In his Catalogue Raisonné of Picasso's work, the artist's friend Christian Zervos ascribed this picture a date of 1917, placing it within the context of Picasso's burgeoning interest in classical artforms and at the beginning of his relationship with the ballerina Olga Khokhlova, who the next year would become his wife. Looking at the composition of Femme à la robe rose, with the woman facing us while draped languorously on a chair upon which she is resting one arm, this painting appears to relate to Picasso's masterpiece in the Neo-Classical idiom that he had adopted, Portrait d'Olga Khokhlova dans un fauteuil, which John Richardson explained, was created as a celebration of the engagement between the couple. Femme à la robe rose, was most likely a portrait of Olga herself, and indeed the deliberately minimal manner in which Picasso has captured his sitter evokes her features, especially the straight line of the mouth. Indeed, this picture has a composition that mirrors Portrait d'Olga Khokhlova dans un fauteuil and explores a similar subject using a deliberately stylized manner that reveals both Picasso's adherence to his avant-garde roots and his adventurous search for a new manner of depiction suited to the age. It is perhaps indicative of this genetic make-up of Femme à la robe rose that it bears compositional similarities to several of his pictures of Olga dating from their time in Paris at the end of 1917 and beginning of 1918.
In this context, Femme à la robe rose prefigures a series of pictures which Picasso created in Biarritz during the Summer of 1918, for instance those in the collections of the Musée Picasso, Paris and the Museum of Modern Art, New York (Z III 203 and Z III 207) in which he dissolved compositions based on either a man or a woman in a chair from complex intertwining forms down to stacks of geometric forms, planes and fields. Here, however, he retains a sensual lyricism. It is a telling reflection of Picasso's ability to herald new aesthetics again and again during his career that, in its use of great swathes of deliberately planar colour, Femme à la robe rose anticipates some of the pictures from the period of 1920s associated with the Rappel à l'ordre, a phrase coined by Jean Cocteau, be it the more classicised paintings of Georges Braque or the Purist works that would come to occupy fellow artists such as Le Corbusier and Ozenfant.
The style in which Picasso has painted Femme à la robe rose combines a deft, almost calligraphic economy of means in terms of the line-making that defines the subject's face and form. Those lines have a baroque, supine grace, playfully arcing and looping in order to convey the area of her shoulders in particular; meanwhile, the hands, while captured in only a few lines, are both hugely evocative, especially the one resting upon her lap. Picasso appears to have revelled in the chance to escape the rigorous constraints of the Neo-Classical style in which he so often captured the features of his future wife - a style which she is known to have preferred. In that sense, Femme à la robe rose combines the stylistic traits of some of his more adventurous pictures of harlequins from the same period, applying his interest in planar compositions that would be so central to his designs for costumes for Parade, the spectacular and controversial performance by Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes which took place in 1917 and in which Olga was herself involved. While many of Picasso's depictions of Olga tap into this new classical vein, it is telling that many of his intimate drawings of domestic life created especially during the Winter they spent in Paris before their marriage featured a flourish of stylistic modes, often introducing an angularity to Olga's features that related more to Cubism and indeed to the works of his great artistic rival Henri Matisse than they did to some of the Ingres-esque images.
Picasso, who had a constant thirst for innovation, had already been looking at Neo-Classicism as a counterpoint to the Cubism for which he had become so well-known as early as 1914, and it gained more and more of a foothold in his work during the following years, especially in his drawings. However, it was when he left Paris at the beginning of 1917 for the headquarters of the Ballets Russes, based during the First World War in Rome, that it truly gained its hold over him. Picasso had intended to leave Paris with his then-fiancée Irène Lagut, but she had abandoned him at the last minute. Accompanied instead by his friend Jean Cocteau, Picasso headed to Rome. Cocteau claimed that Picasso laughed while contemplating the Cubists, whose ranks had been swollen with sub-par impostors, dwindling in the background as his train headed towards Italy (J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso, Vol. 2: 1907-1917, London, 2009, p. 431). With them, he left much of his own Cubism, though it was ever-present in the costume designs that he created, and instead immersed himself in a more lyrical world influenced by the millennia of culture that surrounded him in the following months, be it in Pompeii, in Naples, in Herculaneum or in Rome itself, which had played host throughout the centuries to so many of his artistic heroes such as Raphael, Velasquez, Ingres and Corot, as well as being filled with the imposing relics of the Roman era. The joyous and whimsical atmosphere that characterized many of Picasso's works from the period may have been in part a reflection of his relief to have escaped Paris, which was still all too vividly within range of the front line of the rampaging First World War.
