a smaller piece that Picasso made from folded sheet metal, the statue was constructed in 1968 by Picasso’s official fabricator, the Norwegian sculptor Carl Nesjar. Standing at a towering 36 feet and weighing 60 tons, it’s composed of concrete poured over black basalt pebbles. By sandblasting the cement surface and exposing the dark stones, Nesjar re-created the effect of Picasso’s line drawing of Sylvette.

Sylvette posed for Picasso in 1954, and she later became a talented painter herself. Now known as Lydia Corbett, she recently co-authored an engaging memoir (with her daughter Isabel’s help), titled “I Was Sylvette.”  One of Picasso’s last living muses, this is her story.

Rob Couteau: Over the years, I’ve introduced so many people to the marvelous “Bust of Sylvette” in Greenwich Village.

Lydia Corbett: Ah, this is the first time that I’ve heard anyone talk about it! Nobody seems to know there’s such a big sculpture of me in New York; I can’t believe it.

RC: When NYU wanted to construct another building there that would have obstructed the view, you wrote a letter in support of the protest.*

'BUST OF SYLVETTE.' Photo: Rob Couteau

LC: Oh, yes, I did, because I didn’t want them to destroy it. That was terrifying wasn’t it? Well, I must say, I was honored to be done by Picasso; I’ll never forget it.

In 2014, I was invited to Bremen, Germany. They exhibited all of Picasso’s Sylvette portraits. The man who did that, Christoph Grunenberg, used to be the director of the Tate Gallery, in Liverpool. That’s where I met him. One day, he phoned and said: “Would you like to see all your portraits in one place?” I said, “Oh, it’s a dream of mine! For sixty years, I’ve been thinking of this; it’s marvelous that you’d think of it.” And so, it happened. I went to Bremen, to see all the portraits, and they were wonderful. I was crying; I was very moved by them all. He put such love into those paintings.

RC: I’ve read so much about Picasso, yet I’ve never heard anyone say what you just said: That he put so much love into the paintings. That’s a very interesting insight.

LC: I think so. He loved me, but as a beautiful inspiration. And also, his children were going with Françoise Gilot; she took his children away, and of course he was rather sad. He loved children. And he wouldn’t hurt a fly. That’s why I’m a bit sad about the side of the family who are not grateful to him. I can’t believe it.

RC: You feel the children of Francoise Gilot are not grateful.

LC: Not really, no. I’ve tried to talk to Claude, but he never responded. I have a photo of me with him and his sister, Paloma. But they never … they ignored me completely. And you hear awful stories about Picasso; they never say how wonderful he was, and thoughtful. And kind. Very generous. He gave me a painting, a drawing, and a book with a big signature. He was a very broadminded man. Wonderful. And my boyfriend, Toby, used to come in and talk with him. He gave him work to do, because I refused to be paid. I said, “No, no; I’m honored to sit for you.” I didn’t want him to say: “Would you like to wear no clothes?" [laughs] I said, "No, no. I love painting; I love sitting for you." Which was true. He was so thoughtful; he made Toby work instead, and Toby made some money with him.

RC: He loved those chairs that Toby would make.* Picasso thought they were very modern, yes?

'BUST OF SYLVETTE.' Photo: Rob Couteau

LC: Very, very modern, yes. He liked those sort of chairs; they were original. Picasso loved chairs.

RC: You were talking about the love that Picasso put into his work. Is this something that you felt intuitively?

LC: Well, I could feel. You know how, when you’re young, you feel people. He was not at all flirting. Not at all. He wasn’t the type to be an annoying old man. He was seventy-three. And he was like a father figure. But he tried to make me laugh. Taking me up in a little bedroom, he showed me the place, and suddenly he jumped on the bed, you know? And I thought: "That’s very funny; I’m not jumping too." You see? I thought he was playing a game with me, to make me relax.

RC: Was he testing you to see if you were interested in coming into the bed?

LC: Maybe.

RC: Or was he just playing with you?

