Picasso painted this imposing portrait of confidant young man seated in an interior midway between his first two great series of variations on earlier masters, those on Delacroix's Femmes d'Alger, executed in December 1954-February 1955, and the sequence based on Velzquez's Las Meninas, August-November 1957.
The Delacroix paintings were Picasso's tribute to the memory of Matisse, who passed away in November 1954. Picasso told Roland Penrose, "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). The Mediterranean looks of his new companion, Jacqueline Roque, also inspired this series; Picasso noticed that in profile she resembled one of the women in Delacroix's painting. Picasso met Jacqueline while she was working in the sales shop at the Madoura pottery works in Vallauris in 1953. They began living together in September 1954.
The Femme d'Alger variations were the last major works that Picasso painted in his Paris studio on the rue des Grands-Augustins. 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, the house in Vallauris that he had purchased for Franoise Gilot, was too small for the many projects he was considering, and besides, it contained unpleasant memories of his breakup with Franoise in September 1953.
A new companion required a new home, and during the summer of 1955 the artist purchased a spacious 19th century villa known as La Californie, which overlooked Cannes. La Californie had the advantage being close to the potters in Vallauris. It was also adequately secluded, now an important concern for Picasso.
Against the quasi-Orientalist backdrop of La Californie Jacqueline reprised her role as the Matissean odalisque in a series of paintings done in November 1955, in which she was attired au costume turc. She also appeared in modern dress, casually lounging in a wicker chair.
It was only a matter of time before La Californie's proximity to the sea would make itself known in Picasso's work. After visiting Cap d'Antibes during the summer of 1955, Picasso painted two scenes of vacationers at the beach known as La Garoupe (Picasso Project, nos. 55-138 and 55-139), one of his favorite resorts since the 1920s. After moving into La Californie, he painted Deux femmes à la plage (16 February 1956; Zervos, vol. 17, no. 36; Musee National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris). Following a second series of Atelier paintings in the spring of 1956, there were more bather scenes, including studies that led to a remarkable beach painting, Le tremplin ("The Diving Board"; Zervos, vol. 17, no. 159), done on 20 August 1956. He returned the idea of Le tremplin on 22 July 1957 (Zervos, vol. 17, no. 348; sold, Christie's, New York, 5 November 2003, lot 349). This painting became the springboard, as it were, for the UNESCO mural La chute d'Icare, completed in 1958.
On 20 September 1956, the very same day Picasso completed the initial Tremplin painting illustrated here, he painted three portraits of a seated men clad in a striped fisherman's jersey (Zervos, vol. 17, no. 209 [numbered IV that day]; no. 210 [numbered II; sold, Christie's, New York, 16 May 1985, lot 443], and no. 211 [numbered III; sold, Sotheby's London 25 June 2008, lot 30]). He painted the present canvas during the next day, 21 September, the only oil painting he completed on that date. This painting is the same large size as the final painting (no. IV) that he done the previous day.
These pictures mark the initial appearance of a character who would surface time and again in Picasso's work, especially later in the mid-1960s: a brawny, virile man, usually unshaven and sometimes bearded, varying in age but generally youthful. He might well be a fisherman, one of the kind that Picasso would have encountered at dockside in and around Cannes. In the present version, he has a very wholesome, almost debonair appearance, that of a cocky youth, which seems to run counter to the rough and ready he-man demeanor which the artist generally ascribed to this subject. The present Homme assis sur une chaise has the most developed background of any of the pictures in this group--by way of detail there is even a key left in a door lock, which may suggest some sexual connotation, an idea reinforced by the huge conical shape of the young man's espadrille. Picasso employed here, the only time in this series, a favorite pictorial device that appears frequently in his portraits from the mid 1920s onward, in which he composes the frontal aspect of the face from two opposing profiles.
The flat, board-like elements that compose these figures stem from the shapes of the bathers in the recently completed Tremplin painting and its preliminary studies. The flattened, sign-like space and simplified forms in Homme assis sur une chaise moreover recall Matisse's Vence interiors. Indeed, the presence of the striped jersey also may allude to Matisse; Picasso could have had in mind his friend's powerful Fauve Autoportrait painted in Collioure during the summer of 1906. Picasso would have remembered this painting well; it was in the collection of Michael and Sarah Stein. The red and green tonality in the background of Picasso's canvas is also seen in the two paintings Le jeune marin I and Le jeune marin II, which Matisse also painted in Collioure during his second stay there in 1906. The Steins also owned the first version. The second version shows the chair in a more defined silhouette than the first; a chair likewise plays a major role in supporting the angled forms in Picasso's painting. Both Matisse sailor paintings and Picasso's Homme assis are three-quarter length.
Picasso was fond of wearing a striped fisherman's jersey of the kind seen in this painting, and was occasionally photographed in it. It has been widely assumed that his depictions of men attired in this manner represent some kind of self-portrait, in which the figure depicted has become a surrogate or avatar for the artist. It seems likely that Picasso liked to project himself into these men whom he had created on canvas and identify with certain of their characteristics. Especially as he grew older, and when his famous sexual powers were on the wane, Picasso developed a fondness for inserting himself into his pictorial scenarios under the guise of a virile younger man, although he might as easily drop all pretense and depict himself just as he appeared, still with a powerful bull-like physique, tanned but white-haired and bald, or sometimes even with a grizzled beard, which he actually never wore.
The issue of Picasso's self-identification with his subjects is probably more relevant elsewhere than it is here. More to the point in this case is Picasso's interest in his subject as a colorful character in his own right. The artist appears to probe a different aspect of this fellow's appearance and personality in each of the four paintings. In the first canvas of the series (20 September 1956 II) the man comes across more like a large grasping child, seated as if in a high chair. The sitter seems somewhat puzzled and ill-at-ease in the second version (20 September 1956 III). In the third, however, he is totally assured and magnificently virile: a noticeable tuft of black chest hair shows above the neckline of his jersey. This is the same fellow in the fourth and present version, having in the interim cleaned himself up and shaved for the next day's session. Each picture tells a story, as Picasso likewise later enjoyed assigning specific personal qualities and anecdotes to various of his musketeers, which he would humorously recount to visitors.
The figure of the Mediterranean fisherman, the hardy sailor and dauntless sea voyager, was rich with resonance for Picasso. As a traveler he reminded Picasso of his own youth in Spain, when he had journeyed from Malaga to La Corua to Madrid and then to Barcelona, before leaving Spain for a life and career in France. Also, to an artist steeped in the traditions of the Mediterranean, the sailor represented an ancient type, and embodied a culture whose very origins and evolution owed everything to the sea as a source of sustenance and an avenue for commerce. This was the world that Homer described in his epic The Odyssey, as he recounted the adventures of Odysseus, antiquity's most famous sailor. Some of Picasso's fishermen might easily be the modern incarnation of the archetypal Odysseus: they are tough, fearless and resourcefully clever, just as the ancient hero was reputed to be. One might imagine the young man in the present painting not quite in this same vein, but as a relative nonetheless -- as Telemachus, perhaps, the son of Odysseus, who grew into manhood awaiting his father's return, journeyed abroad to find him, and through his steadfastness and loyalty earned his legacy in the end. "History and myth," commented Roland Penrose, "are the nourishment required by Picasso in his prophecies. Paradoxically he belongs to all centuries and yet essentially he belongs to ours" (op. cit., p. 474).