Within a short time of his arrival in Rome, Picasso had become obsessed with Olga, who had been one of Diaghilev's ballerinas for some time, having auditioned in Russia before the impresario and his former star, Vaslav Nijinsky. Her own taste and appearance would influence Picasso, who is often seen to have been inspired by his Muse of each period, for instance Fernande Olivier for Analytic Cubism, "Eva" for Synthetic Cubism, Marie-Thérèse for the Surreal-period works and Dora Maar for the angst-ridden paintings of the time of the Spanish Civil War and Second World War. As has been mentioned, Picasso had already been experimenting with classical means of representing the figurative world more directly than his Cubism allowed, but Olga became the vehicle that allowed him to bring this new vision to true fruition. And the fact that she was a ballerina - in short, a form of actress - meant that she was all the more fascinating a subject for Picasso, willing and able to undergo a range of Protean transformations in order to provide him with a wealth of material, presenting her as a Spanish woman in a mantilla, as a statuesque classical beauty, as a stately socialite and more.
It was in Picasso's pictures of Olga that he most truly expressed his classical idiom, partly reflecting her own conservative taste. This would come, during the time leading up to and at the beginning of their marriage, to bleed into the entire realm of Picasso's existence, as he became increasingly distant from some of his own friends and took on the role, briefly, of socialite, a regime against which he would later rebel. Olga clung all the more fiercely to the upper bourgeois lifestyle Picasso provided after the Russian Revolution, which cut her off from her family. Her father, while not quite perhaps the glamorous aristocrat that some people were occasionally led to believe, had been a colonel in the Corps of Engineers in Tsarist Russia, a more than respectable background which led her to feel entitled to a certain quality of life. Picasso sought to provide this, be it in the form of expensive dresses, hotel bills or, once they were married, staff; these luxuries themselves became trophies, proof of his achievements, yet were also in part the cost of consummation: despite his avid pursuit, Olga managed to fend off his sexual advances and preserve her virginity until she had been assured of the prospect of marriage. To some extent, his pictures of her may have served as a substitute form of possession, a notion that could be accentuated in Femme à la robe rose by the hints of flesh visible through the pink tones in the form of the breasts and the navel. These erotic attributes may well be the features that differentiate this sitter from Olga, or alternatively that illustrate the artist's desires, whether fulfilled or not by that stage. Indeed, Picasso's yearning for Olga was accentuated during a swathe of this period in Paris by her extended absence: it was for this reason that he had painted from a photographic source for the first time in Portrait d'Olga Khokhlova dans un fauteuil, a technique to which he would turn again and again subsequently. In Olga's absence, he relied instead on the photographs taken of Olga in his studio by Emile Délétang.