LC: Well, I think he liked being like a clown. And I think he wanted to see what I was like. If I was shocked, or would come on the bed. But I didn’t go on the bed; I looked at him and laughed. I didn’t take him seriously, would you believe it! He was smaller than I, too. I’m not very tall; I was only five-foot-four. But he was even smaller.

RC: We read these stories about you posing for Picasso, and we try to imagine the feeling of the atmosphere. What were you picking up during those magical hours when you posed for him? What was the atmosphere like; what was he transmitting to you?

LC: Well, the excitement of being a creator. He was excited by my hair; the beauty of my face, I suppose. He saw lots of things. He loved the Greeks and the Egyptians, the Cycladic ladies. All toward the East from Vallauris. It’s a Mediterranean place, you know? The Greeks were very spiritual people, and Picasso, I’m sure, was very interested in them. I think he made me look like some of those people. Far away, looking in the distance. Inward, also. Because I think he could see something in me: that I had been hurt by my mother’s boyfriend, and he was very delicate about this. He could feel it, without me telling him anything.

RC: Your feelings told you that he could feel that.

LC: Yes; I knew he could. I could understand him. I think children often possess this ability. I was like a child, and I’m still childlike. That’s one thing. My mother ran away from religion, schools, everything. I was brought up on an island. Swimming, walking barefoot, playing with my brother in the sea. It’s actually wonderful to feel nature before you do anything else. So my mind was not working; and it’s still not working. I’m an instinctive person. And feel. And love people. And so, Picasso could feel all that, and he was interested in my presence.

And he talked to me. Took me in a barn, for instance, which housed his beautiful old car, his Hispano Suiza. You know, you have a chauffeur in front, and so he sat in the back, and said, "Come on in!" I’m thinking: "Shall I go in, or not? What will he do; is he dangerous?" You know what I mean? [laughs] Oh, that just blew my mind! It would make a very funny film!


RC: But you took the chance and went into the car.

LC: I did; I sat down.

RC: And so, what happened?

LC: Well, he talked to me about his youth and all the things that happened to him. The poetry he wrote. And the poet who died. All these sorts of things. The circus people, les saltimbanques. Yes. He was extraordinary.

RC: What a magical moment, my gosh.

LC: Yes! I wish I had been older, so I could have talked to him. And of course, we might have fallen in love. But I had a boyfriend already, who waited for me. He was not jealous, but he could have been. He came with us, and Picasso wouldn’t work until he’d gone. Then we just sat in his studio in silence: like contemplation, it was. Wow. He was looking with his black eye, very deep. Could see his soul. [laughs] I would look outside, and see the pottery, and the life down there: the hills and sky. I was a dreamer. And I didn’t speak to him; I was shy.

RC: I recall reading in your memoir that, at some point, the daughter of Marie-Therese told you that Picasso said to her: Be delicate with her; be sensitive with her. Something to that effect, yes?

LC: Yes, that’s right. "Because she’s very fragile." How did he know that? His daughter was quite powerful. Strong. You know, talked loudly, and was sure of herself I suppose. She’s a lovely lady. I met her late in life. She’s quite strong, like Picasso. She looks like him a lot. Black eyes.

RC: A moment ago you said that he gave you a kind of faraway gaze, in an Egyptian modality. That’s very true. One of the first pieces he did of you – with your hair in the famous ponytail – has a pharaonic look to it, or a sphinxlike look, doesn’t it?

LS: Yes, like a sphinx. That’s right, like a sphinx. Or even a figurehead on a boat. But there’s nothing erotic in the pictures, that’s another thing.

RC: That’s very interesting when we consider all the difficulties you had around sexuality, from being abused by your mother’s partner. Picasso’s artwork can be powerfully sexual. And yet, when he portrayed you …


LC: Yes, I know; I was like a holy temple! [laughs]

RC: Yes! I wonder if this was an unconscious intuition on his part, or if he was just being delicate with you. But somehow, he knew not to include that.

