Working in his Paris studio at 7, rue des Grands-Augustins, Picasso painted a series of fifteen variations on Delacroix's Les femmes d'Alger between 13 December 1954 and 14 February 1955. The individual canvases are designated as versions A through O. This was the first extended series that Picasso created after a renowned painting by a past master. It was an auspicious beginning. Two further important serial groups of pictures followed later in the decade: more than forty canvases after Velázquez's Las Meninas in 1957, and an even lengthier sequence in homage to Manet's Le déjeuner sur l'herbe during 1959-1962. Les femmes d'Alger are surely Picasso's greatest achievement in the decades following the end of the Second World War. They represent Picasso's apperceptive appropriation of an historical genre with complex cultural significance, for which his treatment is both respectful and playful by turns; they comprise his most concentrated analysis in many years of the female figure set within a specific spatial environment, and the full range of variations adds up to a master's retrospective compendium of modernist pictorial forms, revitalized and made new. These paintings are as much a feast for the eye as they are grist for thought. Indeed, the impact of the entire group is greater than the sum of its parts, while each of the individual canvases is varied and uniquely characterful in its own right, a marvel of brilliant invention--some are as fine as Picasso ever painted.
By alternating his approach between paintings steeped in color, and those rendered en grisaille, Picasso demonstrated the extraordinary breadth and depth, the sheer conscientiousness of his exploratory process--his "research," as he liked to call it. His gaze into his subject was rarely more penetrating and the results of his studies more insightful, certain and absolutely clear than they are in Les femmes d'Alger. Among the monochrome variations, the present Version "L" is truly magisterial. She is not simply an odalisque enjoying her narghile (water-pipe), she is the goddess Astarte enthroned in her temple, seated en majesté, but also sphinx-like, inscrutable, a mythic image of sexually powerful and fertile womanhood brought forward from the distant past, to be approached with deference and awe. Astarte was also a war deity; this seated odalisque wears her mid-century cubism if it were body-armor, hammered from reflective metals. In no other version does she possess this overwhelming, domineering demeanor, this sense of an unbending will, the implication of absolute power. She is actually bitonal, not monochrome, in her shading: her towering, hieratic forms appear to dissolve in an all-enveloping beam of light.
Shortly after Picasso completed the final canvas, Version O (fig. 1), Roland Penrose arrived at the artist's Paris studio to view the entire group. He later wrote, "Bringing them out one after another he showed me the rich variety of style and fantasy to which Les Femmes d'Alger had been subjected. My first sight of the Moorish interiors and the provocative poses of the nude girls reminded me of the odalisques of Matisse (fig. 2). 'You are right,' he said with a laugh, 'when Matisse died he left his odalisques to me as a legacy, and this is my idea of the Orient though I have never been there'" (quoted in Picasso: His Life and Work, Berkeley, 1981, p. 396).
Matisse and Picasso had once been engaged in a strenuous rivalry, beginning around 1907 and lasting the next several decades. Many of the elements that have been crucial to the evolution of modern painting and sculpture stemmed from their compulsive game of brinksmanship. They eventually put aside the deep suspicions they habitually harbored towards each other, and became warm and sincere friends, especially after the Second World War. They were the two surviving, towering titans of modernism, and, amid the rapid changes in painting during the post-war era, they saw themselves as the guardians of an entire long line of venerable traditions in European painting (fig. 3). They continued to closely follow each other's work; each regarded the other as the only living artist worthy to be considered his peer.
Matisse died on 3 November 1954. Given the measure of their mutual regard, Marguerite Duthuit, Matisse's daughter, was baffled by Picasso's behavior when she tried to telephone him with news of her father's passing. Picasso would not get on the line himself, she told Brassaï, the photographer and a close friend of Picasso, nor did he call her back, and later did not attend the funeral. Brassaï explained this seemingly callous attitude: "Picasso doesn't like to hear about death and he hates effusiveness. That news was a terrible blow for him, I'm sure of it. It was so he wouldn't lose his composure that he took refuge in work, in silence. He loved Matisse. He always defended his paintings. He bought many of his canvases. He has a whole collection of them" (Conversations with Picasso, Chicago, 1999, p. 333).
A couple of years earlier Picasso had lost another friend he held in the highest regard, the poet Paul Eluard, with whom Picasso shared his ardent advocacy of leftist and pacifist causes. Other lifelong associates were likewise departing this world at an alarming rate. Picasso, now in his early 70s, was virtually alone. With Matisse now gone, he lamented, "Who was there to talk to?" (quoted in ibid.). The answer, he knew, could only lay in his work. He would proceed to hold dialogues with the masters, lately or long deceased, in his paintings. With the memory of his late friend Matisse weighing heavily on his mind, he began his variations on Delacroix. In these pictures he initiated the systematic and sequential process that he would continue for the rest of his career, in which he took on, reinterpreted and remixed the great masters of the distant and recent past--Matisse and Delacroix at first, then Velázquez, Manet, and by turns, Rembrandt, Ingres, Manet, Degas, and Van Gogh, among others. It was high time to measure himself against them, to stake his claim for posterity in their company, and to define his place in the pantheon of the immortals. Those artists, whose signature aspects he appropriated and remade in his own way, seemed to speak to him as he painted, as if they were alive and standing at his side.
Both Picasso and Matisse shared a life-long admiration for J.-A.-D. Ingres, the reigning classicist in 19th century French painting. "One must paint like Ingres," Picasso declared, "we must be like Ingres" (quoted in J. Richardson, Late Picasso, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1988, p. 36). The two artists were no less emphatic in their passion for the work of Eugène Delacroix (fig. 4), the the arch-romantic, an artist very different from Ingres. Together Delacroix and Ingres served as the driving and defining stylistic agents in the art of their time, much as did Matisse and Picasso in the 20th century. "Matisses's sensual orientalism and addiction to Delacroix's lyricism did not go unnoticed by Picasso," Françoise Gilot has written, "Picasso and Matisse enjoyed each other's evolution, creativity and interest in different masters of the past, in particular Delacroix" (F. Gilot and C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, pp. 50-51).
Apart from his momentous gift to painters, in having liberated color from localized treatment so that it might be employed for more subjectively expressive and atmospheric effects, Delacroix is also important in the present context for having created the odalisque as a figure not invented, but actually seen and experienced, as he depicted in his two versions of Les femmes d'Alger (1834, fig. 5; and 1849, fig. 6). Delacroix traveled to Morocco in 1832 while attached to a political mission and spent six months there, drawing and making watercolors, which served as a storehouse of ideas to which he returned for years to come. During a brief layover in Algiers on his way home to France, he was given the extraordinary opportunity to visit the women's quarters--traditionally forbidden to male outsiders--in a residence belonging to an Algerian engineer, who had three wives. The resulting painting, the large Louvre version, was Delacroix's first major work to come out of his Moroccan trip. The second and smaller Montpellier version followed a decade and a half later. Through the act of acquiring an authentic experience of the subjects he painted, Delacroix enriched the orientalist tradition in the arts, and set the example for all later painters who traveled to North Africa. Lee Johnson has written, "It enabled him to find a synthesis between the classical tradition, in which he had been educated and trained as a painter, and exotic orientalism, to which he was drawn by temperament" (Delacroix in Morocco, exh. cat., Institute de Monde Arabe, Paris, 1994, p. 116).
Picasso had been pondering the idea of tackling Delacroix's Les femmes d'Alger for many years, long before Matisse's passing. He had been fascinated with Delacroix and his work since he came to Paris as a young man and an aspiring painter, having seen the version of Les femmes d'Alger in the Louvre. As Robert Rosenblum has pointed out, Delacroix's picture was a principal source for Picasso's Les demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907 (Zervos, vol. 2, no. 18; The Museum of Modern Art, New York). In Royan during 1940, Picasso made some of studies after Les femmes d'Alger in a sketchbook, perhaps with the intention of beginning a related painting. In 1946 Picasso was considering a donation of ten paintings to the French nation, to be installed in the Musée d'Art Moderne in Paris. Georges Salle, the museum director, arranged for the paintings to be brought first to the Louvre on a day when the museum was closed to the public. Following Picasso's instructions, the guards carried the paintings to various galleries. As Françoise Gilot recalled, "[Picasso] asked to see some of his paintings beside Delacroix's Death of Sardanapalus, The Massacre of Chios, and the The Women of Algiers. He had often spoken to me of making his own version of The Women of Algiers and had taken me to the Louvre on an average of once a month to study it... I asked him how he felt about Delacroix. His eyes narrowed and he said, 'That bastard. He's really good'" (in Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, p. 203). "This picture haunted his memory," Roland Penrose declared (op. cit., p. 395). On 29 June 1954 Picasso drew a study after Delacroix's self portrait (fig. 7). Yve-Alain Bois has written, "Now, in late 1954, was the moment to act, to kill two birds with one stone: to address one 'bastard' the help of an earlier one, to populate the world with imaginary interlocutors in order to alleviate the sadness of this new, inescapable, and definitive solitude" (Matisse and Picasso: A Gentle Rivalry, exh. cat., Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, 1999, p. 231).
A further catalyst in the creation of the Les femmes d'Alger variations was the presence of Picasso's new companion Jacqueline Roque, with whom he had been living since the early fall of 1954. The artist had noticed and delighted in her resemblance to the right-hand figure, seen kneeling and in profile, in the Louvre version of Delacroix's subject. John Richardson has pointed out that "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 Algiers' have the same squat, short-waisted torso that we find in numerous paintings of Jacqueline...All three 'Women of Algiers' likewise manifest Jacqueline's submissiveness towards the 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'" (in exh. cat., op. cit., 1988, p. 18). During his lifetime Picasso had come no closer to North Africa than when as a youth he lived among the relics of the old Moorish civilization in Andalusia, from whence Morocco would have been a short trip across the Strait of Gibraltar. In Jacqueline, Africa had now come to him. With her classic Mediterranean appearance--jet-black hair, dark eyes and a long, narrow nose--she fully looked the part of the odalisques he now sat down to paint.
The advent of a new love in Picasso's life usually resulted in portraits that, at the outset at least, show her off to best advantage. The powerful presence of Jacqueline as the seated figure in Version O (fig. 1) of the Delacroix paintings bears witness to the fact that she had indeed arrived and was already a significant force in his life. Susan Grace Galassi has suggested that Picasso's treatment of Jacqueline in his Delacroix variations was "a means of announcing Jacqueline's primacy in his 'harem'...a means of leaving Gilot behind" (op. cit., p. 137). It was to give Jacqueline the full measure of her due, and to mark her installation as the reigning female presence in his life and home, that Picasso cast her as the seated odalisque on the left side of variations. Although she is hardly recognizable, hers is the powerful presence felt in the present Les femmes d'Alger, version L.
Picasso produced the first two paintings, Versions A and B, on the first day of his Delacroix campaign. The first canvas is in color, the second in grisaille, establishing at the outset the contrasting but parallel twin lines that Picasso would take in his "research," in which he focused alternately on the properties of line and color--that is, the structure on one hand, the total effect of the picture on the other--in the context of the odalisque theme. He completed a third color painting, Version C, on 28 December 1954. As if to provide a favorable omen for the successful outcome of the series, Picasso painted Version D on the very first day of the new year 1955. He resumed the series on 16 January, and completed seven versions in all that month. He painted the remaining six by 14 February, the date of the final Version O (including Zervos, vol. 16, nos. 356, 354 and 357; figs. 8, 9 and 10 respectively). Comprising the completed fifteen variations are ten paintings in color, and five in grisaille. Picasso also drew more than seventy studies that have now been published related to the paintings during the six weeks he worked on Les femmes d'Alger.
On 14 January 1955, Picasso's long-time dealer and friend Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler visited the artist to view the first Delacroix variations. Picasso imagined a conversation with Delacroix, in he said to him, "You had Rubens in mind, and painted a Delacroix. I paint them with you in mind, and make something different again." (quoted in ed. M. McCully, A Picasso Anthology, Princeton, 1982, p. 251). Picasso placed high stock in these paintings; he told 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.' He said [Parmelin continues] he spent his time wondering what Delacroix would say if he came in" (H. Parmelin, Picasso Plain, New York, 1963, p. 77).
Picasso does not appear to have possessed a plan regarding the day-to-day shape and content of his Delacroix paintings. On 25 January 1954, Picasso told Kahnweiler, "You never know how your work will turn out. You start a picture and it becomes something quite different. It's strange how little the artist's intention counts for" (quoted in M. McCully, op. cit., p. 252). Roland Penrose wrote of the day when he visited Picasso following the completion of Version O: "I remarked upon the variations between the representational and cubist styles. I could discover no direct sequence leading in either direction. With an enigmatic smile he told me that he himself never knew what was coming next, nor did he try to interpret what he had done. 'That is for others to do if they wish.'" (op. cit., p. 396.).
In those canvases in which Picasso refrained from using color and instead painted in gray or bistre tones, he adopted a linear and cubist mode, as seen in the present Version L (also figs. 9 and 10). The tonal restriction that Picasso imposed on himself recalls the suppression of color he exercised in the great analytic cubist paintings done before the First World War (fig. 11), as Braque had also done. Both painters felt at that time the presence of strong color would distract attention from the radical re-ordering of form that they were undertaking in their canvases, knowing that the viewer's perception of pictorial clarity was essential for the optimum impact of these works. Thus it is in the present painting, where every planar facet is perfectly subsumed within the whole figure; each one is indispensable, and none is extraneous to the overall effect. While solidity is implied, there is nonetheless a marvelous sense of airy weightlessness and light-filled transparency in the forms that compose the seated smoker, very different from the opaqueness of classic pre-First World War cubism. Hardly any pentimenti are visible; once Picasso has drawn with his brush, the line, the connection of lines to form planes, and the interaction of one planar element with the next has been perfectly described and set firmly in place. In discussing his grisaille versions of Delacroix, Picasso commented to Kahnweiler that "it seems to me that people don't understand intentions anymore. They have forgotten how to appreciate the quality of line that curves away as it meets another" (quoted in M. McCully, op. cit., pp. 253-254).
The Delacroix variations were the last major works that Picasso painted in his Paris studio. He was now so famous that it was impossible to move around Paris without being mobbed by journalists and passersby, and he decided to settle permanently in the Midi. La Galloise, his house in Vallauris, was too small for the many projects he was considering, and besides, it contained unpleasant memories of the departure in September 1953 of Françoise and their children Claude and Paloma. A new mistress required a new home, and during the summer of 1955 he purchased a spacious 19th century villa known as La Californie, which overlooked Cannes. It possessed numerous Art Nouveau features that lent the house a vaguely Orientalist air. Picasso told Pierre Daix, "I thought so much about Femmes d'Alger that I found La Californie; that's how it is with painting. And Delacroix had already met Jacqueline" (quoted in P. Daix, Picasso: Life and Art, New York, 1993, p. 329). In the same way that the three wives of the Algerian engineer in Delacroix's Les Femmes d'Alger rule the inner domestic space of their home, so Jacqueline would hold sway over the new domain of La Californie, looking after the artist's needs, and most important of all, guarding his privacy, so that he could devote most of his time to painting without hindrance.
Toward the end of 1955 Picasso added an important supplement to this theme in a series of ten portraits showing Jacqueline adorned in a traditional Turkish costume (fig. 12). It would be the last time that Picasso evoked the Orientalist theme of the odalisque on canvas with such specificity in regard to the garb and other accoutrements pertaining to the traditions of this genre. Thereafter Picasso's idea of the odalisque would merge into a broader conception of the nude as the artist's model. Sequestered within the closed and private confines of the studio, as in a harem, she would be subjected to his gaze alone, painted and then revealed to the world. She became the passive participant in a sophisticated and adult game of role-playing, in which her relationship to the artist, real or imagined, might be that of mythical goddess, nymph, wife, lover or courtesan.
As Picasso painted the odalisques in his Femmes d'Alger variations he was, in effect, writing their epitaph and raising their ultimate monument. The world in which the odalisque had once flourished, as viewed through Western eyes, would soon change forever. On 1 November 1954, two days before Matisse died, the Algerian Front du Libération Nationale (FLN) issued its proclamation calling for the establishment of an independent and sovereign state of Algeria. They simultaneously unleashed the Toussaint Rouge, their campaign of terrorist attacks against French official interests in Algeria. As Picasso neared the conclusion of his series, many combatants and civilians had already been killed, and the fighting only promised to escalate and become worse. Algeria finally gained its freedom from France in 1962. The French colonial experience in North Africa, which had lasted more than a century and a quarter, and had helped given rise to and nurtured the fantasy of the odalisque in European painting, was now a thing of the past. Matisse had painted the twilight of the odalisque, and now Picasso provided the final chapter, marking the end of the line for a tradition and the styles related to it, dispelling a intoxicating dream of exoticism and enticing sensual beauty.
The fifteen versions of Les femmes d'Alger were first exhibited during June-October 1955 at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris, where they were installed together as Picasso's most recent paintings in a important retrospective of works dating from 1900 to 1955.
When it came time to offer the paintings for sale, Kahnweiler stipulated to prospective buyers that the fifteen paintings must be purchased as a group, ostensibly on Picasso's demand, which the artist later flatly denied. Victor and Sally Ganz of New York had purchased during the late 1940s and early 1950s some of Picasso's most challenging pictures, including wartime works. They agreed to Kahnweiler's condition, and acquired the whole series in June 1956 for 80 million francs (nearly $213,000). Parmelin recorded the impact the news of the sale had on Picasso and his friends: "Picasso told us the evening before that Kahnweiler had telephoned him to tell him that one American had just bought all Les femmes d'Alger. It had a curious effect on everyone. The foolish women were going off, emigrating. What on earth would Les femmes d'Alger do abroad. The whole harem in one American's house. These were too many canvases for one man...We wagered he would not keep the lot" (op. cit., p. 79).
They were right--the Ganzes had spent more than they could actually afford at the time. Working through the dealers Eleanore and Daniel Saidenburg, and with Paul Rosenberg, they soon sold ten versions to various collectors and museums in America. They kept Versions C, H, K, M and O--three color and two grisaille paintings. Version C was sold in 1988 following the death of Victor Ganz, and the remaining four Les femmes d'Alger were included in the famously successful sale of The Collection of Victor and Sally Ganz at Christie's New York, 10 November 1997, in which Version O more than doubled its high estimate, realizing $31,902,500.
Impressionist & Modern Art