Picasso brought his painting Les demoiselles d'Avignon (Zervos, vol. 2*, no. 18; coll. The Museum of Modern Art, New York) to its final stage in the summer of 1907, and soon afterwards commenced work on Trois femmes (Zervos, vol. 2*, no. 108; fig. 1). Picasso's progress with this large composition was painfully slow and disappointing. He completely repainted it each time he turned to it, and was still trying to finish it during the summer of 1908.
Picasso was at the same time working on studies of bathers and other nude female figures, perhaps in the hope that they would help to clarify and resolve some of the issues that had blocked his ability to complete Trois femmes. Looking at the late bathers of Cézanne, Picasso was also considering the integration of the figure within a landscape setting. During that spring and early summer he painted in the Bateau-Lavoir, his Paris studio, a series of imaginary landscapes as studies for this idea (Daix and Rosselet, nos. 179-183, and possibly 185), including the present Paysage. (For another work in this series which is currently being offered, see Christies New York sale of Impressionist and Modern Works on Paper, 7 November 2007, lot 120.) Here Picasso has translated the figural forms in the studies for Trois femmes (fig. 1) into a densely wooded landscape, filled with twisted, thorny and impenetrable forms, which may reflect the impasse at which he had arrived in his large figure composition.
This Dantesque "dark wood" may also allude to a tragic incident in May, in which Karl-Heinz Wiegels, a young German painter with whom Picasso and Fernande Olivier were very close, hanged himself while in a drug-induced delirium. Picasso saw his friend's body dangling in the window, which became a nightmarish memory he would never forget. Picasso and Fernande were also fond of indulging in opium and hashish, but Wiegels' death so frightened them that they resolved to stop using drugs.
The weather that summer was unbearably hot, and in and effort to escape the heat, as well as the anxiety and depression over Wiegels' death, Picasso and Fernande, at the suggestion of their doctor, left Paris in early August and rented a primitive farmhouse in the hamlet of La Rue-des-Bois, near Verneuil, north of Paris on the Oise river. In these rustic surroundings Picasso painted wooded landscapes, still-lives, and figure studies. Coincidentally, that summer in L'Estaque, Braque was painting the great series of rocky, tree-lined landscapes that brought the advent of true cubism all the more near. When Picasso returned to Paris in September he again applied himself to Trois femmes, which he completed later that year, and using his recent landscape studies, he reworked the natural setting in Nu dans le fôret (La Dryade) (Zervos, vol. 2*, no. 113; coll. Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg).
Josep Palau i Fabre (op. cit.) has placed the present painting in the period following Picasso's return to Paris. Daix and Rosselet, however, point out that the pre-La Rue-des-Bois landscapes share a red-brown tonality, while the later summer landscapes of 1908 are predominately green, as Picasso would have seen them. There is, nonetheless, a gouache similar in feeling to the present work, which shares a reddish key and echoes the arching, Gothic forms in the present painting, which Daix and Rosselet have placed in Le Rue-des-Bois: Le coucher de soleil (Z., vol. 2*, no. 78l; Daix and Rosselet, no. 188 [Sold, Christie's New York, 5 November 2003, lot 117]).
The matter of precise dating aside, the jagged, shard-like forms in Paysage are remarkably and uniquely expressionistic for Picasso--there is an almost tormented sense of subjectivity that compels the artist to become one with the landscape. John Richardson has written: "Since he could never depict anything without to some degree identifying with it, Picasso assumes the role of genius loci in landscapes that constitute his first sustained confrontation with nature. He invests the trees with his own life force, as if he were God reinventing the universe in his image. [Picasso stated:] 'I want to see my branches grow. That's why I started to paint trees; yet I never paint them from nature. My trees are myself' [in A Life of Picasso: 1907-1917, The Painter of Modern Life, New York, 1996, p. 93).
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, Etude pour 'Trois Femmes', Winter, 1908. Musée National d'Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris. BARCODE 25010237