LC: I think it’s spiritual. He could feel. And I became a Subud member* in 1962, before I had my daughter Isabel. I still do the exercise of Subud, which is the worship of God with submission, and trust, and sincerity.

RC: I wanted to discuss with you the relationship between the creative and the spiritual, which is a big part of your book, a big part of your life. How do you think Picasso saw this relationship? Was his work being channeled from a spiritual place?

LC: I think so.

RC: John Richardson even compares him to the shaman, to the shamanic tradition. What do you think about all that?

LC: Oui, I think he was interested in the spirituality from within, but not the Church, really. Something else. And I suppose he could sense this about me … because my mother brought us up like wild children. Actually, I think it’s sad that children go to school too early, because they miss nature. And nature is a great teacher, a healing force. When my marriage broke down, I went up the hills here, with the river rolling down. And it’s healing to hear a river going under a bridge. Nature healed me. And the animals. I love cats and dogs … all animals. They healed me.

RC: You had an amazing childhood with the experiences you had on the island; and then you went to A. S. Neill’s original Summerhill School. And you had artistic parents.

LC: My father was a picture dealer and a very good artist himself. Actually, it’s him who told me to put my hair in that style. He said: ‘You know, I saw a play, a Greek drama. And the girl in the play had a beautiful hairstyle, of a ponytail very high up, in the Greek manner.’ That’s why I did it – for him. I did it for my dad, whom I didn’t see very much because he was remarried. And he was cross with me to have brought back a boyfriend from Summerhill. He always said: ‘I wish you’d bring back an Englishman with a Rolls Royce – but not one without a job!’ [laughs]

RC: You mentioned the ponytail, so you must tell me your Bridget Bardot story; I love that story.

LC: Ah, oui? Well, she went to see Picasso, and she wrote her own autobiography. She said: "I went to see Picasso, but as he had already done Sylvette David, he didn’t want to do me." I thought that was very funny, yes. My life crossed their path – Bardot and Vadim – on the Croisette, in Cannes. We used to go there to look at the film festival, Toby and I. And we noticed each other, walking. She had brown hair, and she turned blonde after that. She became a beautiful blonde.

RC: Your impression was that she noticed your blonde hair, and your special ponytail, and it was right after that that she changed her look.


LC: Yes. And I suppose she saw Paris Match, with me in it, and then went to see Picasso. She was more beautiful than me in a way: more sexy really. I wasn’t sexy; I was running away from sex! Funny, isn’t it? [laughs] And Picasso could see that. He was an angel.

RC: I’ve seen photographs of Bardot’s visit to Picasso, and my impression is that his persona is much more machismo and flirtatious with her. Whereas, with you, he’s very gentle, almost a fatherly figure.

LC: I know. When they say he was a bad father, I can’t believe it. His son Paul had a wife, and they both drank a lot. They had two children, and I think the poor children got hurt. And Picasso might have gotten fed up, because he didn’t drink much. The poor children in the middle of that – it was not very good.

RC: It’s tempting for people to paint someone as either black or white. And of course, a complex person such as Picasso is not black or white; there are a lot of middle grays. For example, certain people claim that he was stingy. Well, I met a young woman in Paris whose family owned a Picasso drawing, because her grandmother was in a hospital, and she happened to be in the same room as Picasso, when he was there for some minor problem. He did a drawing of her, and he gave it to her.

LC: There you are. He was very generous, really. He would do that. So many people have these little drawings. He gave me a book, too, with a signature: "A ma chere fiancée, bisous," with a drawing of Toby and I in it. Sweet. Toby had a beard, and I had a ponytail. He liked us both, I think. Maybe he was going back to his youth with us.

RC: Would you have become an artist if you hadn’t met Picasso? After all, you had these artistic parents, so perhaps this was an inevitable thing for you, yes?

LC: I think so. But it was a step up because, actually, he opened my heart in some way to the creativity. He talked to me and said: "Nothing like creativity to be happy." Nothing like creativity. I didn’t forget that. I always think of him. And now, I paint my own portrait a la Picasso a bit, but with my own style too.

