After relocating to Paris in 1904, Elie Nadelman sought to establish an individual aesthetic for his body of work while cementing his place in the local art scene. In the years that followed he would try to reconcile the wide-ranging artistic influence of his contemporaries—from Adolf van Hildebrand who theorized on the superiority of Classical, highly naturalistic sculpture, to the modern aesthetic promoted in Auguste Rodin’s expressive sculpture (Barbara Haskell, Elie Nadelman: Sculptor of Modern Life, New York, 2003, p. 28). As such, Seated Female Figure, conceived and probably executed between 1909 and 1915, illustrates a key moment in the stylistic evolution of Nadelman’s approach to figural sculpture from this formative period of his career.
In 1909, Nadelman was awarded a solo exhibition at the Galerie E. Druet in Paris—a leading gallery in the commercial art world, Druet promoted the work of avant-garde European and American Modernists until 1916 and played a most significant role in the American Armory Show of 1913. In his 1909 solo show, Nadelman exhibited over one hundred drawings and 13 plaster models, including forms he would later revisit in wood. Nadelman continued to revisit forms similar to Seated Female Figure upon his arrival in America in 1914.
The artist’s affection for classicized nudes was by this time altogether transformed to abstract representations of the female body, reduced to rounded silhouettes with elongated proportions. In Seated Female Figure, the woman’s limbs are tubular in form with softly bowed arms and the proper left leg of the figure is bent in an angular line. Similarly, the level of surface detail is simplified. While the artist’s somewhat later figural sculptures were Classical representations carved with anatomical accuracy and decorated with naturalistic detail, often complete with textured hair either raised with coifs of curls or notched with wavy locks, Seated Female Figure's head is pear-shaped and void of any distinguishable facial features. An architectural form bands horizontally across the reverse of the figure’s head perhaps representative of a modern hairstyle worn by women of the period. As such, this type of head likely stems from the period of the 1909 exhibition in Paris.
Nadelman’s success as a sculptor reached new heights in the early 1910s while still living abroad in Paris. Some of his earlier works from 1909 were included in the Armory Show of 1913 and in May of the same year Galerie E. Druet hosted a second exhibition for Nadelman which showcased his highly stylized nude figures and more classical heads in bronze and marble.
Nadelman’s body of work would eventually combine the many sources of art theory and practice that consumed Modernist artists in the early 20th century. Nadelman’s time in Europe pushed him toward experimenting with abstract movements like Cubism during these formative years. In the Whitney Museum of American Art’s catalogue for the 2003 retrospective exhibition of Nadelman’s work, Barbara Haskell concluded, “Nadelman found in modernism’s exclusive emphasis on formal values a license to ignore subject matter and thereby obliterate reminders of the ethnic, religious, and social distinctions upon which nationalism rests. Choosing modernist abstraction over subject matter allowed him to pursue a timeless, universal art based on order, reason and harmony. At a time when sculptors were seeking an alternative to the hegemony of Auguste Rodin and the Symbolist aesthetic, Nadelman’s formulation of a sculptural vocabulary based on the simplified geometric forms of Greek classical art won enthusiastic welcome. At age twenty-seven he captured the attention of the Parisian art world” (Ibid, p. 9).