Between December 13, 1954 and February 14, 1955, Picasso painted fifteen canvases based on Delacroix's Les femmes d'Alger. This was the first extended series that Picasso made after a great masterpiece of the past, and the individual canvases in the group include some of Picasso's finest works of the 1950s. In this series, as in two others he was to undertake--pictures after Velzquez's Las Meninas in 1957 and after Manet's Le djeuner sur l'herbe in 1959-62--Picasso sought to measure his talent against the Old Master painters whom he most deeply admired. Furthermore, Picasso's Les femmes d'Alger pictures are of special interest since he conceived the project as a tribute to his friend Henri Matisse, who had died in November 1954, just five weeks before Picasso began the group.
Delacroix painted Les femmes d'Alger twice. The first version is a monumental canvas in the Louvre that Delacroix made in 1834 (fig. 1). The artist had visited Algiers in 1832 and had succeeded in gaining access to a seraglio where he drew sketches for the picture. It represents three wives seated in the foreground and one servant standing at the right edge. The architecture and decoration of the room are Islamic and exotic in an Orientalist way. Delacroix painted a second, smaller version in 1849 (fig. 2); in that canvas he adjusted the position of the figures and altered the architecture, decoration and lighting of the room. Throughout his series Picasso borrowed freely from both of Delacroix's versions, intermingling their elements.
Picasso had been fascinated by Delacroix all his adult life, and by Les femmes d'Alger in particular. As Robert Rosenblum has observed, Delacroix's picture was a principal source for Picasso's Les demoiselles d'Avignon (fig. 3). In 1940, Picasso made a number of sketches after Les femmes d'Alger (fig. 4), perhaps as preliminary studies for a painted version. In 1946 the director of the Louvre invited Picasso to exhibit a selection of his paintings next to Old Master pictures in the museum; one of the choices Picasso made was to display his L'aubade (Zervos, vol. 12, no. 69; Muse national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris) next to Delacroix's Les femmes d'Alger. Picasso's rivalry and identification with Delacroix is perhaps nowhere more evident than in a drawing which he made in 1954 (fig. 5) after Delacroix's self-portrait (fig. 6). Unmistakably, this drawing also evokes Picasso's own self-portraits from the turn of the century (fig. 7). Picasso's companions testify to his fascination with Les femmes d'Alger. Roland Penrose states, "This picture haunted his memory" (R. Penrose, Picasso: His Life and Art, Berkeley, 1985 (3rd ed.), p. 395). And Franoise Gilot recounts:
He had often spoken to me of making his own version of Femmes d'Alger 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." (F. Gilot and C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, p. 203)
Another friend, Hlne Parmelin, writes:
During a morning we spent with Les femmes d'Alger, Picasso showed us a schoolboy's exercise-book that had belonged to Delacroix. He kept it lying open in the little engraving-room where the press was... Picasso handled the exercise-book with love. He showed us the writing, and in particular the little drawings in the margins of Delacroix's schoolboy exercises.
At that time, Les femmes d'Alger were the absolute mistresses of the household, though they were still only in the process of being made. Picasso was as heavily pregnant with them as one is with a child in middle-age. (H. Parmelin, Picasso Plain, New York, 1959, p. 78)
Kahnweiler visited Picasso several times while the artist was at work on the series. He reports a conversation of January 14, 1955:
Picasso: I wonder what Delacroix would say if he saw these pictures.
I replied that I thought he would understand.
P: Yes, I think so. I would say to him: "You had Rubens in mind, and painted a Delacroix. I paint them with you in mind, and make something different again." (Quoted in ed. M. McCully, op. cit., p. 251)
Parmelin also remembers Picasso saying:
I have a feeling that Delacroix, Giotto, Tintoretto, El Greco, and the rest, as well as all the modern painters, the good and the bad, the abstract and the non-abstract, are all standing behind me watching me at work.
