Although the title of this painting is typically non-specific, the woman whose profile Picasso has depicted here is Jacqueline Roque, whom he celebrated in innumerable paintings, drawings, sculptures and prints. Picasso met Jacqueline during the summer of 1953, while she was working in the Madoura pottery works in Vallauris, where the artist had been making ceramics. Following his final break with Françoise Gilot, Picasso first painted Jacqueline in June 1954, and they began to live together that September. They were married in Vallauris in March 1961, when Picasso was almost eighty years old--she was thirty-five. She was a balm for the famous painter during the fabulous Indian summer at the end of his long career. William Rubin has written, "Jacqueline never forced Picasso to choose; his relationship with her was not the agonizing, novelistic kind of love that the artist had experienced in certain of his earlier liaisons. Picasso did not have to win Jacqueline from another man, nor struggle to keep her. Her understated, gentle and loving personality combined with her unconditional commitment to him provided an emotionally stable life and a dependable foyer over a longer period of time than he had ever before enjoyed" (Picasso and Portraiture, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996, p. 458).
The great majority of Picasso's portraits of Jacqueline show her in profile, usually facing left. Not long after they became lovers, Picasso began working on his series of variations on Delacroix's two versions of Femmes d'Algers (Musée du Louvre, Paris [fig. 1], and the Musée Fabre, Montpellier). Picasso became fascinated with Jacqueline's resemblance to the odalisque crouching at lower right in the Louvre version of Delacroix's harem scene, whose face is also seen in left profile. John Richardson has pointed out that "Françoise had not been the Delacroix type. Jacqueline, on the contrary, epitomized it--and not just in physiognomy. All three of Delacroix's Women of Algiers have the same squat, short-waisted torso that we find in numerous paintings of Jacqueline... And then, there is the African connection: Jacqueline had lived for many years as the wife of a colonial official in Upper Volta. As Picasso remarked, 'Ouagadougou may not be Algiers, nonetheless Jacqueline has an African provenance'" (Late Picasso, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1988, p. 18). During his lifetime Picasso had come no closer to North Africa than when as a youth he lived among the relics of the old Moorish civilization in Andalucía. In Jacqueline, Africa had now come to him. With her classic Mediterranean appearance--jet-black hair, dark eyes and a long, narrow nose--she fully looked the part of Delacroix's Algerian odalisque.
Immediately prior to painting Tête de femme, profil, Picasso executed a gouache and India ink study dated 22-26 January 1956 (Zervos, vol. 17, no. 34). The most prominent feature in the present portrait is Jacqueline's huge eye, as Rubin has noted, "a kind of feminine counterpart to Picasso's own mirada fuerte" (op. cit., p. 459). Jacqueline liked to brush her hair back, holding it away from her face, and Picasso delighted in showing her off in this way, which accentuated the classically beautiful outline of her forehead, her expressive brow and fine nose, and her small but finely sculpted chin. Picasso employed a similar profile, but facing in the opposite direction, in the half-figure seated women in the Femme dans l'atelier series he painted in April and May 1956 (Zervos, vol. 17, nos. 60-67, 106 and 119-120). Jacqueline would inspire countless more works during the decade and a half remaining to the artist. Picasso declared, "Jacqueline possesses to an unimaginable degree the gift of turning into painting" (quoted in ibid., p. 58).
(fig. 1) Eugène Delacroix, Les Femmes d'Alger, 1834. Musée du Louvre, Paris. BARCODE 2600 0442FIG (nov 07)