Claude Picasso has confirmed the authenticity of this painting.
Maya Widmaier-Picasso has confirmed the authenticity of this painting.
The present canvas is part of a group of at least eighteen preparatory studies that Picasso made for one of his most important neoclassical paintings, Trois femmes à la fontaine (fig. 1; Zervos, vol. 4, no. 322; for the studies, see The Picasso Project, nos. 21-204 through 21-218, 21-223, and 21-224). Picasso used several different media for the studies, including oil, gouache, pastel, and pencil, and worked in both horizontal and vertical formats; he varied the poses and attributes of the three women, as well as the background of the scene. In the present example, he has pasted the painted image to a larger canvas backing, suggesting that he was experimenting with the spacing and proportions of the composition.
Both the preparatory studies and the definitive version of Trois femmes à la fontaine were painted in the summer of 1921, during an immensely productive sojourn at Fontainebleau that Picasso spent with his wife Olga and their infant son Paulo. In addition to continuing his cubist investigations of the previous decade, Picasso spent the summer at work on a series of canvases depicting female figures with the gravity and permanence of ancient statuary. Although Picasso's burgeoning neoclassical style prompted accusations from more dogmatic members of the avant-garde that he was repudiating modernism, the artist himself resolutely denied this: "They speak of naturalism in opposition to modern painting. I would like to know if anyone has ever seen a natural work of art" (quoted in E. Cowling, Picasso: Style and Meaning, London, 2002, p. 362). Likewise, Michael FitzGerald has written:
"When placed in the context of cultural developments during World War I, Picasso's neoclassicism is better understood as a renewal of the avant-garde. By explicitly embracing history, Picasso escaped the strictures of an increasingly rigid modernism to define a more vital alternative. He repudiated the convention of modernism's ahistoricism in order to acknowledge its maturity, as well as his own, and rejuvenate the avant-garde by immersing it in the rich humanistic traditions that many Cubist artists and theorists denied in a search for formal purity" (in Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation, exh. cat., New York, 1996, p. 297).
The sources for Trois femmes à la fontaine are indeed rich and varied. The massive proportions, idealized features, and gently waved coiffures of the figures call to mind ancient statues of goddesses and muses. Their crisp brows and heavy lids look as though they were carved from stone, and their classically inspired drapery falls in heavy pleats like the flutes of a Doric column. The muted, earthy palette suggests the tones of ancient fresco, which Picasso had admired in Pompeii and Naples just four years earlier, while the triad grouping recalls Greek and Roman images of the Graces, Fates, and Horae (the three seasons of the Greeks). The statuesque matrons also evoke the repertory of classicizing female deities such as "Marianne" who represented the French nation in popular patriotic imagery during the wartime and post-war years, as well as harking back to Picasso's own work from the summer of 1906 at Gòsol, which drew liberally on classical sources. Finally, the painting acknowledges the neoclassical tradition of Poussin, Ingres, and Puvis de Chavannes, all of whom had explored the theme of women at a fountain or spring. Kenneth Silver has written:
"The theme is La Source, that old pun in art that means at once a spring or stream; the 'source' of artistic inspiration, the 'stream' of civilized humanity at which one is nourished and replenished; and, of course, in its strictly allegorical incarnation, the female form which embodies la Source, both as a muse and as the origin of biological life. What more appropriate theme for Picasso at this moment, when he was immersed in a thorough investigation of artistic sources, searching for inspiration and rejuvenation in the art of the past? Just as the French nation during the war turned to l'histoire--in its dual aspect of history and 'story' or myth--for moral support, so Picasso creates a mythic Antique world that nonetheless has the weight and reassuring gravity of truth" (in Esprit de Corps: The Art of the Parisian Avant-Garde and the First World War, 1914-1925, Princeton, 1989, pp. 277-278).
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, Trois femmes à la fontaine, Fontainebleau, 1921. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. BARCODE 25012927