Knoedler & Co., New York (acquired from the above in September 1949)
Lee A. Ault, New York (acquired from the above in March 1950)
Knoedler & Co., New York (acquired from the above in January 1951)
Richard K. Weil, St. Louis, Missouri (acquired from the above in February 1953. Sold: Sotheby's, London, 5th December 1973, lot 71)
Purchased at the above sale by the present owner
New York, The Museum of Modern Art & Basel, Kunstmuseum, Picasso and Braque: Pioneering Cubism, 1989-90, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
London, Tate Gallery, Picasso: Sculptor/Painter, 1994, no. 17, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art & Dallas, Nasher Sculpture Center, Picasso: The Cubist Portraits of Fernande Olivier, 2003-04, no. 38, illustrated in colour in the catalogue
Christian Zervos, Pablo Picasso, supplement aux volumes 1 à 5, Paris, 1954, vol. 6, no. 1071, illustrated pl. 129 (titled Peinture and as dating from 1908)
Franco Russoli & Fiorella Minervino, L'Opera complete di Picasso cubista, Milan, 1972, no. 293, illustrated p. 101 (titled Busto femminile and with incorrect measurements)
Christopher Green, Léger and the Avant-Garde, New Haven & London, 1976, no. 13, illustrated p. 16
Pierre Daix & Joan Rosselet, Le Cubisme de Picasso. Catalogue raisonné de l’œuvre peint 1907-1916, Neuchâtel, 1979, no. 292, illustrated p. 245
Josep Palau i Fabre, Picasso Cubisme, 1907-1917, Barcelona, 1990, no. 418, illustrated p. 146 (titled Buste ‘cristal de roche’)
Centre Picasso d'Horta (ed.). Picasso y Horta, Calaceit, 1994, no. 53 (titled Bust ‘Cristall de roca’)
Picasso Landscapes 1890-1912: From the Academy to the Avant-garde (exhibition catalogue), Museu Picasso, Barcelona, 1994-95, no. 10, illustrated in colour p. 25
T.J. Clark, Farewell to an Idea: Episodes from a History of Modernism, New Haven & London, 1999, fig. 111, illustrated in colour p. 198
Elizabeth Cowling, Picasso: Style and Meaning, London, 2002, no. 179, illustrated in colour p. 210
Pepe Karmel, Picasso and the Invention of Cubism, New Haven & London, 2003, no. 5, illustrated p. 13
The Picasso Project (ed.), Picasso's Paintings, Watercolors, Drawings and Sculpture. Analytic Cubism, 1909-1912, San Francisco, 2015, no. 1909-118, illustrated p. 57
The development of Cubism is inextricably linked to the friendship between Picasso and Georges Braque. Their friendship started in the winter of 1908 and their exchange of ideas had an immediate impact on their painting. Through continuous conversation and the exchange of letters, the two artists helped each other to invent an entirely new visual idiom. During the summer of 1909, while Picasso was at Horta, Braque had similarly left Paris in search of isolation and inspiration at La Roche-Guyon on the Seine. While Picasso simultaneously painted landscapes and portraits, Braque concentrated on landscapes depicting the castle and the surrounding forests using a remarkably similar palette of greens and greys and the towering, stacked compositions as his friend in Spain.
William Rubin has described this period in Picasso’s œuvre as ‘the most crucial and productive vacation of his career. There in the pellucid Mediterranean light of his native Spain, he distilled from the material he had been exploring during the previous two years his first fully defined statement of Analytic Cubism’ (W. Rubin, Picasso in the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1972, p. 56). In 1907 Picasso made his major breakthrough, the celebrated Les Demoiselles d’Avignon now in The Museum of Modern Art, New York (fig. 2), a triumphant expression of modern aesthetic values, and arguably the single most influential painting created in the twentieth century. While working on this canvas he followed the traditional practice of creating countless sketches and small studies to help develop and refine the final composition. He continued to practice this method of working up to a single, monumental composition the following year, culminating in Trois femmes, now in The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg.
In 1909 Picasso’s working methods changed: rather than working up sketches and studies towards a single composition in which all of his latest developments were included, he produced a series of oils all of which were based on Fernande, but whose primary concern was the development of radical reinterpretation of pictorial form, largely influenced by paintings of Cézanne (figs. 3 & 8). Writing about the group of paintings inspired by Fernande Olivier, executed in Horta de Ebro from mid-June to early September 1909, Elizabeth Cowling observes: ‘He used several different formats, but […] no single painting is larger than all the others or designed as a “masterpiece”. Within the series as a whole there were mini-series devoted to the head only, the head and shoulders [fig. 4], and the head and torso or three-quarter-length figure [fig. 5]. […] Further variation is introduced through the angle of the head, orientation of the figure, degree of contrapposto in the pose, the hairstyle and clothing, lighting, colour and the extent to which the background and its content are subject to the same elaborate facetting. The other paintings done in Horta – views of the village and mountains [figs. 6 & 7], still lifes and two paintings of the head and shoulders of a man – relate closely in their structure and style to the paintings of Fernande, so that, for example, the sharply delineated, in-out thrusts of the facets of her head and neck resemble those of the cubic buildings packed together on the hillside or the crisp folds of the ruckled drapery in the still lifes. Picasso’s production during these months […] was thoroughly integrated, his approach disciplined: there is unquestionably a Horta style’ (E. Cowling, op. cit., pp. 211-212).
