In late September 1920 Picasso and his wife Olga returned to Paris from their summer-long holiday in Juan-les-Pins on the Côte d'Azur. It had been a productive vacation for Picasso, and judging from the many photographs Picasso took, the couple appears to have enjoyed each other's company. Olga was pregnant. Among the canvases that Picasso painted in Juan-les-Pins are two portraits of Olga reading in an armchair, with her right hand raised pensively to her cheek (Zervos, vol. 4, no. 180; Musée national d'art moderne, Paris; and no. 183; Musée de Peinture et de Sculpture, Grenoble).
In November Picasso painted two canvases of a seated robed woman in which he reprised the hand-to-cheek gesture, enlarging her extremities to enormous size: the first is a small preliminary study (Palau i Fabre, vol. III, no. 907) and the second the large final version (Zervos, vol. 4, no. 179; fig. 1). The present drawing is one of three strongly rendered and compellingly introspective studies that the artist executed in conjunction with these paintings (the others are Palau i Fabre III, no. 897; and Zervos, vol. 30, no. 12; The Museum of Modern Art, New York). Palau believed that Olga was the model for this series.
This sitter's features, however, most clearly seen in a half-length seated portrait done in charcoal on canvas (Zervos, vol. 30, no, 126), are noticeably different from those Picasso normally accorded Olga. The young woman here in the drawings and paintings is invitingly sensual, possessing large glaring eyes, a prominent nose, and full lips. She also appears nude in several other drawings of this period, and probably posed for both unclothed figures in Deux Baigneuses assises (Zervos, vol. 4, no. 217; The Chrysler Museum of Art, Norfolk). Olga, proper as she was, would never pose nude for fear of being recognized when such works were exhibited. Moreover, she was in November six months pregnant. Richardson has a plausible explanation: "[Picasso] usually claimed never to have needed models. This was not entirely true: portraits were done mostly from life; and some drawings (November 1920) of a woman, clothed and unclothed, seated in Picasso's favorite studio chair, were evidently done from a model--someone who is clearly not Olga. Remember, too, that some of his images of the women in his life are a mélange--a mélange, he told me, of as many as three or four different women. Picasso was also a master at flouting physiognomical facts and would have relished using a corpulent colossus to stand for his skinny, fine-featured wife" (A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932, New York, 2007, p. 158).
Richardson has cited two sources for the mysterious splayed-finger, hand-to-cheek pose: Ingres's Madame Moitessier, 1856 (The National Gallery, London), and the famous Roman fresco from Herculaneum, The Recognition of Telephus by Hercules, which Picasso viewed in the Museo Nazionale in Naples during his trip to Italy in 1917. Most remarkable of all, of course, is the size to which Picasso inflated the hands and feet of his model, a pictorial ploy to which he often resorted in his classical pictures. He studied the ways in which classical sculptors subtly distorted proportions to monumentalize their figures--as Richardson has observed, "By using these devices against themselves to parodic effect, Picasso subverted the sacrosanct canons of classical beauty" (Picasso: The Classical Period, exh. cat., C&M Arts, New York, 2003, p. 15). Another motivation is tinged with personal psychology, as Picasso later revealed to Françoise Gilot: "When I was a child, I often had a dream that used to frighten me greatly. I dreamed that my legs and arms grew to an enormous size and then shrank back just as much in the other direction. And all around me, in my dream, I saw other people going through the same transformations, getting huge or very tiny. I felt terribly anguished every time I dreamed about that." Mme Gilot wrote: "When he told me that I understood the origin of those many paintings and drawings he did in the early 1920s... They had started through the recollection of those dreams and been carried on as means of breaking the monotony of classical body forms" (Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, p. 119).
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, Femme assise, Paris, autumn 1920. Musée Picasso, Paris.
Barcode: 2724 9994