Picasso’s 1950’s masterpiece

One of the undoubted peaks of Picasso’s oeuvre, Les femmes d’Alger (Version “O”), offered in the Looking Forward to the Past Evening Sale on 11 May

Pablo Picasso was a passionate student of the grand tradition of European painting; he pitted himself ferociously against the great masters of European painting in a dialogue which lasted his entire life, taking up their artistic concerns and making audacious responses of his own. El Greco, Velázquez and Goya were of crucial importance to Picasso, as was Eugène Delacroix and in particular Delacroix’ 1834 work Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement.

This 1834 painting, which depicted Algerian concubines in their harem with a hookah used to smoke hashish or opium, was known, in the 19th century, for its sexual content and its orientalism. It was first displayed at the Salon where it was universally admired and bought by King Louis Philippe who presented it to the Musée du Luxembourg which was at the time dedicated to contemporary art. After Delacroix’ death in 1874, the painting was moved to the Louvre, which is where Picasso would visit it.

‘He had often spoken to me of making his own version of Femmes d’Alger,’ Françoise Gilot wrote in her 1964 book, ‘and had taken me to the Louvre on an average of once a month to study it. I asked him how he felt about Delacroix. His eyes narrowed and he said, “That bastard. He’s really good.”’

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Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), Les femmes d’Alger (Version “O”), 1955. Oil on canvas. 44 7/8 × 57 5/8 in. (114 × 146.4 cm.). Estimate on request. This work is offered in Looking Forward to the Past — A curated Evening Sale on 11 May in New York

The series based on the Delacroix ‘femmes’ Picasso painted during 1954–55 consisted of nearly 100 studies on paper and 14 other paintings of which this, Version “O” is the acknowledged masterpiece, joining Les demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) and Guernica (1937) on the undoubted peaks of Picasso’s oeuvre.

In addition to taking on Delacroix, Picasso had also conceived the series as an elegy to his friend and great artistic rival, Matisse, who died five weeks before he began the series in 1954. Matisse had viewed Delacroix as his immediate forebear in terms of colour and oriental subject matter. ‘When Matisse died he left his odalisques to me as a legacy,’ Picasso stated.

Les femmes d’Alger (Version “O”) is a phenomenon. This vast canvas is packed with references to Cubism, fractured or flat perspectives, violent colour clashes and the brilliant syntheses of Picasso’s lifelong obsessions, all referenced together as a savage response to the Delacroix work and echoing Matisse in a maelstrom of colour and shattered and flattened perspectives. In the process, Picasso created a new style of painting.

Previously in the collection of Victor and Sally Ganz, Christie’s sold this work in 1997 for $31,902,500; more than twice its high estimate of $12m. Over the years, Les femmes d’Alger (Version “O”) has been featured prominently in major Picasso retrospectives, including The Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1957 and 1980, The National Gallery in London in 1960, the Grand Palais, Paris in 1966–67, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York in 1968 and more recently in the survey Picasso et les Maîtres at the Louvre in 2008–09 as well as in Picasso: Challenging the Past at London’s National Gallery in 2009 and Picasso & Modern British Art at Tate Britain in 2002

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