Artists in Paris during the First World War had few opportunities to sell their works, except at very low prices. The dealer Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler, who championed the works of Pablo Picasso, Georges Braque and Juan Gris, had to leave France because he was a German national, and his inventory was sequestered by the French state. The antiquities dealer Léonce Rosenberg moved in to fill the gap, and began signing the cubists to contracts, by which he had exclusive right to their output in exchange for a monthly stipend. Jacques Lipchitz signed a contract with Rosenberg in the winter of 1916, for 300 francs a month, giving him the first security he had ever known.
The arrangement also helped Lipchitz to interact with other progressive artists and writers affiliated with Rosenberg's Galerie de l'Effort Moderne. He met Gris in 1916. In his memoirs Lipchitz wrote, "I remember many sessions at Juan Gris's studio participated in by such people as the mathematician Princet, the poets Reverdy, Jacob, and Huidobro, in which arguments raged continually" (in My Life in Sculpture, New York, 1972, p. 39). These exchanges encouraged Lipchitz to experiment in painting. He acknowledged only one finished oil painting (ibid., p. 50), but executed others in tempera or gouache, including the present work. In these works Lipchitz absorbed the lessons of the war time cubist manner that was later called "synthetic" cubism, which had been inaugurated by the papiers collés of Picasso and Braque, and characterized by the layering of flat planes of local color, and an emerging classical sensibility.
The present composition depicts a woman reading a book, and in the flatness of its planar elements forms a bridge between the frontally composed sculptures Homme assise avec une guitare, 1918 (Wilkinson, nos. 68-69) and the two versions of Le liseur, 1919 (Wilkinson, nos. 93-97). The oval format of the composition was a favorite device of the cubists (see lot 262) and can also be seen in several of the stone reliefs that Lipchitz carved in 1918 (Wilkinson, nos. 70-71 and 73-74). The harmonious proportions of the angular and curvilinear forms reflect Lipchitz's interest in the idea of the Golden Section, the mathematical rules of proportion formulated by the ancient Greek mathematician Euclid and revived by Princet. Among Lipchitz paintings of the late 'teens, Femme assise stands out for its beautifully balanced classicism, and the masterly articulation of its late cubist formal vocabulary.