PABLO PICASSO (1881 - 1973)
PABLO PICASSO (1881 - 1973)

Nu couché à la libellule

PABLO PICASSO (1881 - 1973)
Nu couché à la libellule
signed, dated and numbered 'Picasso 9.10.68. II’ (upper left); dated and numbered '9.10.68. II' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
97 x 162 cm. (38 1/8 x 63 3/4 in.)
Painted on 9 October 1968
Galerie Louise Leiris [Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler], Paris.
Private collection, Switzerland.
Van de Weghe, New York.
Acquired from the above by the present owner.
C. Zervos, Pablo Picasso, vol. 27, Oeuvres de 1967 à 1968 , Paris, 1973, no. 334, n.p. (illustrated p. 128).
Exh. cat., U. Weisner, ed., Picasso, Letzte Bilder: Werke 1966-1972, Kunsthalle, Bielefeld, 1994, no. 6a, p. 292 (illustrated).

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Lot Essay

Painted in 1968, Pablo Picasso’s Nu couché à la libellule is a monumental work inspired by his final great love and muse: Jacqueline Roque. Rendered with fluid, expressive brushwork in a rich, luminous palette, her form blooms across the canvas in near-life-size proportions, a dragonfly poised miraculously upon her outstretched palm. The tiny winged creature, rare within Picasso’s oeuvre, joins hands with one of his most enduring subjects: the reclining female nude. Painted on October 9, the work takes its place within a remarkable sequence of canvases completed over the course of several days, following on from Nu couché (October 7, Museum Frieda Burda, Baden-Baden) and Femme nue au collier (October 8, Tate Modern, London). It is an image of joyful liberation and exquisite natural harmony: sparkling light dances across Jacqueline’s face, hair and body, while the dragonfly—delicately wrought—quivers as if on the brink of flight. Alive with sensuous texture and color, it is a testament to the lyricism, freedom and creative renewal that defined one of Picasso’s most extraordinary periods, characterized by his biographer John Richardson as “l’époque Jacqueline.” “It is Jacqueline's image that permeates Picasso's work from 1954 until his death, twice as long as any of her predecessors,” he wrote. “It is her body that we are able to explore more exhaustively and more intimately than any other body in the history of art” (Late Picasso, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1988, p. 47).

Picasso and Jacqueline had first met in the summer of 1952 at the Madoura pottery studio, where the artist produced his now famous ceramic oeuvre. Jacqueline was working there as a sales assistant, and by 1954 their friendship had blossomed into a romance. They married in a small ceremony in 1961, and that year took up residence at Notre-Dame-de-Vie: a sumptuous eighteenth-century farmhouse in Mougins, overlooking the Bay of Cannes, where they would remain until Picasso’s death. During these years, Jacqueline became a vital source of support, comfort and inspiration to the artist, featuring more prominently in his oeuvre than any other muse. With her raven hair, dark eyes and distinctive profile, her presence fanned the flame of ambition and experimentation that characterized his final two decades. As the artist’s friend Hélène Parmelin wrote in 1966, “she peoples Notre-Dame-de-Vie with a hundred thousand possibilities. She unfolds to infinity … She takes the place of all the models of all the painters on all the canvases … During these twelve years of Picasso’s life, painting and love have mated and mingled” (Picasso Says…, London, 1966, p. 68). In Nu couché à la libellule, the sheer scale of Jacqueline’s form bears witness to this statement: charged with an almost electric vitality, her figure consumes the picture plane to its very edges.

The reclining female nude was a subject that absorbed Picasso almost more than any other. With deep art-historical roots stretching from Velázquez and Titian through to Courbet and Manet, it became a site of intense pictorial enquiry: a constant within an oeuvre defined by continual transitions in style, medium and muse. The subject took on new significance for Picasso in the latter part of his career, at which time he began to look back at both his own practice and the works of his predecessors. The Old Masters offered a rich source of inspiration to him during this period: Nu couché à la libellule invites particular comparison with works such as Titian’s The Venus of Urbino, 1534 (Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence) and Ingres’ Grande Odalisque, 1814 (Musée du Louvre, Paris), both of which feature a reclining female nude clasping an object in her hand. In the early throes of Picasso’s romance with Jacqueline, he had been entranced by her resemblance to the odalisque crouching in the lower right-hand corner of Eugène Delacroix’s Femmes dAlger dans leur appartement, 1834 (Musée du Louvre, Paris), giving rise to the ground-breaking series that included his 1955 masterpiece Les femmes dAlger (Version O). Jacqueline’s image would subsequently fuel Picasso’s exploration of Henri Matisse’s odalisques, which he believed the artist had left to him as a legacy after his death in 1954. The present painting may certainly be seen within this context, reminiscent of works such as Matisse’s Reclining Odalisque, 1926 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).

