Picasso's inspirational model launches TV series: Rhys Williams reports on the woman held in such high regard by the artist

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The Independent Online
FORTY YEARS ON and there are a few more lines around the eyes, but the inspiration behind some of Picasso's most tender and naturalistic paintings is unmistakable.

Sylvette David, once Picasso's model but exceptionally (for him) never his mistress, yesterday launched a BBC 2 season dedicated to the artist, at the Tate Gallery in London.

Ms David, 59, who sat for Picasso in 1954, was the model for the series of paintings and drawings called 'Girl in the Pony Tail'. New research by Elizabeth Cowling, co-curator of a Picasso exhibition at the gallery next month, suggests that Ms David was also the model for his bronze sculpture Woman with the Key.

Brigitte Bardot and Roger Vadim, it has been suggested, saw Ms David wearing her trademark pony tail on the Croisette in Cannes. Excited by the style, Vadim transferred it to Bardot. And so a fashion was born.

Picasso met Ms David at Vallauris in southern France during the final stages of his stormy relationship with Francoise Gilot, the mother of two of his children. Ms David did odd jobs at the pottery in Vallauris, where Picasso made his ceramics, and one day the artist showed her a portrait he had made of her from memory. Picasso found the woman's pony tail and youthful, almost childish, expression refreshing, and invited the 19-year-old to sit for him.

Francoise Gilot suggests in her memoirs that Picasso took an interest in Ms David largely in the hope of making her jealous. However, in his 1969 book Picasso and His Women, Jean Paul Crespelle points out: 'The portraits of the nympher (sic) have nothing painstaking or laborious about them; on the contrary, they are full of spontaneity and charm.'

Ms David insists that they shared a father-daughter relationship. She said that, after sittings, they would have 'the most innocent, cosy chats' in the back of his Hispano-Suiza car parked in the barn next to the studio.

In Picasso and the Model, which will be broadcast as part of the BBC 2 season, Ms David describes how he would show her around his house and lead her into his whitewashed bedroom, where he would jump on the bed. Ms David said she was 'very prude and shy' and stayed by the door. And whenever she arrived for a sitting escorted by her fiance, Picasso would refuse to begin painting until he went away. Picasso gave two of the portraits to Ms David, now a successful artist living in Devon, which she sold almost immediately for pounds 10,000.

The Picasso season runs from 12 to 24 February on BBC 2. 'Picasso: Sculptor/Painter' begins at the Tate Gallery, Millbank, London, on 16 February.

(Photographs omitted)