RC: I love your style. You make the colors very watery at the beginning, then you go over them with India ink, and things start to emerge. This is similar to what Renoir does with his oils. His son Jean, the famous filmmaker, wrote a fascinating book about him called My Father. He talked about how Renoir would make a “juice” of flowing pigments on the canvas; then the images would gradually begin to crystallize.*

LC: Yes, that’s what I do. Isn’t that interesting. Somebody told me that Leonardo da Vinci used to do that. On the walls, he could see the shapes. And I do it like that. That’s why there are a lot of people, tablecloths, and flowers. The flowers give me the color. And I get woken up suddenly, and I have to go and paint. Something comes to my mind. Amazing.

RC: Certain feminists get very upset with the subject of Picasso because, in their mind, he was nothing but a womanizer.

LC: Oh, that’s horrible. That’s why I keep talking and say, "Sorry, but Picasso was the most kind man I ever met." And I was frightened of men, you know? He was extraordinary really. I was very well treated.


RC: Did he encourage you to work as an artist?

LC: Yes, he did. He said it’s the most special thing to do is art, because you are happy when you are doing it, and you forget all your problems.

RC: I read somewhere that you began sketching while you posed for him; is that true?

LC: Hm. No, I don’t think I did. I sketched at home. But I never painted. They were bad, when I started painting. [laughs] They were all spiritual paintings, Madonnas. Like the Italians, like Giotto.

RC: In your memoir, you talk about a friend who became involved in a spiritual movement of some sort. And as soon as she did, she was no longer working artistically. I thought this was revealing in terms of the fact that a spiritual dynamic is often involved in creative work.

LC: Yes, an awakening into the inner, and the space of the universe, actually.

RC: How would you compare the meditative process in Subud, of “letting go and receiving,” to what you do as a painter? Is it a similar thing?

LC: It’s the same, yes. You go into another dimension, another world. And you feel peaceful. You know, Jesus said, "When two or three are gathered, I am in the midst of them." Having contact with other people is very important, because you see different things. And you learn through contacts with different people. You learn a lot. Of yourself, and others.

And this is the thing about Picasso and I; we sort of helped each other. I was young. So I often say that it’s a shame that the young and the old don’t mix so much now. The young help the old, and the old help the young. And it’s a circle; it’s really good.

RC: How did you help him? It’s clear how he helped you. But how would you say you helped each other?

LC: Well, because I consoled him over the loss of his children. And he could feel something about me which helped him to console himself, if you know what I mean. Very often, when you do something for others, it rebounds and comes to you. Jesus said something about that: ‘You get a hundredfold.’ If you give, you get back. If you give with sincerity, you get it back a hundredfold.

RC: You open your heart, and then the other person can open his heart, and then there’s something very special between the two of you.


LC: Voila.

RC: Did you sense that he was upset about the loss of his children, or did he openly speak about it?

LC: No, he didn’t speak about it. I sensed it. Because he did lots of paintings of them, drawings with them. You could feel he cared about them. And he loved Francoise, I’m sure.

RC: You also met Jacqueline Roque, Picasso’s last wife. What was your final meeting with him like while they were living together? He must have been very happy to see you.

LC: Yes, I know he was. He was getting old. He couldn’t hear very well. It was all right; we met him, but we didn’t talk much. My daughter Isabel, who was two years old, made him turn round on the chair; it was a swirling chair. We didn’t stay long, just said hello and "bye bye." It was in 1965, quite a long time after.

RC: Did you have a feeling this was the last time that you would see him?

LC: Yes, I did. He was getting old, and I was getting married, and divorced, and all sorts of heartbreak. [laughs]. I had heartbreaks. You know; you read it. That was very tricky. But it made me have an amazing experience of God.

RC: You’ve led an incredible life. One of the wonderful things about your memoir is how open it is. You open your heart, and your mind, and you really let us in. For the benefit of those who don’t know much about your life, I was wondering if you could tell the story of how you first met Picasso in Vallauris, in 1954.

