For Picasso, living among the rugged mountain folk during the summer of 1906 in the small Pyrenean town of Gósol proved to be a revelation. This working vacation, with Fernande Olivier at his side, reacquainted the artist with his Spanish roots and provided him a deeper insight into the archaic Iberian sculptures. When back in Paris that autumn, this experience culminated in the sculpture Femme se coiffant.
Picasso was fond of depicting Fernande as she combed and dressed her abundant auburn tresses, in poses influenced by the various odalisques in Ingres’ Le bain turc, which caught Picasso’s eye in the special commemorative exhibition accorded the 19th century master at the 1905 Salon d’Automne. The series of kneeling nude figures he drew and painted during the fall of 1906, as he finally finished the face of Gertrude Stein in the famous portrait, induced him to conceive a sculptural rendering of this subject.
Having carved pieces in wood while in Gósol, Picasso was keen to continue making sculpture. The previous denizen of Picasso’s studio in the Bateau-Lavoir was the Catalan sculptor, ceramicist, and jewelry-maker Paco Durrio, whom Picasso had known since 1901. Durrio learned the art of making stoneware from Gauguin and persuaded Picasso to try working in stoneware, in which modeled clay could be colored and fired, melding the disciplines of painting and sculpture. Picasso created his first stoneware sculptures in Durrio’s studio in early 1906, including Tête de femme (Fernande) (Spies, no. 6).
Gauguin died in 1903; his example, transmitted in part through Durrio, was paramount for Picasso during this period. The Gauguin retrospective exhibition at the 1906 Salon d’Automne further fueled his interest. He had likely already seen the magnificent Oviri, Gauguin’s masterwork in stoneware, at Ambroise Vollard’s gallery. With Oviri in mind, Picasso modeled this earthy, caryatid-like figure of the kneeling Fernande, tinged with Iberianism, mysteriously and sensuously enveloped in a mantle of her flowing hair.