With its sculptural solidity and elegant form, Une main exemplifies Picasso’s neo-classical period of the 1920s. After nearly a decade of working exclusively in the cubist mode, Picasso returned to representation in 1917 with a group of portraits of his future wife Olga Khokhlova. From 1917 to 1924, he would continue to produce cubist work alongside classical subjects, drawing criticism from some dedicated members of the avant-garde who suggested that he had rejected modernism’s forward march: "Cubism is an art of creation, not of reproduction or interpretation,” wrote the critic Pierre Reverdy in 1917, “No cubist painter should execute a portrait" (quoted in M. FitzGerald, "The Modernists' Dilemma: Neoclassicism and the Portrayal of Olga Khokhlova," in Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation (exhibition catalogue), Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996, p. 301).
Scholars suggest that the call to order and classicism in modern art, which initiated in 1917, resulted from the atrocities and upheaval of World War I. Forced to reexamine the relationship between history and art, the avant-garde sought timeless forms of representation. In works such as Une Main, the scholar Michael FitzGerald argues that Picasso successfully advanced the stalled progression of Modernism which had been encumbered by the critics’ rigid definition of the movement: "Among the many phases of Picasso's work, neoclassicism is perhaps the most controversial, because its stylistic eclecticism and widespread popularity have led some writers to criticize it as a reactionary departure from modernism. When placed in the context of cultural developments during World War I, however, Picasso's neoclassicism is better understood as a renewal of the avant-garde. By explicitly embracing history, Picasso escaped the strictures of an increasingly rigid modernism to define a more vital alternative. He repudiated the convention of modernism's ahistoricism in order to acknowledge its maturity, as well as his own, and rejuvenate the avant-garde by immersing it in the rich humanistic traditions that many Cubist artists and theorists denied in a search for formal purity" (ibid., p. 297).
In the present work, Picasso builds the three-dimensionality of the form through an abundance of rounded and deftly executed hatch marks. The sculptural quality of the work demonstrates the powerful impact of Picasso’s 1917 trip to Italy and his encounter with the crumbling masterpieces of Ancient Rome: "Picasso was thrilled by the majestic ruins and climbed endlessly over broken columns to stand staring at fragments of Roman statuary" (L. Massine quoted in J. Clair, ed., Picasso, 1917-1924: The Italian Journey (exhibition catalogue), Palazzo Grassi, Venice, 1998, pp. 79-80). The monumentality of Italy and its ruins would continue to serve as a major inspiration for Picasso throughout the 1920s.