LC: Well, I came back from the Summerhill School in England, with my boyfriend Toby. And we lived with my mom, who moved there because she wanted to work in a pottery, to make money. She had no money; we were quite penniless.

RC: She was a very courageous figure in your book.

LC: Oh, yes. She was a lovely mom. Very loving. But she had a hard life. Well, life is never easy, or relationships and all that. When we went into Vallauris, Toby was my best boyfriend. He was like my mother, my father: he was everything for me. Toby was the same age as me. He had a little workshop underneath Picasso’s one, which was up a hill. So Picasso could see me walking down I’ll bet, if he was watching from his little garden, at the top there.

We used to sit, and smoke, and drink coffee on a terrace where they put the pots to dry. And one day he saw us there, and he came with a picture he’d done on a canvas – over the wall! So funny. And of course, we saw my portrait, because I was the only one wearing a ponytail, so high. As I said, my father told me to do it, because he saw a play in Paris, with a Greek myth. What was it …

RC: I believe it was Antigone.

LC: Yes, Antigone. And it was a very Greek hairstyle. Actually, the actress had black hair; it was Leslie Caron. And Picasso loved the hairstyle.

RC: You say you heard a shout from behind the wall surrounding Picasso’s house.

LC: Yes, and we saw the Picasso painting. He was holding it above the wall. We saw that, and we knew it was an invitation to his garden; so off we went. Wonderful surprise! He was so friendly. Everybody rushed in. And then he said, ‘But I want to paint Sylvette.’ He knew my name already. He must have been doing a bit of research, from the top his mansion. [laughs] It was an old barn, actually. An old studio, with different rooms in it.

There was a another girl there, a friend of mine, and I thought she was more beautiful than me. She was sexy and all that, but I wasn’t. "That’s funny," I thought, "Picasso likes me. Hurray!" I was so pleased; it gave me encouragement. But I was still very shy. And Toby would take me there every day, and talk to Picasso. They loved talking to each other. You know, men do that, don’t they? I don’t; I’m quiet. I sat quietly. Maybe I walked in the garden and sat in it, with the flowers. I was a dreamer. Very simple. My life was watching Toby doing his work. I didn’t do anything much. I painted a bit, but they were not very nice. I did pottery, little clay figures.

RC: In 2014, there was an exhibition in Bremen called “Sylvette, Sylvette, Sylvette: Picasso and the Model,” featuring over 50 Sylvette portraits. Any idea of how many times you posed for him?

LC: Do you know, I don’t know. It was from March through May, and that was it. We didn’t have a telephone to make appointments, so maybe we waved at each other, from the top of the hill.

RC: So you must have posed dozens of times.*

LC: Yes. Well, he did some on his own, you know? He had me in his mind. He did a big book, called Verve, with the model and the painter. And lots of the girls looked like me a bit. And my boyfriend Toby, who had a beard, he’s in that book. You know the Verve?

RC: Yes, it’s a remarkable magazine. He also did the lovely Minotaur series …

LC: Lovely Minotaurs. Well, he liked the Greeks, and all this mythology, you know? And of course, he liked corridas and the bull. The bull for him was an amazing figure of masculinity, don’t you think?

RC: Absolutely. I remember reading in Genevieve Laporte’s memoir, Sunshine at Midnight,* that Picasso used a bull’s hide as a cover for his bed. A very virile bedroom! [laughs]

LC: Oh, a very virile bedroom! Well, you know, he took me in that little room and jumped on the bed! He was seventy-three. He was very agile, to jump on this little metal bed. And I looked and thought, “Oh, I’m not ready to play that game!” [laughs] Maybe he was trying to get me on the bed. Yeah, he played games, really. He was a comic, and he wasn’t too serious. Only when he painted.

RC: He brought creative play to everything.

LC: Yes. He was really a loving person to me. He never touched me in the wrong way.

