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Amelia Peláez (Cuban 1896-1968)
Amelia Peláez (Cuban 1896-1968)

Untitled (Olimpia)

Amelia Peláez (Cuban 1896-1968)
Untitled (Olimpia)
signed and dated 'AP 55' (lower right)
gouache on paper
18½ x 24 in. (47 x 61 cm.)
Executed in 1955.
Acquired directly from the artist.

Brought to you by

Camila Femenias
Camila Femenias

Lot Essay

We are grateful to Fundación Arte Cubano for their assistance cataloguing this work.

Intimate in size and subject, Untitled (Olimpia) accommodates the legacy of Amelia Peláez as one of Cuba’s foremost vanguardia painters who created the majority of her oeuvre in the privacy of her familial home in Havana’s La Víbora neighborhood. Recalling the artist’s beloved courtyard garden, allusions to these personal environs where Peláez lived with her sisters are referenced in the feminine figures and exuberant vegetation of the work. Decoratively rendered in Peláez’s personal style adapted from the lessons of Cubism and Matisse, these images are outlined by bold graphic lines punctuated by passages of white, grey, and blue tones. Accentuated by the transparency of the gouache medium, the resulting composition recalls the effect of stained glass, and relates to Peláez’s parallel ceramic production begun during the 1950s. Indeed, the tranquil palette of Untitled (Olimpia) not only serves to convey an air of quiet domesticity, but also foreshadows the colors used in the artist’s ceramic tile mural created for the façade of the Havana Hilton Hotel (today the Havana Libre) in 1957-58.

In addition to referencing the artist’s personal life, Peláez’s painting of a reclining female figure and her attending servant evokes an unavoidable comparison to the Manet’s Olympia (1863). Indeed, the painting belongs to a series of works created by Peláez in the 1950s that were inspired by the French artist’s odalisque. Peláez was familiar with this canonical canvas from her experience in Paris, where she lived from 1927 to 1934. During this period, the artist attended various art schools and supplemented her studies with frequent visits to the Louvre, where Olympia was then on display.

Rather than a facile copy of Manet, Untitled (Olimpia) features multiple variations that relate to Peláez’s identity. Thus, rather than a bouquet of flowers, Peláez’s servant figure holds a platter of tropical fruit. Avoiding the scandalous depiction of Manet’s nude in bed, Peláez’s reclined figure is clothed and seated on a dais embroidered with traditional Cuban lace. Though perhaps reflecting the artist’s conservative bourgeois upbringing, this representation certainly also speaks to Peláez’s attitudes as a woman. Further differentiating her work from its French source is the fact that Peláez’s reclined figure does not engage the viewer with her gaze, but rather looks elsewhere. As suggested by art historian Giulio Blanc, this slight turn of the head evokes a “local” precedent for Peláez’s Untitled (Olimpia) by recalling the nineteenth century Cuban masterpiece, La siesta (1886), by Guillermo Collazo. Peláez explained her ability to inflect her own voice in otherwise traditional subjects by stating: “I am not interested in copying the object . . . . What matters is the relation of the motif with oneself, with one’s personality, and the power the artist has to organize his emotions.”1

Susanna Temkin, PhD Candidate, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University

1 Consejo Nacional de Cultura, Amelia Peláez: Exposición retrospectiva (Havana: Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, 1968), 7, as quoted in Giulio V. Blanc, Amelia Peláez, 1896-1968 (Miami: Cuban Museum of Art and Culture, 1988), 31.


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