- Pablo Picasso
- Les femmes d’Alger (J)
- Signed Picasso (upper left); dated 26.1.55 on the reverse
- Oil on canvas
Galerie Louise Leiris, Paris (acquired from the artist)
Victor Ganz, New York (acquired from the above on June 8, 1956)
Saidenberg Gallery, New York (acquired from the above)
Paul Rosenberg & Co., New York (acquired from the above on February 8, 1957)
Acquired from the above on May 14, 1962
Paris, Galerie Louise Leiris, Pablo Picasso, 1955
Paris, Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Picasso, Peintures, 1900-1951, 1955, no. 127I
Munich, Haus der Kunst; Cologne, Reinische Museum Köln-Duetz; Hamburg, Kunsthalle-Altbau, Picasso: 1900-1955, 1955-56, no. 121J
New York, The Museum of Modern Art; Chicago, The Art Institute, Picasso, 75th Anniversary, 1957
Worcester Art Museum, Picasso. His Later Works, 1938-1961, 1962, no. 69
Janet Flanner, "Letter From Paris," The New Yorker, June 25, 1955, discussed pp. 66-69
Christian Zervos, Pablo Picasso, oeuvres de 1953 à 1955, vol. XVI, Paris, 1965, no. 355, illustrated pl. 131 Klaus Gallwitz, Picasso: The Heroic Years, New York, 1985, no. 170, illustrated p. 126
Pierre Daix, Picasso, Life and Art, New York, 1993, discussed pp. 325-326
Pierre Daix, Dictionnaire Picasso, Paris, 1995, discused pp. 244-45
Susan Grace Galassi, Picasso's Variations of the Masters: Confrontations with the Past, New York, 1996, discussed p. 142
The Picasso Project, Picasso’s Paintings, Watercolors, Drawings, and Sculpture, The Fifties I, 1950-1955, San Francisco, 2000, no. 55-036, illustrated p. 279
Between December 13, 1954 and February 14, 1955, Picasso produced a series of paintings, drawings, etchings, aquatints, and lithographs depicting the exoticism and pleasures of a harem. Among the most visually enticing of the opus is a group of fifteen oils, numbered with letters A through O, known as Les Femmes d'Alger. Thirteen of these canvases present a group of three or four women -- one seated and one reclining, one smoking a narghile and one serving tea -- while the other two depictions focus on a single figure in isolation. The present work, which is one of the most detailed depictions of the full quartet, is the tenth from the series and is often referred to as Les Femmes d'Alger (J). Although the poses of the women are consistent throughout, each rendition in the series is fresh with various levels of abstraction and detail. Not since his Demoiselles d'Avignon from 1907 did an ensemble of women so intensely occupy Picasso's attention and command his artistic devotion. An immediate sensation when they were exhibited at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, Les Femmes d'Alger became the most important series of Picasso's post-war production.
Picasso was not alone in his fascination with this subject. The harems of North Africa and their connotations of sexual abandon were of overwhelming interest to many artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The artist's specific inspiration for Les Femmes d'Alger came from Eugène Delacroix’s picture of the same title from the 1830s. Delacroix had painted two famous oil versions of this subject, the first now in the collection of the Musée du Louvre (see fig. 1) and the second in the collection of the Musée Fabre in Montpelier (see fig. 2), and Picasso was intimately familiar with both of them. His interest in these pictures originated in the 1940s, but it was not until 1954 after the death of Henri Matisse that he even attempted his own interpretations of these works. Matisse most famously explored themes of orientalism in the 1920s in Nice, transforming the exotic odalisque into one of the most recognizable emblems of eroticism in Modern art (see fig. 3). Both he and Picasso had prided themselves on deriving much of their artistic knowledge from their study of the old masters. After Matisse's death, Picasso, one of the few living artists of his generation, may have felt compelled to keep the art of these painters alive. This picture, which is one of the most "Matissian" in its use of color and the suppleness of its forms, was completed on January 26, 1955.
Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Picasso completed several series based on old master paintings, such as Velázquez’s Las Meninas and Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe. His production inspired by Delacroix's Les Femmes d’Alger, however, was the debut of Picasso’s efforts at reinterpretation. Stripping the women of their clothing and their modesty, Picasso's harem is replete with a type of eroticism that Delacroix himself would have never attempted. Picasso also derived certain structural elements of this picture from other sources. The placement of his figures specifically recalls Odalisque avec esclave (see fig. 4) by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, a painter whom Picasso idolized throughout his life. So entrenched was he in quoting the Old Masters in this series that Picasso even imagined the following scenario, which he told his friend Hélène Parmelin: "I have a feeling that Delacroix, Giotto, Tintoretto, El Greco, and the rest, as well as all the modern painters, the good and the bad, the abstract and the non-abstract, are all standing behind me watching me at work" (quoted in Hélène Parmelin, Picasso Plain, New York, 1963, p. 77).
Picasso’s main model and muse for his Les Femmes d’Alger series was his companion, Jacqueline, whom he would later marry in 1961. Jacqueline was a demure, submissive person with dark features, and both her appearance and temperament were in contrast to Picasso’s former lover, the strong-willed Françoise Gilot. In her memoirs, Gilot recalled accompanying Picasso to the Louvre on many occassions to see Delacroix's Les Femmes d'Alger, and how he often spoke about painting his own version one day. When she asked him how he felt about Delacroix's work, he allegedly narrowed his eyes and said, "That bastard. He's really good" (quoted in Francoise Gilot, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, p. 203). Picasso and Gilot ended their relationship around 1953, the same year that he met Jacqueline, and by 1955, he and Jacqueline were living together at Picasso’s villa, La Californie. It was during these first months of his relationship with Jacqueline that he was inspired to begin working on this series.
Michel Leiris has written about the development of this theme in Picasso’s art, and the influence that the women in his life had on it: “In Paris, Picasso embarked on a series of variations of Delacroix’s ‘Women of Algers’ (the later Montpeller version as well as the more famous Louvre one), which he had long had in mind. Picasso ‘had often spoken to me (Françoise Gilot wrote) of making his own version of the Women of Algers and had taken me to the Louvre on an average of once a month to study it.’ However, Françoise had not been the Delacroix type. Jacqueline, on the contrary, epitomized it – and not just in physiognomy. All three of Delacroix’s Women of Algers have the same squat, short-wasted torso that we find in the numerous paintings of Jacqueline… All three Women of Algers likewise manifest Jacqueline’s submissiveness towards that absent but ever-present pasha, the painter. And then, there is the African connection: Jacqueline had lived for many years as the wife of a colonial official in Upper Volta, now called Burkina. As Picasso remarked, ‘Ouagadougou may not be Algiers, nonetheless Jacqueline has an African provenance” (Michel Leiris, “A Genius without a Pedestal,” Late Picasso, Paintings, Sculpture, Drawings, Prints 1953-1972 (exhibition catalogue), The Tate Gallery, London, 1988, p. 18).
After he completed this series, Picasso asked his dealer, Daniel Henry Kahnweiler, what Delacroix would probably have thought of these new paintings. Kahnweiler replied that Delacroix would most likely have understood them. “Yes, I think so.” Picasso said. “I would say to him, ‘You had Rubens in mind and painted Delacroix. I paint with you in mind and make something different again” (quoted in Susan Grace Galassi, Picasso’s Variations on the Masters: Confrontations with the Past, New York, 1996, p. 127).
Picasso consigned the entire series of Les Femmes d'Alger to Kahnweiler at the Galerie Lousie Leiris and all 15 were then purchased by Victor and Sally Ganz on June 8, 1956 for $212,953. The Ganzs kept five of them (C, H, K, M, and O) and sold the other ten, including the present work and one currently in the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, for $138,000 (see fig. 5). The present work was then acquired by two of Picasso's longtime dealers living in New York, Saidenberg Gallery and later, Paul Rosenberg & Co., who sold it to the Cook family in 1962.
Fig. 1, Eugène Delacroix, Les Femmes d’Alger, 1834, oil on canvas, Musée du Louvre, Paris
Fig. 2, Eugène Delacroix, Les Femmes d’Alger, 1849, oil on canvas, Musée Fabre, Montpelier
Fig. 3, Henri Matisse, Odalisque au culottes gris, 1926-27, oil on canvas, Musée de l'Orangerie, Paris
Fig. 4, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Odalisque avec esclave, 1840, oil on canvas, Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Fig. 5, Pablo Picasso, Les Femmes d’Alger, January 16, 1955, oil on canvas, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Gift of Wilbur D. May