He said [Parmelin continues] he spent his time wondering what Delacroix would say if he came in. (H. Parmelin, op. cit., p. 77)
But Picasso conceived the series not only in terms of rivalry with one of the greatest painters of the nineteenth century; he also intended it to be an elegy to his greatest rival in the twentieth century, Henri Matisse. Matisse had died on November 3, 1954. Picasso began the series some forty days later, on December 13. The association between Matisse and Delacroix was anything but trivial. Matisse, the greatest colorist in modern art, saw Delacroix as his immediate forebear. Both Delacroix's freedom with color and his Orientalist subject matter were enormously influential for Matisse. Gilot states:
[Matisse] has always been a frequent visitor to the Louvre, where he had copied the masters during his early years of soul searching... He went back to the large galleries where Delacroix's major works were displayed [including] Les femmes d'Alger... Matisse studied Delacroix's achievements, from the rhythmical arabesques of his compositions to his bold color contrasts, with passion. (F. Gilot and C. Lake, op. cit., p. 169)
She also writes, "Matisses's sensual orientalism and addiction to Delacroix's lyricism did not go unnoticed by Picasso... Picasso and Matisse enjoyed each other's evolution, creativity and interest in different masters of the past, in particular Delacroix" (ibid., pp. 50-51). And she records:
Often Picasso had said, "There are a number of things I shall no longer be able to talk about with anyone after Matisse's death," and "All things considered, there is only Matisse." Matisse's death...was quite a shock for his old friend and rival. Picasso had to attempt a last pictorial tribute before too much time elapsed and before the positive momentum he had acquired during the dialogues of the past ten years was lost. He undertook this tribute obliquely. He selected Delacroix as the most suitable reference point to his past impassioned arguments with Matisse. Delacroix's works had always been central to many of their conversations about art. (Ibid., p. 316)
A number of Picasso's friends remember discussing Matisse with the painter at the time that he was working on the Femmes d'Alger series. On January 25, 1955, Kahnweiler spoke with Picasso about Matisse's influence on the series:
Picasso took me up to see a large canvas in the Femmes d'Alger series, which he had just begun. We spoke of this new series and of its color. Picasso: "I sometimes say to myself that perhaps this is an inheritance from Matisse. Why shouldn't we inherit from our friends, after all?" (Quoted in ed. M. McCully, op. cit., p. 252)
And four day laters, Kahnweiler remembers, "Picasso again spoke of his inheritance from Matisse" (Quoted in ibid., p. 253). Penrose recalls looking at the series with Picasso in February 1955, shortly after it was completed:
Bringing them out one after another, Picasso showed me the rich variety of style and fantasy to which Les femmes d'Alger had been subjected. My first sight of the Moorish interiors and the provocative poses of the nude girls reminded me of the odalisques of Matisse. "You are right," he said with a laugh, "when Matisse died he left me his odalisques as his legacy." (R. Penrose, op. cit., p. 396)
The fifteen canvases in the series are known by the designations A through O. They display enormous freedom, both in their liberal use of elements from Delacroix's pictures and in their Protean stylistic variations. Regarding the style of the canvases, Picasso told Kahnweiler on Janaury 25, 1955, "You never know how your work will turn out. You start a picture and it becomes something quite different." Kahnweiler also recalls that at the end of January, "Picasso had been telling me that he always thought about the following day's picture in the Femmes d'Alger series and wondered what it would be like. He repeated: 'You see, it's not time regained, but time for discovery'" (quoted in ed. M. McCully, op. cit., pp. 252-253). Penrose recalls that in February, with respect to the series, Picasso "told me that he himself never knew what was coming next, nor did he try to interpret what he had done" (R. Penrose, op. cit., p. 396). The Femmes d'Alger pictures are a perfect illustration of what Picasso meant when he said:
I never do a painting as a work of art. All of them are researches. I search constantly. It's an experiment in time. (Quoted in L. Steinberg, op. cit., p. 149)
Picasso began his researches on the afternoon of December 13 with two canvases, A (Zervos, vol. 16, no. 342; Private Collection) and B (fig. 8). Leo Steinberg has written of them:
