Painted in 1922 at the apex of Picasso's neoclassical period, Deux femmes et enfant exemplifies in masterfully distilled form the wealth of pictorial and thematic possibilities that Picasso quarried from the art of the past in the years following the First World War. With its creative and highly personal synthesis of various classicizing strands in the history of art (Greek and Roman prototypes: the Italian cinquecento; the French tradition of Poussin, Ingres, Puvis de Chavannes, and Renoir), the present painting forms part of Picasso's ongoing attempt to define his own position among ancient and modern masters as well as his broader meditation upon the endurance of culture in the postwar period.
A lyrical and evocative rendering of idealized figures with the suggestion of ancient dress in seated figure's garland, the painting also demonstrates Picasso's genius for transforming and transcending the constraints of portraiture and historical synthesis in order to engage larger themes. Summarizing Picasso's achievement in works like Deux femmes et enfant, Michael FitzGerald has written:
"Among the many phases of Picasso's work, neoclassicism is perhaps the most controversial, because its stylistic eclecticism and widespread popularity have led some writers to criticize it as a reactionary departure from modernism. When placed in the context of cultural developments during World War I, however, Picasso's neoclassicism is better understood as a renewal of the avant-garde. By explicitly embracing history, Picasso escaped the strictures of an increasingly rigid modernism to define a more vital alternative. He repudiated the convention of modernism's ahistoricism in order to acknowledge its maturity, as well as his own, and rejuvenate the avant-garde by immersing it in the rich humanistic traditions that many Cubist artists and theorists denied in a search for formal purity" (M.C. FitzGerald, "The Modernists' Dilemma: Neoclassicism and the Portrayal of Olga Khoklova" in W. Rubin, ed., Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996, p. 297).
In February 1921, Olga bore Picasso a son, Paulo, and for the next few years, the theme of motherhood and childhood was featured in many of Picasso's major paintings. Initially, the theme was inextricable from the monumental neo-classical figures when he had been painting since his trip to Rome. The tenderness and plentitude that were part and parcel of these gigantic mothers and their equally massive offspring lingered on in the paintings of 1922 and 1923, though the style in which they were presented shifts towards something far more lyrical and delicate, almost ethereal.
Picasso is mainly interested in the reality of the life that goes on round him, [and] the major theme that he developed at his time and which... he had neglected since the Blue period, was that of "mother and child." There are number of variations of paintings of a mother playing with her naked infant on her knees, in which the neo-classical figures and colossal females of the previous months reveal a new look of contentment, a sense of fulfillment. (R. Penrose, Picasso: His Life and Work, p. 220).
[Around 1922, Picasso] virtually abandoned his colossal classical nudes for a style more in keeping with the grace and elegance of traditional neo-classicism. Defying the chronic modern prejudice against prettiness and sentiment he made a series of sweet figures of women in classic draperies (figs. 1-2), mother handling babies, a pair of ineffable lovers, harlequins [thus] asserting his ability to breathe new life and charm into so exhausted a style as the neo-classical. (A.H. Barr, Jr., Picasso: Fifty Years of His Art, New York, 1966, p. 128).
The present picture was most likely painted in Paris, immediately following the summer of 1922 spent at Dinard, a fashionable resort area on the Brittany coast where Picasso, his wife Olga Khokhlova and their young son Paulo had journeyed. The sojourn at Dinard was enormously fruitful for Picasso. Between June and September, he executed more than sixty oil paintings and nearly two hundred drawings, ranging from tender portraits of his wife and son to landscape sketches and Cubist-inspired still-lifes. Yet arguably the strongest and most characteristic group of pictures that Picasso made at Dinard is a series of classicizing female figures, at once fluid and monumental, ethereal and eternal. The Dinard women, whether draped or nude, have the sculptural solidity and idealized features of antique statuary; their coiffure, parted in the middle and gently waved, is that of Hellenic goddesses, while their crisp brows and heavy lids look as though they were carved from stone. In contrast, however, to the massive, ossified matrons of Trois Femmes à la fontaine (fig. 3), Picasso's masterpiece of the previous summer, the Dinard figures are gracious and elusive, imbued with both physical and psychological vitality. Like sculptures come to quiet, contemplative life, they are both the archetypal incarnation of woman and a living symbol of art and artistic tradition.
Indeed the sources for the Dinard women, as for Picasso's Neo-Classicism generally, are extraordinarily rich and varied. In 1917, during a trip to Rome to design stage-sets for Diaghilev's Parade, Picasso made excursions to see the ruins of ancient Pompeii (fig. 4), the archaeological collections in Naples and the work of Raphael and his contemporaries in Florence. The dancer and choreographer Léonce Massine, who accompanied Picasso to Pompeii, later recalled the artist's exhilaration at the site, "Picasso was thrilled by the majestic ruins, and climbed endlessly over broken columns to stand staring at fragments of Roman statuary" (quoted in A. Baldassari, "Pompeian Fantasy: A Photographic Source of Picasso's neoclassicism" in J. Calir, ed., Picasso, 1917-1924: The Italian Journey, exh. cat., Palazzo Grassi, Venice, 1998, pp. 79-80).
