La liseuse is a large, highly-finished and richly-coloured picture by Pablo Picasso, executed in 1921 in a densely-worked combination of oil-pastels and soft-pastel. The female figure has a statuesque quality that is accentuated by the composition, which allows her to dominate the expanse of the sheet. There is a stillness, an atmosphere of intense contemplation, that is perfectly suited to the subject of a woman reading and which fills La liseuse with an absorbing, poetic timelessness that perfectly encapsulates Picasso's Neoclassical period. Picasso's Neoclassical works have often been referred to as Ingresque; certainly, Picasso had been intrigued by the French master, and would return to his oeuvre again and again throughout his lifetime in a variety of homages. La liseuse in fact appears to relate to a sequence of works from 1920 in which Picasso had been looking at Ingres' portrait of Madame Moitessier of 1856, now in the National Gallery, London. In July 1920, Picasso had drawn a sequence of intimate images of his wife, the ballerina Olga Khokhlova, seated and often reading. He had taken these as a springboard for several larger explorations of the theme, for instance La liseuse, now in the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, and Femme lisant in the Musée de Grenoble, both oils of the same year; the latter was the first picture that Picasso donated to a public collection, a mark of his esteem for the subject. In La liseuse of 1921, Picasso appears to have almost closed in even further on a similar composition: in this and the Grenoble work, he has deliberately tightened the focus on the hands which were such an important part of Ingres' work.
It was reported that Picasso's reverence for Ingres was so extreme that a visitor once found him looking at the mirror, addressing himself as, 'Monsieur Ingres' (P. Schneider, Matisse, London, 1984, p. 502).
References to Ingres have been detected in Picasso's work during many periods, from the proto-Cubist pictures leading up to the Demoiselles d'Avignon, to the Odalisques who recurred throughout his oeuvre, especially during the years after the Second World War. But it was during the height of his relationship with Olga, leading up to their marriage and lasting well into it, that Picasso would most overtly pay homage to the French master and explore a similar zone of classicism through the depiction of essentially sculptural form in his paintings to that which Ingres espoused. Both artists had been struck by the classical art of Italy, of the Romans. Indeed, Picasso had stayed in Rome only a few years previously, at the tale-end of the First World War, while he was working with Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and courting Olga.
Olga was the perfect Muse and subject for Picasso's Neoclassical pictures, as can be seen in both the photo-realist portraits of her that he created and the more monumental, stylised works such as La liseuse. Her features lent themselves to these two very different Ingresque styles, and Picasso was also doubtless influenced by the prima ballerina's poise and elegance, by her physical presence. The relative tranquillity of married life seems to have prompted some of Picasso's intimate depictions of Olga seated, often reading, as here, and this was increased by the birth at the beginning of 1921 of their son Paolo. Picasso was now a father, and this change in his domestic circumstances appears likewise to have influenced his subject matter, in part because he was more constantly in the company of Olga and his son and in part because he was celebrating his family. At the same time, as is clear in La liseuse and many of Picasso's other pictures of women from the early 1920s, he was using Olga as a vehicle for his pictorial experimentation, rather than creating mere portraits. In this sense, she was a true Muse.
Olga's character, and in particular her conservatism, may have played a part in steering Picasso away from the more overt and, to much of the wider public, opaque avant-garde stylisation of the Cubism he had formerly developed. Picasso's move towards Neoclassicism should also be seen against the wider backdrop of the Rappel à l'ordre that was embraced by many significant figures across the art world in the wake of the chaos of the First World War. Like his fellow Cubist pioneer Georges Braque, Picasso used the impetus of the Return to Order to invoke classicism and timelessness, yet turned it to his own advantage, continuing to pioneer new ways of seeing and representing the world in a manner that was clearer than Cubism, yet which in fact could be seen to be tackling similar issues with intriguing new results.