RC: You write: “It was very peaceful, and I never felt afraid under the gaze of his dark eyes. They were those of a technician or a workman; he didn’t look at me with eyes that any girl would feel as horribly prying and intrusive. They held gentle understanding in them and quite a lot of curiosity.” Picasso was “kind, gentle, respectful, attentive … and intent on helping me open the door to my own self-confidence.” How did he help you open that door? Did he open many doors in your life?

LC: Well, yes, he did. He did a sculpture of me called “The Woman with the Key.” And that key, you know, I wondered about. It must be the key of innocence. And the key of my heart. Or the key of my life. Who knows? But I had that key in my hand. You know the sculpture. It’s made of bricks from the kiln in Vallauris. Tiles, and things that hold the pots in the kiln. Yes. It was an old pottery lady, but she looked primeval. In 1993, the BBC made a little film about that, which is very nice.


RC: I read with great interest what you said about “The Woman with the Key”: “I was shut in myself, and maybe that’s why he included a key.” “I feel it represents me as an awakened woman with the key to life and inner strength. Maybe it was a message to me to become just that, to be free.”

LC: Yes, I think it was. Unconsciously, maybe. You know, what goes through people’s minds is extraordinary. Yes, that’s how it was. It was amazing. I will never forget it.

RC: Shortly before you met Picasso, when Genevieve Laporte was twenty-four years old, she secretly became involved with Pablo, who was then seventy. Like you, she always held a benevolent view of Picasso. A few years before she died, she said: “I want to get the message out about who Pablo was. He was a tender man, respectful, intelligent, timid – not at all the abominable snowman we’re used to hearing about.”

LC: Yes, really true. Yes, she is a good lady. I never met her.

RC: Other than your meeting with Picasso’s last wife, Jacqueline, did you speak with or hear from his other female muses, such as Marie-Therese or Dora Maar?

LC: Well, I met his daughter Maya. A lovely lady. And Maya’s daughter.

RC: Are you in touch with anyone else in the Picasso family?

LC: No, they don’t like me much. Or they never wanted to connect. I tried, but – nothing. Anyway, people have lots of loves and dislikes in that family, and I remember that. But what can you do?

RC: In a photo in your book illustrating your last visit with Pablo, Jacqueline has a broad smile, and she appears to be charmed by your presence.

LC: Yes, she was nice. She was the best one around. Actually, I feel sorry for her, how she died, you know?



RC: Yes, all alone.

LC: Very sad. She was kind to me. I didn’t see her much, because Picasso said goodbye and went with her. And he gave me this copy of Verve, which was a lovely present. And she brought it to me. Very friendly.

RC: She brought it to your house?

LC: Yes. That was amazing. Sweet. Yes, in 1954: Christmas ’54.

RC: The other day we were speaking about Francois Gilot’s memoir, My Life with Picasso, and you were wondering what she wrote about you. So last night, I pulled it from my bookshelf, and in fact there’s an entire page devoted to you. Of course, all this must be taken with a grain of salt, because this was authored by a very embittered person. But she says: “I found Sylvette as charming as he did, and I made it a point never to be around while she was posing for him…. One day he reproached me: “You don’t seem at all unhappy about it. You should refuse to admit another face into my painting. If you knew how Marie-Therese suffered when I began making portraits of Dora Marr and how unhappy Dora was when I went back to painting Marie-Therese. But you – you’re a monster of indifference.” 

LC: Ah, oui? [laughs] Actually, he was upset that she would leave, you know? And take the children and all that. I was like a consolation, really.

RC: What I found amusing about this passage was that she makes a point of saying that she refused to be jealous. But if you read between the lines, you can see that, in fact, she’s quite jealous of what’s happening.

LC: Yes. She didn’t want to see me, really. When we went to his house, La Galloise, to bring the chairs, she didn’t come out: the children did.

RC: When you say “the chairs,” in your book, you describe how one of Toby’s specially designed chairs was exhibited in the same gallery where Picasso also had work on display, and Picasso bought it.

