Painted in 1963, Tête de femme (Jacqueline) perfectly encapsulates both the tenderness and the ceaseless thirst for innovation that characterised Picasso's portraits of his second wife. Picasso had met Jacqueline Roque in Vallauris in the early 1950s, where she was working as a salesperson for Picasso's great collaborators in the field of ceramics, the Ramiés. Picasso had indeed moved to Vallauris in order to be able to tap into its ancient history and expertise of ceramic production.
Within a short time, Jacqueline was featuring in his pictures and, by the time Tête de femme (Jacqueline) was painted two years into their marriage, which had taken place in 1961, she was well on her way to consolidating her position as the most frequent and important of all of Picasso's Muses and models. Picasso's life has often been divided, for instance in William Rubin's 1996 catalogue Picasso and Portraiture, into periods according to the influence of his lovers, including Fernande, Marie-Thérèse, Dora and Françoise amongst others; Jacqueline was Picasso's last love, a fact that was reflected in the decision to marry her. Likewise, Jacqueline was one of the most important figures in his life, protecting the artist from the increasing demands that came as the cost of his incredible fame and reputation at the time. Indeed, a decade later she would herself become instrumental in her efforts to act as a the protective custodian of that reputation. The pair now lived a charmed life at Notre-Dame-de-Vie, the large villa by Mougins which would provide his home for the rest of his life, and it is this life which is reflected in the gentle lyricism of Tête de femme (Jacqueline).
Tête de femme (Jacqueline) is the larger of two portraits of Jacqueline that Picasso created on 24 May 1963; the other shows her in a form of three-quarter profile, whereas this work features an almost confrontational frontality that hints at the closeness between the artist and his subject. Jacqueline is gazing out from the canvas at the artist, and by extension the viewer, engaging us directly. Picasso had often focussed on Jacqueline's features in profile, in part because of her resemblance to the right-hand figure in Eugène Delacroix's famous painting, Les femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement of 1834, which is in the Louvre, Paris. Picasso had been obsessed with this picture, and had painted numerous homages and adaptations of it.
Picasso's relationship with Delacroix was one facet of a more general trend that characterised a great deal of his output during the post-War era. During this time, Picasso, an undisputed giant of twentieth-century art who had changed the entire lay of the land in his chosen disciplines, was looking to his predecessors rather than his contemporaries, in part for inspiration and in part in the role of challenger. He was both saluting his older like-minded travellers on the road of innovation such as Rembrandt, Velasquez and Ingres, and was simultaneously knocking at the pedestals upon which they had been elevated. Thus, during what John Richardson referred to as l'époque Jacqueline, Picasso's paintings were filled with strange muses and musketeers, characters with one foot in the artist's own domestic life and another in the past of both fact and fiction, often painted with what bordered on violence.
Linking her to the semi-self-portrait musketeers, Jacqueline was in part a source of inspiration to Picasso as the romantic interest in the narrative of his own life. That sense of romance is all the more central to Tête de femme (Jacqueline) because of Picasso's decision, which was evident in several works from this period, to present her in this picture in a fairly naturalistic manner, instead of disrupting the features he had found so fascinating by presenting them through his post-Cubist lens. Over the previous years, Picasso had often exaggerated Jacqueline's features in his paintings, for instance showing her with a large proboscis in place of a nose; these incarnations would become all the more recognised because of the sculptures that he also created of her, using a similar visual lexicon in order to assemble her various features. Even the other painting created on 24 May 1963 features a more brutalised treatment of her facial features. The three-quarter profile in that work has been rendered with deliberately expressionistic brushstrokes that accentuate areas of harsh geometrical exaggeration, in stark contrast to the supine curves of shoulders, neck and head in Tête de femme (Jacqueline). Here, against a backdrop that is partially filled with her lush dark hair, Picasso's wife is shown with her face a crisp oval, recalling his highly-realistic drawings of her, not least from the early days of their relationship.
Some traces of Picasso's idiosyncratic stylisations and codifications remain in Tête de femme (Jacqueline), for instance in the exaggerated neck and in the eyes, one of which appears to straddle the visual language of Picasso's earlier Cubism and the ancient amulets known as the Eye of Horus, coming from Ancient Egypt. The neck itself may relate to the Fayum portraits which decorated mummies in Egypt during the Roman period of its history, so many of which are in museum collections throughout the world, not least the Louvre; indeed, the tiara in Picasso's picture introduces that notion of the classical world.
Those early Coptic portraits are often surprisingly painterly considering the fact that they date from almost two millennia ago, with the facial features captured in almost caked, thick brushstrokes which are recalled by the impasto around the face in Tête de femme (Jacqueline). This brushwork may show Picasso looking back to his ancient predecessors, but it also reveals painter with his finger still on the pulse of modern developments in the artistic avant garde. Picasso's paintings of the 1960s often feature frenzied brushwork, thick and textured and thrown all the more into relief by the thinner paint in other parts of the canvas and indeed his bold decision to leave other areas completely in reserve, allowing the primed canvas to peek through, as is the case in the lower area of Tête de femme (Jacqueline) and in part of the neck. Invoking the spirit of Informel, Picasso retains a contemporary validity in this portrait while managing to allow it to express his subject's beauty.
At the same time, this maelstrom of brushstrokes in the area of Jacqueline's face speaks of a frenzied activity on the part of the painter, despite his years. Picasso's romantic and painterly depictions of his wife were a form of proof of life, an act of defiance against the encroaching mortality of which he was so famously in denial; the act of creating two paintings of Jacqueline on the same day emphasises this. Picasso's formidable energy reveals an artist still able to grab life by the horns, displaying a formidable vitality while perhaps indulging in some form of possession through the oils and brushes that had been such prosthetic extensions since his youth as a childhood prodigy. Again showing an artist in touch with contemporary developments, Picasso introduces this almost abstract quality to the brushwork of the face, and in this way invokes his own highly personal incarnation of the existentialism that had coloured intellectual and artistic circles in Europe since the end of the Second World War.
John Richardson has apparently said that one of Picasso's reasons for portraying Jacqueline with such a long, swan-like neck in his paintings, as was the case both in the years before and after this picture, was a humorous and playful reaction to the shortness of her neck in reality. At the same time, he may also have been casting an eye towards one of his former contemporaries in the Paris of the first quarter of the century, Amedeo Modigliani. The exaggerated neck in Tête de femme (Jacqueline) certainly recalls Modigliani's paintings, not least Jeune fille brune, assise. That picture, which was formerly in Picasso's own collection and is now in the Musée Picasso, Paris, shows the graceful neck that was so characteristic in Modigliani's portraits; yet, as was the case in his reprisals of the legacies of Rembrandt, Ingres, Velasquez and others, he has used his incredible visual erudition as the basis for a more personal, subjective adventure in his oils, meaning that in Tête de femme (Jacqueline) the overall result is distinctly Picasso's own.