Nu couché à la libellule also bears witness to Picasso’s engagement with art forms beyond the Western canon. The angularity of Jacqueline’s face harks back to the artist’s early fascination with traditional African masks, art and objects, his study of which contributed towards an aesthetic transition most famously expressed in his 1907 masterpiece Les Demoiselles dAvignon (Museum of Modern Art, New York). From another cultural perspective, Nu couché à la libellule gestures towards Picasso’s dialogue with Chinese art: most notably the work of the painter Zhang Daqian, whom he met at his home in Cannes in 1956. Picasso’s use of white canvas ground appearing from underneath, in particular, seems to invoke Zhang’s landscapes and the concept of liu bai (empty space), where blank passages are cleverly manipulated to suggest mountain ranges and other natural topographies. In such works, the sections of pale ground emit a positive energy that counterbalances the darkness of the intervening forms, evoking a sense of nature’s own emotive rhythm and alluding to a higher aesthetic order. The present painting’s serene, lyrical harmony might be understood in these terms: Jacqueline’s form becomes a kind of landscape in its own right, thrown into relief against the surrounding terrain.

If the female nude was a lifelong obsession for Picasso, the dragonfly was a much more elusive motif: a notable appearance is in his 1942 set of illustrations for the Comte de Buffon’s Histoire Naturelle, an example of which is held in the Museum of Modern Art, New York. The artist was deeply fond of animals—from his pet goat Esmerelda, to the dogs in his life, Lump and Kaboul—and forged a veritable menagerie through both his painterly and ceramic practices. Picasso, in his retrospective mindset, may well have called to mind earlier depictions of the dragonfly: Albrecht Dürer’s Holy Family with Dragonfly, circa 1495 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), for example, or the pantheon of Dutch Golden Age still-lifes. Parallels might also be drawn with other great nudes featuring winged creatures: from the cherub in Velázquez’s ‘Rokeby Venus’, 1647-51 (National Gallery, London), to the butterfly in Francois Gerard’s Psyche and Cupid, 1798 (Musée du Louvre, Paris), to the spectral white forms that flutter above the sleeping figure in Gauguin’s Manaò tupapaú, 1892 (Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo)a work, incidentally, that also formed one of Picassos earliest inspirations for the reclining female nude. The dragonfly equally recalls the artists own frequent depictions of the dove: notably Nu couché à loiseau (Museum Ludwig, Cologne), also painted in 1968, in which the bird similarly rests on Jacqueline’s hand. Though Picasso was known to refute symbolic readings of his works, the insect’s connotations of rebirth, transformation and lightness of spirit certainly resonate with the present painting’s sense of vitality and liberation.

Such associations also speak directly to Picasso’s own creative stance during this period. Described by John Richardson as his “Great Late Phase”, the last seven years of his life are widely considered to represent a period of renewed inspiration in his oeuvre. Beneath the glare of Abstract Expressionism, Picasso worked with increased spontaneity and gestural freedom, adopting an loose, abbreviated style of painting often described as écriture-peinture. Nu couché à la libellule prompts comparison with the brushwork of Willem de Kooning, who had painted his monumental series of Women during the previous decade. At the same time, the work offers a hint of Picasso’s impact upon his younger followers: its searing palette and raw textures harbor the seeds of Neo-Expressionism, foreshadowing a world that would later be dominated by the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat and Martin Kippenberger. One of Picasso’s most avid disciples—Francis Bacon—would also draw great inspiration from his later renderings of the reclining female nude, as evidenced in his paintings of Henrietta Moraes produced during the same period. In this regard, for all its nods to the past, Nu couché à la libellule may be said to look forwards, capturing the moment at which Picasso’s influence began to take flight among the post-war generation.

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