The seated woman with long swept back hair whom Picasso has portrayed in Femme dans l'atelier is his lover Jacqueline Roque. He painted this canvas on 3 April 1956, less than two years into their relationship. Jacqueline gazes upon a painting mounted on an easel--a painting within a painting--which shows the interior of Picasso's studio at La Californie, the villa they shared overlooking Cannes and the Mediterranean. The inner picture is similar to studio paintings the artist had completed during the previous several days, on 30 March, 1 and 2 April (Zervos, vols. 17, nos. 56-59; no. 57, fig. 1). Picasso later told Roland Penrose that he began this sequence on Easter Sunday, when torrential rains had prevented him from attending a bullfight (Picasso: Life and Work, Berkeley, 1981, p. 404).
Picasso purchased La Californie, a large villa built at the turn of the century, which features numerous art nouveau details in its décor, during the summer of 1955. It was the first property that the artist acquired for himself in the south. He had been living since the summer of 1948 in La Galloise, the house in Vallauris that he had purchased for Françoise Gilot, his previous partner. Their relationship had ended during the summer of 1953, and while legal title to the property remained hers, Picasso continued to reside in La Galloise after Françoise moved back to Paris with their two children, Claude and Paloma. However, Picasso did not like living alone among the reminders of happier times, and moreover La Galloise was too small to accommodate his burgeoning output and the many works he needed to move from his old studio and various storage spaces in Paris. But most importantly, a new home in the Midi was needed to mark the momentous occasion of a new woman entering his life. La Californie fit the bill; its location had the advantage being close to Picasso's potters in Vallauris, with whom he often worked on a daily basis. There was plenty of room for living and work spaces, and the house was adequately secluded, now an all-important concern for Picasso--the artist required an increasing degree of privacy as his fame attracted growing numbers of admirers and favor-seekers who threatened to disrupt his rigorous daily work routine.
Soon after moving into La Californie during the early fall of 1955, Picasso set up his studio in the spacious high-ceiling room on the second floor above the entrance. The light-filled interior, with a southern exposure, opened out through a set of art nouveau French doors on to a balcony with a wrought-iron railing. There was a garden below, centered around several tall palm trees. Picasso proceeded to claim this new space as his own by painting it. On 23 October 1955, two days before his 74th birthday, the artist painted the first of twelve canvases in an initial atelier series, which he completed by the end of the month (Zervos, vol. 16, nos. 486-497; no. 492; fig 2). Marie-Laure Bernadac has observed that "He quickly responded to the stimulus of the place in a series of what he called Paysages d'intérieur: interior landscapes. For Picasso, his studio is a self-portrait in itself. Sensitive to its ritual, its secret poetry, he marks with his presence the environment and the objects in it, and makes his territory into his own 'second skin'" (in Late Picasso, exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, London, 1988, p. 58).
This first series of atelier paintings constitute a further statement in the ongoing dialogue that Picasso had kept up with the memory of his old friend and rival, Henri Matisse, who died in Nice on 3 November 1954. Picasso had first painted a posthumous homage to Matisse in his celebrated series of Femmes d'Alger, fifteen canvases in all, done in late 1954 and early 1955 (Zervos, vol. 16, nos. 342-343, 345-349, 352-357, and 359-360). The subject was based on Delacroix's painting of the same title in the Louvre, which had also inspired Matisse's odalisques. "When Matisse died," Picasso told Penrose, "he left his odalisques to me as a legacy" (quoted in op. cit., p. 396). Picasso's atelier paintings also make reference to Matisse, in this instance to the series of Vence interiors that the latter artist executed in 1946-1948 (fig. 3), the last major group of canvases that he painted before turning almost exclusively to paper cut-outs and drawing. Picasso may have viewed some of these paintings in Matisse's studio while they were still in progress, and he saw a group of them in a private preview of the exhibition of Matisse's work at the Musée national d'Art moderne in Paris, organized to honor the artist's eightieth birthday, which opened on 9 June 1949. In his own atelier pictures, Picasso "appears to be attempting to create an environment, a spirit to which Matisse would have responded," John Golding has written, "and this gives these pictures an elegiac cast that is rare in Picasso's work. The windows, the palm trees and foliage beyond, read like Matissean quotes" (in Matisse Picasso, exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, London, 2002, p. 299).
Jacqueline, viewed in right-side profile and seated in a favorite rocking chair, appears in eight of the second group of atelier paintings done the during the spring of 1956, which number twelve in all, including the present work. There is a definite allusion in the compositions that include her presence to another nineteenth century master, a contemporary of Delacroix: Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, specifically his late series of six atelier paintings done in 1865-1872 (e.g., Robaut no. 1561; fig. 4). Picasso had been an admirer of Corot's figure paintings since his early cubist period, when he and Braque together viewed the twenty-four paintings included in Figures de Corot, a special exhibition in 1909 Salon d'Automne. Corot had been an important influence on the development of Picasso's neo-classical figure style during the late 'teens and early 1920s. When visiting Italy with Picasso in 1917, in conjunction with preparations for the ballet Parade, Jean Cocteau wrote home of his friend's interest in Corot, who had spent an invaluable, early formative period in Italy: "Long live Corot!... Picasso speaks only of this master" (quoted in E. Cowling, Picasso, Style and Meaning, London, 2002, p. 309).
At the center of the studio painting on the easel on the right side of the present Femme dans l'atelier there is yet another canvas set on an easel, a tabula rasa, unpainted and blank. Standing on a pedestal table nearby is the distinctive lozenge and ball shape of the sculpture Tête de femme, 1951 (Spies, no. 411). Through the tall window with its art nouveau framework in the background the leaves of a palm tree are visible. Jacqueline's profile view recalls that of Corot's model in his atelier painting; Picasso painted her with the dark mass of her long hair swept back, in place of the gypsy headdress worn by the sitter in Corot's picture. While he was working on his Femmes d'Alger variations, Picasso had delighted in the resemblance of Jacqueline's left-side profile to the odalisque on the right-hand side in Delacroix's painting. Here he seems to have drawn a similar analogy with the seated woman in Corot's studio painting, this time in a pose facing the opposite direction.
Jacqueline has lowered her head slightly to look down into the painting that Picasso has placed on the easel before her; it is as if he were offering her an invitation to enter the inner sanctum of his creative life, asking her to join him there if she will. Her eyes seem to light upon the sculpture, which is a representation of Françoise Gilot, her predecessor, whom she has now supplanted as mistress in Picasso's domain. This painting, so economical in its means and succinct in its overall conception, nonetheless manages to encompass stages in the passage of time and the complex dualities of the artist's existence. The studio represents is the inner, private world of the artist; with the addition of Jacqueline to the composition Picasso has rounded out the allegorical significance of these paintings by integrating a woman's presence into the masculine world of the artist, so that the composition now embodies the totality of the artist's experience of the world, a personal universe comprised of life, love and the creative spirit.
Picasso at La Californie, Cannes, May 1956. Photograph by Lee Miller (detail). Lee Miller Archives, UK. (www.leemiller.co.uk) Barcode: 28850991
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, L'Atelier, Cannes, 30 March 1956. Musée Picasso, Paris.
(fig. 2) Pablo Picasso, L'Atelier, 29 October 1955. Sold, Christie's New York, 1 November 2005, lot 32
(fig. 3) Henri Matisse, Le Silence habité des maisons, Vence, Villa Le Rêve, summer 1947. Private collection. (Barcode 2917 5536)
(fig. 4) Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, L'Atelier de Corot, 1870. Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyons.