Femme assise aux bras croisés is closely related to a celebrated series of Blue Period canvases depicting seated and crouching women-- archetypes of female suffering--that Picasso started in Paris in the fall of 1901 and continued following his return to Barcelona in January 1902 (Zervos, vol. I, nos. 105, 119-121, 133, 160). Particularly noteworthy is a scene of a woman seated in moonlight on a cold stone bench, her posture the very embodiment of melancholy and passivity (Z., vol. 1, no. 133; fig. 1). Her brooding expression and the moody shadows on her face are repeated in the present drawing, as are the essential elements of her pose: shoulders hunched, arms crossed, knees pressed tightly together. The setting for this painting is Saint-Lazare, a women's prison in Montmartre run by Dominican nuns. Most of the women there were incarcerated for offenses related to prostitution; Magdalenian penitence was a requisite aspect of their daily prison regimen. Picasso could paint these poor women free of charge, and their unfortunate and downtrodden existences seemed to correspond to a growing sense of malaise and morbidity in his own life (his financial situation and professional prospects were rapidly deteriorating, and he was increasingly preoccupied with the suicide of his best friend Carles Casagemas earlier in the year, the outcome of an unhappy love affair). John Richardson has asked, "Where else could he find models that exemplified his equivocal view of sex as ecstatic and tender, but also guilt-inducing and bound up with suffering, even death?" (A Life of Picasso, New York, 1996, vol. I, p. 219).
The distinctive headdress that the woman in the present drawing wears is an explicit reference to Saint-Lazare. The inmates there wore a special head covering, often (but erroneously) referred to as a Phrygian bonnet; those who had been diagnosed with syphilis wore the headdress in white, while the rest of the prison population wore it in brown. The bonnet, which tied under the chin, is featured prominently in several of the paintings and drawings that Picasso made at Saint-Lazare in 1901 (see Z., vol. 1, nos. 80 and 101). By 1902, Picasso had transformed the bonnet into an elegant hood or cowl; it still appears, however, in preparatory drawings for the large canvas known as Les deux soeurs, which Picasso identified in a letter to Max Jacob dated July 1902 as a scene of "a Saint-Lazare whore and a mother" (quoted in ibid., p. 222; oil painting: Z., vol. 1, no. 163; Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg; drawings: Z., vol. 1, nos. 435-436; Daix no. A.14). In the present drawing, the connection to Saint-Lazare is reinforced by the rounded archway behind the seated woman, which recalls the grim Romanesque architecture of the Montmartre prison. Similar arches appear in the background of Les deux soeurs (and even more prominently in one of the preparatory studies: Z., vol. 6, no. 436), and traces of them are even carried over into Picasso's 1903 masterpiece, La Vie (Z., vol. 1, no. 179; Cleveland Museum of Art).
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, Femme assise au fichu, 1901-1902. Detroit Institute of Arts.