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Head of a Woman

Head of a Woman
signed and dated 'Souza 52' (upper right); further signed, titled and dated 'F.N. SOUZA / HEAD OF A WOMAN / 1952' (on the reverse)
oil on board
25 ½ x 21 ¼ in. (64.8 x 54 cm.)
Painted in 1952
Private Collection, Paris
Tajan, Paris, 30 November 2004, lot 28
Private Collection, United States
Acquired from the above by the present owner

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Lot Essay

From 1949 until his first solo show with Gallery One in 1955, Francis Newton Souza struggled to find an audience for his work in the United Kingdom. Following the Great War, London was not the romanticized melting pot of creative and artistic acceptance that Souza had envisioned. Rather, the city was harsh and unforgiving, particularly for a penniless artist from India. So, after several failed attempts at marketing his work, Souza instead spent his days fine-tuning his draughtsmanship at the Central School of Art and viewing as much art as possible in London’s many museums. He also travelled to Paris, Zurich and Rome, exhibiting his work and learning as much as he could about various artistic traditions.

Souza’s encounters with art in European museums during these early years sparked the beginning of a unique synthesis of Western Modernism and classical Indian art in his work. His paintings from this early, experimental period are influenced by South Indian bronzes and the temple sculptures of Mathura and Khajuraho, which he believed were the finest examples of India’s artistic heritage, but also by Spanish Romanesque painting, the work of European Old Masters and tribal art from Africa.

Painted in 1952, this solemn portrait of an unidentified woman borrows from several artistic traditions - Eastern and Western, traditional and modern - laying emphasis on the artist’s broad and complex iconographic horizon. Of particular note in this painting is the influence that Georges Rouault's use of line and texture had on the artist's work at this time. Unlike the female figures that soon began to populate Souza’s oeuvre, the subject of this painting is neither hyper-sexualized nor grotesquely disfigured. Instead, the artist has painted a meditative portrait of a conservatively dressed woman, who seems to almost be sculpted out of the heavily textured paint. Her habit or veil-like headdress and tranquil expression suggest piety, perhaps indicating that she is part of some religious order or sect, very much like Elder, a melancholic portrait the artist painted a year earlier.

Raised a Roman Catholic in Goa, Souza’s early work reflects his initial enthrallment with the various facets and traditions of the Church and its representatives, from the imposing architecture to the vestments of its priests and the implements they used in worship. Although this fascination would soon turn into a repudiation of the faith, it nevertheless influenced Souza’s work in every genre over the course of his long career, including portraits, landscapes and still life paintings.

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