Picasso also had the opportunity to study ancient fresco painting during his stay in Italy. A photograph taken by Jean Cocteau amid the ruins of Pompeii shows Picasso pointing to a painting of Bacchus and Silenus (fig. 5), and the Musée Picasso in Paris houses several postcards of Pompeian frescos that the artist purchased in Naples. The well-rounded proportions, clinging drapery, waved coiffure, and distinctive facial canon of the Dinard women find clear parallels in the Pompeian images (fig. 6), while the heightened lyricism of the 1922 suite may suggest a debt to the supple touch of ancient fresco (fig. 7). Closer at hand, the Louvre offered the example of Poussin, Ingres, and Puvis de Chavannes; while at the Galerie Paul Rosenberg where Picasso began to exhibit in 1919, the classicizing nudes of Renoir took center stage.
In their rich amalgamation of historical sources, the paintings of later 1922 surpass any conventional definition of portraiture, despite the resemblance of works like the present one to Picasso's wife Olga. To be sure, it was the figure of Olga that had inspired Picasso in 1917 to make his first oil paintings in the Neo-Classical mode, and her image continued to permeate his unique brand of classicism for the next six years: so inextricable was Olga to Picasso's life and work at Dinard that he inscribed the inside cover of one of his Dinard sketchbooks "Dinard/Olga." In paintings like Deux femmes et enfant, however, the image of Olga is idealized and ennobled, meditated through the lens of history (just as in the Rose Period, Fernande Olivier had been recreated in a panoply of guises culled from antiquity through the nineteenth century).
As Robert Rosenblum has explained, "Predictably, Picasso's backward evolution to the pure and vigorous origins of classical art has a more personal inflection than that of his contemporaries: and his familiar quotations from ideal beauty are imbued with a quivering physical and psychological life that reflects his mysterious, Pygmalion-like power as their creator" (R. Rosenblum, "Picasso in Gósol: The Calm Before the Storm" in M. McCully, ed., Picasso: The Early Years, 1892-1906, exh. cat., National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., 1997, p. 270).
In addition to looking backward for inspiration in pictures like Deux femmes et enfant, Picasso may also have had in mind a more immediate source: the repertory of classicizing female deities who represented the French nation in popular patriotic imagery during the wartime and postwar years. Although Picasso's classical maidens are far too generalized to function as explicit allegories, they nonetheless offer an evocative counterpoint to the ubiquitous Victories, Glories, and Parties of the popular press. As Kenneth Silver proposed: "Just as the French nation during the war turned to l'histoire--in its dual aspect of history and 'story' or myth-for moral support--so Picasso creates a mythic Antique world that nonetheless has the weight and reassuring gravity of truth...These mythical women had watched over France in her darkest hour and were also symbolic of her triumph in 1918... [Their] task...was nothing less than the guardianship of the French nation and...the protection and defense of a far more ancient culture. They are at once the symbols for and the protectors of Western civilization in perpetuity..." (K.E. Silver, Esprit de Corps: The Art of the Parisian Avant-Garde and the First World War, 1914-1925, Princeton, 1989, pp. 278 ,283, 287).
In 1963, the renowned dealer Justin K. Thannhauser, the second owner of Deux femmes et enfant, bequeathed 73 works of art from his private collection to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Works by Picasso comprised almost half of the bequest. Thannhauser was a lifelong friend and admirer of the artist; his father, Heinrich, gave Picasso his first major retrospective exhibition at the Galerie Thannhuser, Munich in 1913. The present work was sold by Thannhauser to the Newark Museum in 1954, and remained in the Museum's collection until 2000, when the present owner acquired the work.
Pablo Picasso holding Paulo, 1921. BARCODE: picassoholdingpaulo_1921
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, Mère et enfant, 1922. Private collection. Barcode: picasso_mereetenfant_1922
(fig. 2) Pablo Picasso, Femme au voile, 1922. Musée Picasso, Paris. Barcode : picasso_femmeauvoile
(fig. 3) Pablo Picasso, Trois Femmes à la fontaine, 1921. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. BARCODE: picasso_3womenat_spring_1921
(fig. 4) Pablo Picasso (center) with Léonide Massine in the ruins of Pompeii, 1917. BARCODE: picasso_pompei_with_friend
(fig. 5) Picasso pointing to a painting of Bacchus and Silenus, photography by Jean Cocteau. BARCODE: picasso_pompei_001
(fig. 6) Youth Playing Pan-Pipes, mid-1st Century BC. Detail from fresco cycle in "Villa Mysteries," Pompeii. BARCODE: youthplayingp...es_mid1stcent
(fig. 7) Attic, Steele, 4th Century BC. National Archaeology Museum, Athens. BARCODE: atticstele_4thcent