In these two paintings...Picasso's intent oscillates between the professional and the erotic. Conventional sex symbols, forthright as a schoolboy's graffiti, become the material of sophisticated coordination. The artist moves from the evocation of female forms blown by desire, to the overall order within which all forms, anatomic and otherwise, serve to articulate surface tension; from the projection of women heaped and proffered like fruit, to stretching the field clear and taut for the charting of information. (Ibid., p. 127)
The next stage in the series was not a painting but a drawing (fig. 9), executed on December 21, 1954. Part of the interest of this sheet is the inclusion of Picasso's new mistress, Jacqueline Roque. Picasso was struck by the similarity between Jacqueline and the seated woman at the right in Delacroix's painting. Picasso told everyone about this similarity; Parmelin, for example, writes:
They [the women in Picasso's Les femmes d'Alger] were all to some extent Jacqueline (moreover it is Jacqueline who sits with one knee raised in Delacroix's canvas in the Louvre, and one once tell which of the two painters has cribbed from the other. (H. Parmelin, op. cit., p. 79)
The tribute to Picasso's new lover was to become most evident in the final canvas in the series, Version O: the woman at the left with the hookah unmistakeably bears Jacqueline's features.
Picasso painted the next two canvases in the series--C (Zervos, vol. 16, no. 345; Private Collection) and D (Zervos, vol. 16, no. 346; Private Collection)--on December 28, 1954 and January 1, 1955. In these works, Picasso introduces a major innovation, capsizing the seated female at the right and twisting her into a complex and convoluted pose. Picasso painted the following canvas--E (fig. 10)--on January 16, 1955; it is a work of enormous interest. Picasso makes the twisted odalisque figure the focus of the composition and tints her a deep vivid blue; in devising this figure, Picasso appears to have been thinking of Matisse's 1907 Nu bleu: Souvenir de Biskra (Tableau III) (fig. 11). Moreover, for the fundamental composition of the canvas, Picasso turned to Ingres's Odalisque avec esclave (fig 12). Picasso alludes as well to one additional masterpiece: the placement of the servant in the open doorway at the back recalls Velzquez's Las Meninas (fig. 13), a quotation that Picasso will develop more fully in the remainder of the works in the series. The following day Picasso reprised these elements in canvas F (Zervos, vol. 16, no. 348; Private Collection); and the day after that he did a separate study of the servant in canvas G (Zervos, vol. 16, no. 349; Private Collection). (It should also be noted that throughout the series Picasso turned to Czanne's L'aprs-midi Naples [avec servant noire], 1876-1877; Rewald, no. 291; Australian National Gallery, Canberra.)
Picasso painted Version H on January 24, 1955 (see Lot 35). It is the first of the big canvases in the series, and it is the earliest picture from the series remaining in the Ganz collection. It is a work rich with references to Matisse. The frontally posed woman with the hookah at the left alludes to works such as Odalisque aux bras levs (fig. 14), while the still-life in the lower left corner recalls Les citrons au plat d'tain (fig. 15). Moreover, as Susan Galassi has pointed out, "The quotation from Las Meninas now appears to be overlaid with reminiscences of the mysterious doors and windows and small bathing huts that appear in Picasso's art of the late twenties and early thirties" (S. Galassi, op. cit., 1996, p. 142). Galassi has also observed:
In color, Picasso breaks more definitively from the original, establishing his own course. Set against a pale blue ground, the smoker is represented in a bright red vest embellished with thick striations of yellow, and a white blouse decorated with strokes of creamy white. The servant is garbed in tones of an acidic green, while the sleeper has no color at all; her naked body is represented by the smooth white primer of the canvas. Thus, the sleeper is depicted at a different level of abstraction than the other two figures; the absence of color underlines her otherness. (Ibid., p. 142)
The canvas also contains a visual pun, so characteristic of Picasso. As Leo Steinberg has pointed out, the grilled ogive arch in the earlier versions (e.g. Version E, fig. 10) has now become a hat on the head of the lady with the hookah. Noteworthy too is the pose of the sleeper at the right: she is simultaneously prone and supine; Picasso explored this combination of views in versions H through M. In canvases I (Zervos, vol. 16, no. 353; Private Collection) and J (Zervos, vol. 16, no. 355; Private Collection), painted on January 25 and 26, Picasso restated and reworked the ideas expressed in H.
