The female nude became an almost omnipresent subject in Picasso’s art in the final decade of his life. Amidst the cavalcade of musketeers that populated his work, scenes of female figures accompanied by painters or musketeers—or as in the present work, languidly reclining upon a bed—flowed from the artist’s hand in passionate, expressive and often highly erotic art works. Executed on 11 July 1969, during this period of immense productivity, Buste de femme couchée is one such work. Pictured bust-length, with one arm raised seductively above her head as she reclines against a scallop-edged pillow, the wide-eyed and intense gaze of this raven-haired figure is immediately recognizable as Jacqueline Picasso, the artist’s final great love, wife, muse and companion. Closely cropped and rendered with a deft combination of charcoal and ink that lends the nude a powerful physical presence, Buste de femme couchée is one of a small series of works, all executed within a few days of each other, in which Picasso explores this alluring pose. Beginning on 10 July with an oil (op. cit., no. 315; Musée Picasso, Paris), the following day Picasso created both the present work and a similar one now in the Museum Berggruen, Berlin (ibid., no. 311), both of which present the reclining nude from the same abruptly foreshortened angle.
The subject of the reclining female nude served as a perennial theme throughout Picasso’s career. One of the most enduring subjects in the history of art, the nude had been the site of some of Picasso’s most iconic and iconoclastic experimentations from the beginning of his career. From the early Nu couché of 1901 (Zervos, vol. 1, no. 106; Centre Pompidou, Paris), to the exultant expressions of eroticism in the recumbent nudes of the artist’s lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter, in the early 1930s, this motif never lost its allure for the artist. Erotic and adored, fearful or aggressive, dismembered, voluptuous or gaunt, the women Picasso depicted explored the innumerable facets of femininity. He portrayed women like no other artist, plundering the female psyche for artistic inspiration: “Picasso is the painter of woman: goddess of antiquity, mother, praying mantis, blown-up balloon, weeper, hysteric, body curled in a ball or sprawled in sleep… no painter has ever gone so far unveiling the feminine universe in all the complexity of its real and fantasy life” (M-L. Bernadac, “Picasso 1953-1972: Painting as Model,” Late Picasso, exh. cat., London, 1988, p. 80).
At the time that Picasso executed Buste de femme couchée, he was immersed in an intense dialogue, both highly competitive and poignantly fraternal, with the great masters of the past. In the late 1960s, he had entered into battle with a number of renowned masterpieces—Eugène Delacroix’s Les Femmes d’Alger, Edouard Manet’s Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe and Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas, as well as works by Nicolas Poussin and Jacques-Louis David—reappropriating and inventing on these haloed works in his own, distinctive style. For the rest of this late stage of his career, Picasso remained keenly engaged in a dialogue with art history, seeking to affirm his own creative might in the face of these revered artists, as well as secure his place within this venerated artistic lineage. Hélène Parmelin, a friend of the artist recalled, “Picasso is often heard to say that when he paints, all the painters are with him in the studio. Or rather behind him. Watching him. Those of yesterday, and those of today… A painter in solitude is never alone” (H. Parmelin, Picasso Says…, London, 1969, p. 40).
The subject and pose of the present work are both indicative of Picasso’s great artistic rivalries of this time. With her arms raised above her head, the figure in this work immediately calls to mind the great Western tradition of reclining nudes that began with Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus (circa 1510, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden) and ran all the way through Titian, Francisco Goya, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and Manet. Like Goya’s The Naked Maja (1795-1800, Museo del Prado, Madrid) and Manet’s notorious Olympia of 1863 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris), Buste de femme couchée depicts the model with the same direct, unflinching gaze and a similar sense of seductive insouciance. Here, Picasso seems captivated by the intense stare of Jacqueline, cropping out the rest of her body to instead focus entirely on his beloved model’s physiognomy. Stretched across two sheets of paper, the present work captures a striking intensity in the relationship between artist and model. Just as Picasso scrutinizes his model, so his model matches his gaze, staring back in a passionate dialogue with the artist.
Just under a year after Picasso executed the present lot, it was included in a landmark exhibition of the artist’s work held from May to October 1970 in the monumental Palais des Papes in Avignon. Organized by Christian and Yvonne Zervos, this exhibition included the artist’s work from 1969 and 1970. Large scale, gestural, boldly-colored paintings filled the walls of the impressive space, joined by works such as the present one in an extraordinary show of Picasso’s continued, seemingly unending artistic power. At a time when minimalism and abstraction reigned supreme within the contemporary art world, this exhibition was an emphatic testament of the power of figuration in the post-war era, as well as a joyous affirmation of the artist’s subjective vision of life. As Marie-Laure Bernadac has evocatively described: “Hung unframed, in tiers, and arranged in series, an exuberant and colourful procession of cavaliers, couples, nude women and solemn portraits filled the bare walls of the chapel like sacrilegious votive plaques: this was Picasso’s ‘Last Judgement’. An art ‘full of sound and fury’, in which everything moves and resonates, hurrying the eye from one canvas to the next amid the clatter of sabres, the sweep of plumes, the twist of bodies, the wild, visionary eyes, the strident colours, the frenzy of the brushwork: Picasso is presenting us with his artistic last will and testament” (Bernadac, ibid., pp. 91-92).