During the course of 1917, Picasso traveled extensively within Europe, often with Olga, be it within Italy to Naples or Rome, to Madrid, where at King Alfonso XIII's request a special viewing of Parade was organised when he discovered that a Spanish artist had designed the costumes and sets, or to Barcelona. At the end of the year, he returned to Paris, to the home and studio in Montrouge that he had acquired the previous year, at a safe distance from his former haunts of Montmartre and Montparnasse, which had played host to his Blue, Rose and Cubist epochs and were still peopled by his fellow artists, many of them now envious of his success. In the more secluded Montrouge, where the only near-neighbour from his circle was the composer Erik Satie, Picasso discovered that the roof of his premises at 22, rue Victor Hugo had leaked and, in part for this reason, Olga decided to stay within the luxurious confines of the Hôtel Lutétia. Her reasons for this are perhaps emphasised by a description of the Montrouge establishment: the couturier and collector Jacques Doucet recalled Picasso's Montrouge studio having:
"Pokey rooms giving on to a suburban street, a little kitchen garden to hang out the washing, two or three rows of vegetables tended by Picasso's enterprising maid, who had hoped to realise a cherished dream of raising rabbits, but after acquiring a pair to breed from, the police dog [got them]... Picasso is happy there. He draws a lot but paints little... I have a vague idea that he is retrogressing and is going to dump cubism to the great dismay of his followers, who, lacking his great gifts, won't know what to do" (Doucet, quoted in J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso, Vol. 2: 1907-1917, London, 2009, p. 399).
Sure enough, Picasso had turned towards the past, a development that would traumatize many of his so-called disciples. Instead, he was choosing to explore realms of representation that allowed him to indulge his pure passion for painting. It is not a codified language of form that is evident in Femme à la robe rose, as it had been in his Cubist pictures; instead, it is a love of form, of color and even, in the curlicues with which he has conjured the features of his sitter, of drawing. This picture reveals the artist's rediscovered enjoyment of the medium itself, as he revels capriciously in his explorations of the canvas and the female figure.
Femme à la robe rose is by no means wholly Neo-Classical in the strict context of either ancient Roman art or Ingres, yet there is a restraint and simplicity evident which pre-empts the Rappel à l'ordre of the years following the First World War. Even the posture recalls classical paintings, for instance the seated Arcadia in the image of Hercules and Telephos from Herculaneum which Richardson illustrated in A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years 1917-1932, as well as Ingres' portrait of Madame Rivière, painted in 1806 and which had already been in the Louvre for decades by the time Picasso moved to the French capital. Tellingly, Picasso was once found looking at himself in the mirror, addressing his reflection as 'Monsieur Ingres' (P. Schneider, Matisse, London, 1984, p. 502). Picasso's reverence for Ingres, which was so visible in some of his pictures of this period, is perceptible in Femme à la robe rose not in the way that he has modelled the paint or the features, but instead in the sheer elegance, the poise and the atmosphere of the picture. It is in this sense that this is a classical painting which allows Picasso to pay homage to one of his great heroes.
Femme à la robe rose
Oil on canvas
WORKS FROM THE COLLECTION OF MICHAEL CRICHTON
Pablo Picasso , 20th Century, Paintings, Spain, Modern
Milan, Palazzo Reale, Pablo Picasso, September-December, 1953, no. 35 (illustrated).
Basel, Galerie Beyeler, Picasso: der Maler und seine Modelle, July-October 1986, pp. 24 and 30-31, no. 3 (illustrated in color).
Los Angeles, Pace Wildenstein Gallery, Pablo Picasso: Works from the Estate and Selected Loans, January-March 1998.
POST-WAR & CONTEMPORARY ART
39½ x 32¼ in. (100.3 x 81.9 cm.)
C. Zervos, Pablo Picasso, vol. 6, Paris, 1954, p. 159, no. 1337 (illustrated).
W. Boeck and J. Sabartés, Picasso, New York and Stuttgart, 1957, pp. 464 and 491, pl. 76, no. 156 (illustrated).
The Picasso Project, ed., Picasso's Paintings, Watercolors, Drawings and Sculpture, A Comprehensive Illustrated Catalogue 1885-1973: From Cubism to Neoclassicism 1917 - 1919, San Francisco, 1995, p. 77, no. 17-262 (illustrated in color).
Estate of the Artist
Bernard Ruiz-Picasso, Paris
Pace Wildenstein Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above by the present owner