La Chiquita Piconera – A Review

In a previous article, I devoted considerable attention to the Cordovan painter, Julio Romero de Torres, focusing specifically on his two works El Pecado and La Gracia. Here, I would like to introduce you to what many consider his masterpiece: La Chiquita Piconera.

Completed in 1930, just 3 months prior to his death, La Chiquita Piconera is the artist’s final finished work. Having perhaps saved his best for last, Romero portrays a young female protagonist leaning forward in a chair as she tends to a brazier filled with burning coals (now a profession that has disappeared, a “piconero” in Spanish is a person who manufactures and/or sells coal). Behind her, an open door reveals a background consisting of familiar scenes of Córdoba at dusk.1 

In its portrayal of the young woman, La Chiquita Piconera reproduces a number of the characteristics that defined Romero’s career. A clear sense of eroticism exudes from the protagonist, with one shoulder seductively revealed and open legs that expose the line of her stocking and the bare thigh that lays beyond. With classic Andalusian features, the protagonist stares directly at the viewer, casting a look that is both intimate and distant. Her dark eyes seem beset with the hopeful glimmer of youth and the resignation of old age; passionately engaged, yet desolately detached. This duality is, as noted in the previous article, common in Romero’s work and appears to be further instilled in Piconera by the conflicting signals observed between collapsed arms and open legs and shoulders that are simultaneously covered and exposed.

Standard accounts of this painting appear to coalesce around two general interpretations. The first identifies the female protagonist as a prostitute and views the work as a masterful effort by Romero in capturing the hardships faced by women who engage in such work in order to survive. In the second, however, a more personal account emerges, with the painting seen as a reflection of Romero’s desire for the model posing in this piece, Maria Teresa Lopez. This view has in turn been reinforced by the lyrics of the Copla Andaluza (a style of Andalusian song), “La Chiquita Piconera”, written in 1942 by the trio of León, Castejón and Quiroga and famously performed by such notable Spanish singers as Estrellita Castro and Concha Piquer.  

La Chiquita Piconera performed by Estrellita Castro
La Chiquita Piconera performed by Concha Piquer

Spanish lyrics
El pintor la respetaba
lo mismo que algo sagrao
y su pasión le ocultaba
porque era un hombre casao.
Ella lo camelaba con alma y ví[d]a
hechisá por la magia de su paleta
y al igual que una llama se consumía
en aquella locura negra y secreta.

Y cuando de noche Córdoba dormía…
y era como un llanto la fuente del Potro,
El pintor decía:
¡Ay, chiquita piconera,
mi piconera chiquita!
Esta carita de cera
a mí el sentío me quita.
Te voy pintando, pintando
ar laíto der brasero
y a la vez me voy quemando
de lo mucho que te quiero.
¡Várgame San Rafael,
tener el agua tan cerca
y no poderla bebé!

Ella rompió aquel cariño
y le dio un cambio a su ví[d]a,
y el pintor iguá[l] que un niño
lloró al mirarla perdía.
Y cambió hasta la línea de su pintura,
y por calles y plazas lo vió la gente
deshojando la rosa de su amargura
como si en este mundo fuera un ausente.

Y cuando de noche Córdoba dormía…
y era como un llanto la fuente del Potro,
el pintor gemía:
¡Ay, chiquita piconera,
mi piconera chiquita!
To[d]a mi ví[d]a yo la diera
por contemplar tu carita.
Mira tú si yo te quiero
que sigo y sigo esperando
ar laíto der brasero
para seguirte pintando.
¡Várgame la Soleá,
haber querío orvidarte y no poderte orviá!

(Terrible) English translation
The painter regarded her
As something sacred
And hid his passion
Because he was a married man.
She seduced him with life and soul
Enchanted by the magic of his palette
And like a flame he was consumed
In that black and secret madness

And when Córdoba slept at night
it was like the Porto fountain cried
The painter said:
Oh, little piconera,
My little piconera!
This wax face
Takes all feeling from me
I am going to paint you, paint you
Next to the brazier
While I also burn
From how much I love you
Quench me San Rafael!
To have water so close
And not be able to drink!

She declined his affection
And changed his life
And the painter cried just like a child
When seeing what he had lost
And it changed his painting
And in the streets and squares the people saw
Him plucking the rose of his bitterness
As if he was gone from this world.

And as Córdoba slept during the night
It was like the Porto fountain cried,
The painter moaned:
Oh, little piconera,
My little piconera!
I would give all my life
To contemplate your face
And see you loving me as I love you
I keep waiting and waiting
Next to the brazier
To continue painting you
Save me, Soleá!
I wanted to forget you, but I can’t

Telling of the relationship between Romero and Maria Teresa Lopez, the song’s lyrics (which I poorly translate above) present a narrative in which the painting reflects the artist’s passionate love for his muse. In being unable to have these feelings requited, however, the lyrics suggest that Romero has become consumed with his longing; with the painting in turn capturing the suffering he has been forced to endure as a result of being so close to a desire that is both within his grasp and tragically beyond reach.

While I find this latter account far more compelling – particularly in its focus of Romero’s personal feelings – I nevertheless wish to offer a third interpretation which seeks to contextualize La Chiquita Piconera within the specific life events confronted by Romero at the time the painting was produced. Long suffering from cirrhosis, Romero had been experiencing a notable decline in health since at least 1928 when he was warned by doctors of the seriousness of his worsening condition. It is my contention that this is paramount to fully understand the painting.

Accompanying his illness, Romero experienced an affliction of the soul, for he saw a decrease in both his productivity as well as his joie de vivre. As evidence of this, we may note remarks the artist made to César Gonzalez-Ruano prior to his death. “I’m tired,” he told the journalist. “Madrid tires me and Córdoba tires me”. In response to a question of where he would go as an alternative, Romero concludes: “Paris. This also tires me.” These comments highlight the fatigue and loss of passion that had beset Romero during the final years of his life and provide significant insight into the sentiments behind La Chiquita Piconera.

It is important to consider that – for a man whose art had been defined foremost by the passion that flowed through his brush – the onset of this condition would have been a profoundly disturbing and unwelcome change. The prospect of death had likely become recognizably more familiar to Romero during the period in which he worked on Piconera, with the accompanying loss of passion likely feeling akin to one’s soul gradually escaping one’s body as air from a punctured tire. This, I would argue, is the proper context through which to view La Chiquita Piconera.

From this perspective, we see an artist grappling with his loss of passion and its signaling of both his physical and artistic demise. The fear of this realization can be found in the female protagonist’s facial expression: her powerful sense of lament reflecting the loss felt by Romero. In what appears to be a glance at a departing lover, we see her conveying both a desire to hold tight to the past as well as reluctant acceptance of a future that no longer exists. This is, at once, an easily relatable sensation for anyone who has ever suffered heartbreak and been forced to prematurely bid farewell to a lover. It is, moreover, a clever allegorical representation of Romero’s struggle with his gradual dissipation of passion and life as he appears unprepared to say goodbye while struggling to face the new reality that confronts him.

In the coals being tended to by the young woman, we find further support for this interpretation. Once a source of abundant heat, they are now slowly dying – the point at which they become fully extinguished now visible on the horizon. The piconera looks back at us as we leave the room. She wants us to stay, but understands that we cannot. The fire is dying and darkness descends on Córdoba: Romero must leave the three things that defined his life – his city, his passion and his art.  

  1. Specifically, we can identify the Paseo de la Ribera, the Guadalquivir river, the Roman Bridge and the Calahorra Tower.