Looking at La liseuse, especially in light of the comparison with Ingres' portrait of Madame Moitessier, one cannot help but see that Picasso was being irreverent and playful with the older artist's legacy, as John Richardson pointed out regarding the Grenoble painting. Certainly, Picasso was annoyed at being stuck with the 'Ingresque' label. In a letter written in March 1921, Roger Fry wrote that the art critic Clive Bell had made a gaffe in invoking Ingres in conversation with Picasso:
'... he said something about Ingres. It's merely what everyone does when they see some of Picasso's later work. Fortunately I didn't; on the contrary. I murmured something about Fra Bartolomeo, and, in fact, that is nearer the mark. It's curious how near all his late work is in its aim to the things Fra Bartolomeo and Raphael worked out. (Plastic balance within a strictly limited space.)' (J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years 1917-1932, London, 2007, p. 168).
Picasso himself would complain to Richardson about this phenomenon: 'As if Ingres were the only artist I ever looked at in the Louvre' (ibid., p. 168). In fact, there were a range of other influences and inspirations, all of which were synthesised in Picasso's Neoclassical works. Looking at the monumental character of La liseuse, it is clear that it is not Ingresque in any simple way, but instead, as Fry had said, explores 'Plastic balance within a strictly limited space.' Indeed, in this work, he has deliberately limited the space all the more, as though cropping those earlier 1920 images in order to accentuate the sense of volume of the woman and her hands. A strong reference is certainly represented by the powerful images of archaic Greece: the compressed energy of the kouroi, the monumental grace of the korai, were indeed exerting a very potent fascination during Picasso's explorations of the Louvre. As Pierre Daix explained of Picasso's works of this period:
'He had reached in his painting a point of comprehension. He understood what there was in common between Poussin, Ingres, and Cézanne and the quest conducted by Braque and himself during Cubism's grand phases of discovery: the perfect rigour and order of compositions which carry the power of painting to their peak of purity and strength' (Daix, quoted in M.C. Fitzgerald, 'The Modernists' Dilemma: Neoclassicism and the Portrayal of Olga Khokhlova', pp. 297-335, W. Rubin (ed.), Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation, London, 1996, p. 314).
As well as Poussin and Cézanne, Picasso was looking to a range of other influences. The recent death of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, for example, had resulted in a great deal of exposure of the Impressionist's works, not least from the late period. Picasso himself would come to acquire several of these for his own personal collection. Picasso was also looking further to the past, to the frescoes from Herculaneum which he had visited only a few years earlier (and which had also informed Ingres' portrait of Madame Moitessier), to ancient sculpture and to the Mannerists. Picasso's interest in Mannerism was whetted all the more during the Summer of 1921 when he stayed in Fontainebleau: during his time there, there was an exhibition of works by the sixteenth-century School of Fontainebleau, and this fascinated Picasso, encouraging his interest in allegorical subjects and in the presentation of stylised, sculptural figures such as La liseuse.
La liseuse was formerly in the collection of Marie Cuttoli. The wife of Paul Cuttoli, a Radical Socialist member of the French Senate representing Algiers, Mme Cuttoli opened a gallery in Paris where she sold carpets made in Algeria, having essentially revived the industry. She then turned to tapestry, and commissioned a range of prominent artists of the day to create designs for her. This included Braque, Le Corbusier, Fernand Léger, Henri Matisse and Picasso himself; indeed, his famous torso-less collaged Minotaure in the Musée National d'Art Moderne in Paris was created for this purpose.
Now that she was in their orbit, she set about acquiring their works, resulting in her friendship with Picasso and several of the other artists and in a formidable collection that featured a range of masterpieces, many of which decorated her duplex apartment at 55, rue de Babylone, which was later acquired by the designer Yves Saint Laurent and his partner Pierre Bergé, whose collection Christie's sold last year. Many of the works from Mme Cuttoli's collection, including twenty-four by Picasso, were donated to the Musée National d'Art Moderne in 1969 in a gift bearing her name and that of her companion, the renowned physicist Henri Laugier. As well as being a man of science and a respected political thinker, Laugier was, like Mme Cuttoli, a great lover of art, and managed to combine these interests when he commissioned Raoul Dufy to paint the mural sequence La fée électricité for the 1937 International Exhibition. He shared with Cuttoli a deep friendship with Picasso, Léger, Calder, and supported her in the creation of one of the most remarkable Parisian collections of their time.