LC: Yes. He gave us money; I don’t know how much. But you know, he always had some billets dans les poches. He always had some money around.


RC: And you lost it while riding on a motorcycle on the way back home!

LC: Yes, it flew out of Toby’s pockets! [laughs] How funny! You know, young people are mad! I mean – oh!

RC: Especially your generation, they were wonderfully and deliriously mad.

LC: Ah, yeah. James Dean, I loved James Dean! My heart broke when he died!

RC: Lydia, this is a delicate subject to bring up. You were only eight years old when you were abused by your mother’s companion, the French Resistance fighter nicknamed “Fonsou.” But as a counterpoint to this horrible experience, later on, you were able to crystallize your personality and strengthen yourself, thanks largely to your relationship with Toby. Was it his love for you that helped to heal you until this point?

LC: Yes, I think it was. Well, mind you, I put it under the carpet for years. Actually, I never enjoyed sex at all. [laughs] Terrible. I really didn’t like it. And what happened was, when I was twenty-seven, I had a spiritual experience and it changed my life. Toby fell in love with my best friend, and that was a shock. During that shock, my brother, who was a Subud member, came to talk with me, because I was very depressed. And crying my head off about Toby falling in love with my best friend. I couldn’t believe it. Suddenly, as I was sitting with my brother, I felt God’s presence.

I never thought I could believe in God at that time. I didn’t. When I was young, I was never baptized, and my mother ran away from religion. So when that experience happened, it was magical. And suddenly, I realized I’d been hurting since I was eight. I remembered it all, and I think I really forgave Fonsou then. And I accepted it. Didn’t mind talking about it. Because I was healed by God.

After my brother left, I thought: Something’s happening to me; I must open the Bible. And I opened the Bible and fell on the page where it says: “Blessed are those that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” And I was comforted. Suddenly, I understood about faith and the love of God. I said to my brother, “Don’t worry now; I’m very happy. I know God loves me.” I was surrounded by light, and I felt warm and safe. And I never looked back since then.

RC: I know you believe that all religions are metaphoric expressions of the same fundamental truth. In that regard, what does Christ symbolize for you, and what is the connection between consciousness and the Christ figure?


LC: Christ consciousness is, for me, oneness with God. To sit still and know that I am God.

RC: Later on, you began to seriously pursue painting. “Rebirth – I Paint” is a chapter heading in your book. Talk about how painting gave you a sense of rebirth.

LC: Yes, because when I paint, I’m happy. I don’t get depressed. On the contrary, it uplifts me. I feel so happy when I don’t think at all. I go in another dimension. I paint all sorts of things. I love animals. I paint horses at the moment, and cats and dogs, but people mostly. When I did watercolors, I always did a table with a tablecloth, and it would make a still-life, and images of people would come around it. That’s why they say I’m a bit like Chagall. With Indian ink. But now I do more in oil and charcoal, together. I love that. And of course, I do my portrait in Picasso’s time, when I was young, and Lydia, all together.

RC: Your work is filled with lucidity, with the emanation of light. Tell me about your creative process.

LC: Well, there are things that inspire me. Nature, plants, flowers, people. And I do like some painters, whose work I look at, such as Kandinsky. And I like all the frescos in Italy: Assisi, Saint Francis. I love the spiritual works of art. And of course, Picasso inspires me. I do still lifes often, and then go around it, and make people around it. I like to do portraits of people, especially with charcoal. Then I might put some color around it. Children, I do like drawing children, and babies, with pen and ink.

RC: There’s a filigree quality to your work.

LC: I know. I love doing it, like writing a story. And making lots of water, so the black goes into the color, and makes shadows. You know how they call it: clair-obscure. That’s nice; I like that. Watercolor is really my best medium, because it flows like a story. I’m so used to it, I do it without thinking. I don’t know what I’m going to do at first; it depends on the flowers I’ve got on the table. I don’t know in advance. Something comes, often in the night. I’m a morning painter, but suddenly I get up with an idea. Or when I have a rest in the afternoon: ‘Oh, I must go and do this, quick.’