Picasso painted Version K on February 6, 1955; it is the second earliest picture from the series offered in the Ganz sale (see Lot 36). In this extraordinary work, Picasso has abandoned color and reverted to grisaille, adopting a linear and Cubist mode. The composition is built up almost entirely of triangles and circles, and yet it is highly active and complex. As Galassi has observed:
In keeping with the strong reductive impulse on a formal level that Picasso brings to this work, facial features disappear, and except for the servant's fringed scarf, all figures are nude. The sleeper, however, retains her independence from the other three figures and the surrounding space of the room through her lack of interior modeling... The open-ended experimentation with form, seen in the earlier canvases, is replaced here by an assertion of the artist's virtuosity as both draughtsman and painter. In a formal tour-de-force, he recreates his predecessor's work in an opposing structural system, in which line and chiaroscuro replace volume and color, and abstract form is substituted for representational. (Ibid., p. 143)
Kahnweiler visited Picasso the day after Version K was made and recalls discussing it with Picasso:
This one was entirely a matter of drawing, and for lack of a better word I would call it Cubist. I told Picasso how fine I thought it.
Picasso: "My feeling is that nobody will like it any more."
I said I was convinced that they would... Picasso went on: "Of course, collectors will always prefer pictures with plenty of paint on them... They have forgotten how to appreciate the quality of line that curves away as it meets another."
K: "You are quite right, but...is it necessary for collectors to understand this? What counts, it seems to me, is their love for a picture. If they like it, if it moves them, surely that is what matters."
P: "Anyway, it is by one's work that one is understood. We must work and keep on working." (Quoted in M. McCully, op. cit., pp. 253-254)
Version L (Zervos, vol. 16, no. 352; Private Collection), painted on February 9, 1955, is a grisaille study of the smoker at the left. Canvas M, painted two days later, is the next of the pictures in the Ganz sale (see Lot 34). Galassi has written about this painting:
The palette changes from the warm brown tones of K to a cooler range of gray, black and white, and the format of the canvas from almost square to a long rectangle. Making use of a vocabulary of predominantly circular and angular forms, this work has even greater formal cohesion and austerity than canvas K. The tension between the two systems of representation is pulled at an extreme in this diagrammatic work... The effect of transparency achieved here recalls aspects of the 1849 version of the harem, with its subtly nuanced, broken colors and atmospheric effects. The grisaille palette and painterly style of variation M also recall apsects of Las Meninas. The canvas was painted on the day that Picasso's estranged wife, Olga Koklova, died, and thus passed out of his harem. (S. Galassi, op. cit., 1996, p. 144)
The painting is also remarkable for its reference to Les demoiselles d'Avignon (fig. 3), which is evoked by the curtains at the sides.