Like the other Horta portraits, Femme assise is characterised by geometricised, broken down forms which allowed the artist to explore the sitter’s figure from multiple angles and to achieve a highly voluminous, sculptural feel. As John Golding has commented: ‘Picasso’s paintings of 1908 had been sculptural in appearance and intent and in some of them there are already hints or implications of the multi-viewpoint perspectives of early Cubism. This reached its first full, explicit expression in the work produced by Picasso at Horta de Ebro, a remote Catalan village, in the summer of 1909. Picasso had become interested in a sculptural approach to painting because of the physicality of his vision, because he wanted to touch and to mould and to handle his subjects. Now, with the abandonment of traditional single viewpoint perspective he was able to achieve his goal of taking possession of his subjects more completely and to give his canvases a dimension that in a sense already existed in free-standing sculpture: for clearly the essential property of sculpture in the round is that the sculptor impels the spectator to move around it and study it from all angles. With the adoption of multi-viewpoint perspective Picasso presented the viewer with a sculptural fullness or completeness on a two-dimensional support’ (J. Golding in Picasso: Sculptor/Painter (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., p. 20).
Having explored the possibilities of representing a three-dimensional figure on the two-dimensional medium of canvas painting, and having imbued his Horta paintings with a strong sculptural feel, it is no surprise that upon his return to Paris in September 1909 Picasso applied his findings to a three-dimensional medium, producing the celebrated Tête de femme (Fernande). Considered to be the first Cubist sculpture, Tête de femme (Fernande) was executed in two plaster versions and later cast in bronze. The richness of the sculpture with its countless ridges, recesses and protrusions and the multiplicity of viewpoints that it offered, inspired a number of photographers including Alfred Stieglitz (fig. 14) and Brassaï.
Elizabeth Cowling discussed the relationship between the paintings that Picasso produced during the summer in Horta and the sculpture that followed immediately after: ‘Evidently he wanted to condense within a single work not only all the main angles and tonal variations explored in individual paintings in the series, but also the viewpoints (such as the head seen more or less in profile, from the back, or from above) which appear in none of them’ (E. Cowling, op. cit., p. 212). This sculptural quality is powerfully present in several features of Femme assise, particularly in the dramatic rendering of the figure’s elongated neck, the pronounced eyebrows and the ‘reversible cube’ of her forehead – the volume which can be read as both protruding and receding – and whose V-shape is echoed in Fernande’s characteristic upturned lips.
While Femme assise and its companion canvases consistently take the image of Fernande as their motif, Picasso’s focus was centred around his painterly technique, as he explored his new methods to their farthest limit. Painting itself, rather than depicting his model, became the artist’s main focus. As Pierre Daix observed: ‘Painting itself now reigned supreme, blossoming with renewed vitality beyond all inherited assumptions as to its limits, subject only to the geometricizing demands of his refiner’s fire. In working in this manner, Picasso transferred to these portraits the monumentality acquired in his geometrization of the Horta landscapes, such as Houses on the Hill [fig. 7] and The Factory. [… Fernande] exists as little more than a “motif,” a springboard to the free improvisation of his geometric reconstruction of fragmented shapes. One can, of course, recognize Fernande’s voluminous head of hair and the general contours of her face, sliced into large masses […]. The portrait is no longer a naturalistic representation but has become everything that painting can appropriate from the model in order to transform it into what only painting can express. The portrait becomes the sum of all that Picasso’s plastic imagination can extract and transform from the model’ (P. Daix in ‘Portraiture in Picasso’s Primitivism and Cubism’, in Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, New York & Grand Palais, Paris, 1996-97, p. 276).
Writing in the catalogue of the seminal exhibition entirely dedicated to Picasso’s Cubist portrayals of Fernande, Jeffrey Weiss distinguished several groups of portraits executed in Horta. The first group, which includes Tête de femme (Fernande) now in the Art Institute of Chicago (fig. 10) is according to Weiss ‘distinguished by a relatively fleshy treatment of the face […]. The second group of paintings from Horta consists of five canvases [including the present work], one of which has been destroyed in a fire. These images trade the softer anatomy of the preceding type for a construction that is articulated by blade-like edges and angular, interlocking forms’ (J. Weiss in Picasso: The Cubist Portraits of Fernande Olivier (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., pp. 8-9). While scholars have argued that Picasso probably regarded the group of Horta paintings as part of the same pictorial experiment, rather than a linear progression, it is clear that the present work, in which round shapes are replaced with more angular ones, can be regarded as a step further on the path of breaking up form and transforming the figure into a series of hard-edged faceting. A similar treatment can be seen in what can be described as a background of the present composition, in which the vase of flowers to the right of Fernande’s neck is depicted in a significantly more stylised, abstracted manner than the vase in Portrait de Fernande, now in Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen in Düsseldorf (fig. 11) or the still-life with a pear and cloth on a table-top in the Chicago picture.
The extraordinary development that occurred in Picasso’s paintings of Fernande executed in Horta in the summer 1909 marked the arrival of Analytical Cubism (fig. 12), a style which opened radically new possibilities in pictorial treatment of form and would thus prove to be a pivotal point in the development of Modern art. As Weiss argues, however, ‘form in the Fernande sequence is not specific to painting and drawing – not, in fact, specific to any single medium. It belongs, instead, to the reciprocal relationship the artist established among a multiplicity of mediums, including sculpture and photography’ (ibid., p. 15). Belonging to this extraordinary opus produced over a short yet momentous and far-reaching period of Picasso’s œuvre, Femme assise stands firmly as an icon of Modernism.
This work has been requested for the forthcoming exhibition Picasso Portraits, to be held at the National Portrait Gallery, London from October 2016 to February 2017 and at Museu Picasso, Barcelona from March to June 2017.
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