RC: I think there’s nothing more inspiring than a good night of sleep.


LC: I know; this is it. Because it allows you to be following your feelings and what’s happening, you know?

RC: Lydia, if you come to New York, you must promise me that we can pose together for a photo under the marvelous “Bust of Sylvette.”

LC: Oh, yes! That would be fun to do, wouldn’t it?

RC: And please tell your daughter ‘thank you’ for putting this book together. She did a marvelous job.

LC: Oui, she did very well, my lovely daughter! We did it together. I talked to her, because I couldn’t write it. Very clever girl, because she did it as if it were me talking, and it’s rather quite like me. And we used to cry together. It was very good for both of us.


MORE on Youtube:

Sylvette David talks about her paintings in a conversation with Rob Couteau (June 2018)


* This interview was conducted on 11 December and 15 December 2017. An abridged version is featured in the 2018 edition of Talisman: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry and Poetics (online).

* Although the site was landmarked in 2008, in 2010 NYU attempted to get permission to construct a fourth, even higher tower, which would have blocked the view of the bust. But because of fierce opposition to the project – which included a letter of protest from Sylvette herself – the plan was withdrawn. 

* See John Richardson, A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007), p. 371. According to Richardson, Picasso later gave one of Toby Jellinek’s chairs to Dora Marr.

* “Subud is an abbreviation of the words Susila Budhi Dharma. Susila means: right living of man concordant with the will of Almighty God. Budhi means: the force of the life power which is in man. Dharma means: submission, trust and sincerity toward Almighty God.” The goal is “to hopefully become human beings who really serve the creative force that heals and nurtures our universe as we know it.” Isabel Coulton, I Was Sylvette: The Story of Lydia Corbett (London: Endeavour London Ltd., 2016), p. 128.

* “At times the paint, diluted with linseed oil and turpentine, was so liquid that it ran down the canvas. Renoir called it ‘juice.’” “Finally, out of the mist, the body of the model or the outlines of a landscape would emerge, as on a photographic plate immersed in a developing bath.” Jean Renoir, Renoir, My Father (New York: New York Review Books Classics, 2001), pp. 188-189.

* The number of Sylvette-inspired works is impossible to determine with any accuracy: “Friends of Picasso’s, … who visited his studio in Vallauris in 1954, recalled seeing a large number of works devoted to Sylvette. Georges-Michel mentions as many as fifty portraits, some of them unfinished; [Alexander] Liberman remembered Picasso pulling some forty pencil drawings of the girl’s head out of a drawer to show him. Picasso himself told Georges-Michel that he had ‘made hundreds of small and large sketches’ which the visitor saw lying about in the studio …Thus it is reasonable to assume that the number of pictures, or at least the number of works on paper, was originally larger than that of the surviving works and those cited in the Picasso literature today. Consequently, the series documented in the catalogue raisonné of Picasso’s oeuvre does not begin with the first works on paper, but instead on 18 April 1954 with a very sketchy bust portrait of Sylvette.” The catalogue raisonné contains twenty-one drawings and twenty-eight paintings of Sylvette, as well as folded-metal pieces and other sculptures. Picasso and the Model: Sylvette, Sylvette, Sylvette, ed. Christoph Grunenberg and Astrid Becker (New York: Prestel, 2014), p. 88.

* “The silken feel of the birch trees, as I run my fingers over them, contrasts with the rough texture of the bull’s hide which covered Picasso’s bed, where I used to sit patiently waiting while he made tea …” Genevieve Laporte, Sunshine at Midnight: Memories Of Picasso And Cocteau. Trans. Douglas Cooper (New York: Macmillan Company, 1975), p. 66.



Uploaded: 23 January 2018 | Copyright © 2018 Rob Couteau
key words: Lydia Corbett model girl with the ponytail Picasso interview with Sylvette David