The present painting depicts Picasso's second wife, Jacqueline Roque, a dark-haired beauty whom the artist met in 1952 when she came to work for his potters, the Ramiés, at Vallauris (fig. 1). Picasso and Jacqueline took up residence together two years later and married in 1961, just a few months shy of the artist's eightieth birthday. From 1954 onward, the image of Jacqueline dominated Picasso's work, forming the largest group of portraits in his entire oeuvre. He rendered her seated and reclining, nude and elaborately clad. Sometimes her hair is wrapped in a scarf, elsewhere she dons a jaunty hat; she is transformed into an equestrian after Velázquez, into Lola de Valence after Manet, into the odalisque with hookah from Delacroix's Femmes d'Alger, even into the Mater Dolorosa. At times Picasso painted her in a naturalistic style, verging on the neoclassical; in other works, her image is relentlessly abstracted, almost unrecognizable. The artist himself told Hélène Parmelin in 1966, "Jacqueline possesses to an unimaginable degree the gift of turning into a painting" (quoted in Late Picasso, exh. cat., Tate Gallery, London, 1988. p. 58). Likewise, John Richardson has described the hold that Jacqueline exerted on Picasso's imagination:
It is her image that permeates Picasso's work from 1954 until his death, twice as long as any of her predecessors. It is her body that we are able to explore more exhaustively and more intimately than any other body in the history of art. It is her solicitude and patience that sustained the artist in the face of declining health and death and enabled him to be more productive than ever before and to go on working into his ninety-second year. And lastly it is her vulnerability that gives a new intensity to the combination of cruelty and tenderness that endows Picasso's paintings of women with their pathos and their strength (ibid., p. 47).
Femme se coiffant is part of a series of paintings and drawings that Picasso made in January 1956, depicting Jacqueline with her arms folded above her head (Zervos XVII.2-19, 22-32, 35). The works were executed at La Californie, a villa above Cannes where Picasso and Jacqueline had moved in 1955. In several of related ink drawings, Jacqueline is clearly shown tying up her hair, and it is likely that the same activity forms the narrative basis for her pose here (Zervos, vol. 17, no. 4). Alternatively, the raised arms in the present composition may be interpreted simply as a coquettish stance, comparable to that of Goya's Maja desnuda or the central figure in Picasso's Demoiselles d'Avignon. The theme of the woman arranging her hair has a long and illustrious history in western art, dating back to a lost masterpiece by the Classical Greek painter, Apelles, which depicts the goddess Aphrodite rising from the sea and wringing out her tresses. Picasso explored the motif repeatedly throughout his career, beginning at Gósol in the summer of 1906 with La Toilette (Z. vol. 1, no. 325) and The Harem (Z., vol. 1, no. 325).
Certain of Jacqueline's distinctive features may be clearly discerned in the present painting, particularly her long, patrician nose and thick sweep of glossy, dark hair. Her classic brand of beauty captivated Picasso. He commented in 1964, "Braque once said to me, 'Basically you have always loved classical beauty.' It's true. They don't invent a type of beauty every year" (quoted in D. Ashton, Picasso on Art, New York, 1972, p. 74).
(fig. 1) Jacqueline Roque at La Californie, 1956. BARCODE 24771498