Executed in 1923, Pablo Picasso’s Tête de femme penchée is a magisterial, elegant and enigmatic neo-classical portrait from a series the artist had been producing throughout the early 1920s. With her dark hair, pensive, melancholic gaze, and classically featured, perfectly symmetrical face, this portrait is immediately reminiscent of depictions of Picasso’s wife of the time, the Russian-born ballet dancer, Olga Khokhlova. This exquisite and rare pastel epitomises the mode of classicised, refined and coolly sensual style of portraiture that the artist’s wife had inspired in him since they had met in Italy in 1917.
Bathed in a poetic and profound sense of melancholy, Tête de femme penchée stands towards the end of Picasso’s remarkable Neo-Classical phase. Since the years of the First World War, the artist had been working simultaneously in both a cubist and a figurative, classically-inspired style, able to switch effortlessly between these seemingly distinct artistic idioms. Within this wartime and post-war period, this look backwards, to the art of antiquity and Classicism was prevalent across the European avant-garde. Known as le rappel à l’ordre or the ‘Return to Order’, a term coined by the poet Jean Cocteau, this cultural movement manifested itself through the increasing appearance of classical themes, motifs and styles; from Antiquity and the Italian Renaissance, to the great French masters, Poussin, David and Ingres, a host of artists mined the past in order to fulfil the overwhelming cultural and ideological need for unity, order and stability to counteract and heal the unimagined horror and destruction wrought by four years of all-out war.
Beginning with a series of meticulously detailed, Ingres-inspired line drawings, over the years that followed, Picasso adopted an astonishing array of classically inspired subjects and styles in an eclectic, explicit and determinedly self-conscious display of artistic virtuosity, invention and, perhaps most importantly, independence. In varied ways, Ancient Greek and Roman sculpture, the painting of Raphael, Ingres, Corot, Renoir, among others, all fed the voracious vision of the artist, much of which was catalysed by his involvement with the Ballets Russes and nourished by his trips to the Mediterranean coast of France, as well as to Italy in 1917. Picasso employed a purposeful plurality as well as parody to create his own form of unequivocally modern Neo-Classicism. In its inherent diversity and multivalence of styles, Picasso’s versatility was unmatched by his contemporaries at this time; as Kenneth Silver has written, ‘[Picasso] now appears as a lone artist with multiple personae. This is the Renaissance conception of a solitary, protean, overwhelming genius; Picasso in the 1920s becomes a modern Michelangelo’ (K. Silver, Esprit de Corps: The Art of the Parisian Avant-Garde and the First World War, 1914-1925, London, 1989, p. 316).
Tête de femme penchée exemplifies the sheer diversity and multivalence of styles and influences that have come to characterise this period of Picasso’s career. A number of different sources can be seen to play a part in this bust length portrait. Cloaked in a delicate white dress— its sweeping neckline brushing against the immaculate skin of her chest, rendered in varying shades of pink, and creating a sense of ethereal beauty, Picasso’s expertly gentle handling of the pastel medium, with a supremely delicate, restrained touch invites comparisons with Quattrocento depictions of the female form, such as the figure’s enigmatic, yet intense and wistful gaze in the Three Graces, from Sandro Botticelli's painting La Primavera, circa 1480, in the Uffizi Gallery, Florence which the artist had likely seen on his trip there in 1917. As Josep Palau i Fabre has written of these deeply poetic, neo-classical works, ‘Picasso’s poetry verges on the unreal, in the sense that it often manages to situate the present in the past of the future, one step away from legend. Here we are not in rue la Boétie in 1923 but in Florence, or at least in the Italian Renaissance’ (J. Palau i Fabre, Picasso: From the Ballets to Drama, 1917-1926, Barcelona, 1999, p. 364). Tête de femme penchée is an illustrative case in point, replete with sources in the history of art and from a very short series completed by the artist, it is rare to see a pastel of this nature come to the market. Acquired by family of the present owner in the 1980s, it has been cherished within the same collection for decades.