On February 13, Picasso painted the penultimate version, canvas N (Zervos, vol. 16, no. 359; Washington University Gallery of Art, St. Louis), and the following day he made the culminant work in the series, Version O, which is offered here in the present sale (see lot 00). This painting unites all the themes of the series in one coherent whole. As Steinberg has stated, "Everything comes together in Canvas O...a synthesis on many levels" (L. Steinberg, op. cit., p. 223). Throughout the series, Picasso experimented with isolating the two primary components of painting--line and color--but here he balances and unifies them in one picture. On the one hand, Version O is Picasso's most painterly interpretation in the series. The palette is extremely vibrant, especially the deeply saturated reds and blues. Moreover, as Galassi has explained:
Picasso evokes his old rival not only in color, but in use of patterning: the stripes on the right recall his interiors of his Nice period and refer back ultimately to Matisse's inspiration in Delacroix's embellished surfaces. In taking his place alongside Matisse as a "triumphant colorist," Picasso retraces the journey of modern art back to Delacroix throughout the phases of Cubism, Fauvism, and Neo-Impressionism. The juxtaposition of highly saturated primary colors and textured surfaces recalls Signac's positioning of the Women of Algiers as the well-spring of future developments in the coloristic tradition. (S. Galassi, op. cit., 1996, p. 146)
But at the same time, the picture is Cubist and sculptural, a masterpiece of draughtsmanship. Version O is as much a recollection of Picasso's own revolutionary break in Les demoiselles d'Avignon as an elegiac tribute to Matisse. It embraces the major currents of modernism, and interprets Delacroix through a network of tangential references--Ingres (fig. 12), Velzquez (fig. 13), Czanne and Matisse (fig. 14).
Picasso imagined that the individual canvases in the series would pass to different collectors, but Kahnweiler, unbeknownst to Picasso, made it a condition of sale that one buyer purchase the entire group. Victor and Sally Ganz complied, acquiring the whole series in June 1956. Parmelin records the effect the news of the sale had on Picasso and his friends:
Picasso told us the evening before that Kahnweiler had telephoned him to tell him that one American had just bought all Les femmes d'Alger. It had a curious effect on everyone. The foolish women were going off, emigrating. What on earth would Les femmes d'Alger do abroad. The whole harem in one American's house. It was too many--canvases--for one man... We wagered he would not keep the lot. (H. Parmelin, op. cit., p. 79)
They were right. Victor and Sally Ganz, unable to afford to keep all fifteen pictures, immediately sold ten to the Saidenberg Gallery, keeping Versions C, H, K, M and O. Version C was sold in 1988 following the death of Victor Ganz.
(fig. 1) Eugne Delacroix, Les femmes d'Alger, 1834
Muse du Louvre, Paris
(fig. 2) Eugne Delacroix, Les femmes d'Alger, 1849
Muse Fabre, Montpelier
(fig. 3) Pablo Picasso, Les demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
(fig. 4) Pablo Picasso, drawing from a sketchbook after Les femmes d'Alger, 1949
Muse Picasso, Paris
(fig. 5) Pablo Picasso, Portrait de Delacroix, 1954
Muse Picasso, Paris
(fig. 6) Eugne Delacroix, Auto-portrait au gilet vert, 1837
Muse du Louvre, Paris
(fig. 7) Pablo Picasso, Auto-portrait, 1899
(fig. 8) Pablo Picasso, Les femmes d'Alger (Version B), 1954 Private Collection
(fig. 9) Pablo Picasso, Dessin, Les femmes d'Alger, 1955
(fig. 10) Pablo Picasso, Les femmes d'Alger (Version E), 1955
Museum of Modern Art, San Francisco Gift of Wilbur D. May
(fig. 11) Henri Matisse, Nu bleu: Souvenir de Biskra (Tableau III), 1907
Museum of Art, Baltimore The Cone Collection, formed by Dr. Claribel Cone and Miss Etna Cone of Baltimore, Maryland
(fig. 12) Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, Odalisque avec esclave, 1840
Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts
(fig. 13) Diego Velzquez, Las Meninas, 1656
Museo del Prado, Madrid
(fig. 14) Henri Matisse, Odalisque aux bras levs, 1923
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Chester Dale Collection
(fig. 15) Henri Matisse, Les citrons au plat d'tain, 1926
Private Collection (Christie's, New York, April 30, 1996)