Executed in 1936, Tête d’Isabel
marks the return to figurative works and Giacometti’s use of models. Slightly smaller than lifesize, the present work is a true exploration of stylization. The figure’s smooth hair and strong profile are reminiscent of ancient Egyptian sculptures, and particularly representations of Nefertiti (see fig. 1).
Muse, mistress and friend of the Parisian avant-garde during the 1930s, Isabel Nicholas (1912-92) was a compelling personality and alluring subject for the most prominent artists of the period. However it was a relationship with Alberto Giacometti that would prove the most significant of these years in Paris. Following their first encounter at Le Dôme one evening, Giacometti and Isabel met daily. In her memoirs she recalled, “I already knew he had changed my life forever” (Véronique Wiesinger, "Isabel and Other Intimate Strangers" in Isabel and Other Intimate Strangers
(exhibition catalogue), New York, Gagosian Gallery, 2008, p. 217). In return, she was to have an enormous impact on the trajectory of Giacometti’s practice. The countless portraits in two dimensions and in the round after Isabel traverse a great transformation in Giacometti’s interpretation of the human form; indeed, it was a vision of Isabel standing in the distance on the Boulevard St Michel that inspired the corpus of small naked women planted on cubic bases, a precursor to his iconic mature style. Through Giacometti, she was received into the inner circle of the French intelligentsia. Though in 1936 she had married Sefton Delmer, a foreign correspondent for the Daily Express
, Isabel and Giacometti sustained an agonizing and protracted love affair that was to last over ten years; the intensity of their relationship only diminished with Isabel’s return to England following the Nazi occupation of Paris in 1940.
Over the course of his life, Giacometti would make many portraits of those close to him, mostly of his brother, Diego, and his wife, Annette. "To me," Giacometti once stated, "sculpture is not an object of beauty but a way for me to try to understand a bit better what I see in a given head, to understand a bit better what appeals to me about it and what I admire in it" (quoted in Alberto Giacometti, The Origin of Space (exhibition catalogue), Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg & Museum der Moderne Monchsberg, Salzburg, 2010-11, p. 73).
There are several known versions of this sculpture, including one housed at The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. In 1936, it was cast in bronze in an edition of six by the Susse foundry.