In his Neo-classical portraits of the late 1910s and early 1920s Picasso sought to create a style of balance and repose. In these characterizations of friends and acquaintances, many of whom were important patrons of the arts in the upper class society in which he now circulated, his aim was not a penetrating analysis of personality. In fact, Picasso was likely to overlook even significant physical flaws, like the awkward shape of a nose or a weak chin, or signs of aging, in his sitters. The essence of Neo-classical form was an idealized line that encapsulated the successful achievement of a fellow artist, such as in Picasso's famous 1920 drawing of composer Igor Stravinsky (Zervos, vol. IV, no. 220), or the wealth, status and taste of an important patron, as in his portrait of Mme Eugenia Errazuriz, who was largely responsible for bringing Picasso in the glamorous, well-heeled society that revolved about the world of art and ballet theater (Zervos, vol. IV, no. 222; sale, Christie's New York, November 9, 2000, lot 44).
Picasso's sketchbooks from this period are filled with studies of hands, and we know from portraits and figure paintings from his earlier stylistic phases that hands did not pose any special challenge to the artist's draftsmanship. Instead, it is likely that Picasso viewed the expressive gesture of a hand to be as important a key to the successful depiction of a sitter as it was to capture the linear essence of facial features or salient details of costume. The placement of the sitter's hands served as counterpoint to the visage portrayed. Indeed the gesture of a hand could imply power, enterprise and purpose, even if the sitter's expression told of little more than the classical repose which Picasso's style imposed upon his subject. In this respect the hand was as much a clue to character as the face itself.
There is a volumetric fullness in most of Picasso's Neo-classical figure compositions; he had come far from the gaunt and attentuated figures of the Blue and Rose Periods. This exaggeratedly weighty appearance is evident from the very outset of this phase, in the first portrait drawings Picasso made in 1915 in this new manner. Picasso's original models were the linear precision and elegance of Ingres and various old masters. Later, his admiration of the late works of Renoir became the prevailing influence. Renoir died in 1919, and his late works, the ripely sensual nudes with heavy bellies and massive limbs, had been in critical disfavor for some time. It was characteristic of Picasso to find merit and stylistic possibilities where no one else dared to look, and to appropriate aspects of the past that seemed incongruous with elements of his own work. Nothing could be further from the rigors of Cubism, and before it the asceticism of the Blue Period and the subdued elegance of the Rose Period, than the voluptuous, nubile nymphs that Renoir loved to paint in his last years. Picasso in fact had wide access to these paintings; Paul Rosenberg, his new dealer, had plenty in his inventory.
Picasso's appropriation of late Renoir led to the development of his "colossal" figures, heads and nudes which were composed in aggrandized proportions that seemed larger than life. The present pastel shows this transformation as it pertains to a single hand. One may imagine the artist studying his own hand, or that of a sitter, in different positions, and in the act of drawing it, imposing his colossal style upon it. He exaggerates its fleshiness, smooths over the gnarly joints, veins and wrinkles. This hand has become an idealized appendage, timeless, grandly heroic and almost Michelangesque in its scale.