‘In matters of love you have kept in line with the masters’
(Georges Braque, quoted in A. Danchev, Georges Braque: A Life, New York, 2005, p. 233)
‘She has within her that wonderful power on which the painter feeds. She flows. She is made for it and gives of herself and devotes herself and dies in harness though living all the while and never posing. She harbours that multiplicity of herself... She unfurls ad infinitum. She invades everything. She becomes all characters. She takes the place of all models of all the artists on all the canvases. All the portraits resemble her, even though they may not resemble each other. All the heads are hers and there are a thousand different ones’
(Hélène Parmelin, Picasso: Intimate Secrets of a Studio at Notre Dame de Vie, New York, 1966, pp. 14-15)
‘They lived in a world of his own creation
where he reigned almost as a king
yet cherished only two treasures –
freedom to work and the love of Jacqueline’
(David Douglas Duncan, Picasso and Jacqueline, New York, 1988, p. 9)
Languidly reclining on a wicker chair, her arms stretched above her head in a pose of seductive insouciance, the figure of Jacqueline Roque, the last great love of the artist’s life, serves as the protagonist of Pablo Picasso’s Femme se coiffant. Painted on 3 January 1956, less than two years into their relationship, it is one of a series of works in which the artist has painted his new lover and muse in this classically-inspired pose as she arranges her hair. Here however, Picasso has depicted Jacqueline with a captivating and conscious allure, oozing sensuality as she offers herself to the gaze of her rapt lover. Among the earliest paintings of the twenty-year period that has become termed ‘L’Époque Jacqueline’, Femme se coiffant presents the visual iconography that Picasso would return to time and time again in his late depictions of the female figure. Jacqueline’s shock of luscious, raven-coloured hair, deep brown almond-shaped eyes, and regal, aquiline profile would become the features found in the plethora of portraits in Picasso’s late period, as her powerful, indispensable presence found its way into every aspect of the artist’s work. ‘It is her image that permeates Picasso’s work from 1954 until his death, twice as long as any of her predecessors’, the artist’s biographer John Richardson has written. ‘It is her body that we are able to explore more exhaustively and more intimately than any other body in the history of art… 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’ (J. Richardson, Late Picasso, exh. cat., London, 1988, p. 47).
Picasso had met the young Jacqueline Roque in the summer of 1952. Recently divorced with a young daughter, Catherine, Roque was working as a sales assistant at the Madoura ceramic studio in Vallauris, where the artist would frequently create his ceramics. At this time, Picasso was still living with his then-lover, Françoise Gilot, and their two young children, Claude and Paloma, in La Galloise, their home near Vallauris. By September of the following year, however, their relationship, which had been gradually deteriorating, came to a dramatic and conclusive end, with Gilot leaving the artist and returning with her two children to Paris. Soon after she left, the artist began to see Jacqueline, and by 1954 the pair were a couple, with her unmistakable features appearing in his art in the summer of this year. ‘How could I have had any reservations about Pablo’s intentions?’ (J. Picasso, quoted in ibid., p. 17), Jacqueline said of these exuberant, passion-filled pictorial declarations of love. For the rest of his life Jacqueline was a constant, unfailing presence in the artist’s life. After the death of his first wife Olga, the pair finally married in 1961, in a ceremony that included just two witnesses, the artist’s lawyer and a cleaning lady. Calm, unfailingly loyal and completely besotted with Picasso, Jacqueline occupied every role the artist could need; she was his devoted protector and guardian, assistant both personal and artistic, loyal friend and ever dutiful muse. As William Rubin has described, ‘Jacqueline’s understated, gentle, and loving personality combined with her unconditional commitment to [Picasso] provided an emotionally stable life and a dependable foyer over a longer period of time than he had ever before enjoyed’ (W. Rubin, quoted in Picasso & Jacqueline: The Evolution of Style, exh. cat., New York, 2014-2015, p. 190). Indeed, Jacqueline later said that throughout their lives together, she never left Picasso’s side for more than a few hours at a time.
The couple moved into a grand, spacious villa, La Californie in 1955. This now-legendary home and studio – so immortalised in photographs it has become arguably the artist’s most famous residence – offered large living spaces in which Picasso could surround himself with his paintings, sculptures and other possessions, and also enable him to live and work in the same interchangeable space. Within these ornate rooms, the artist’s beloved Thonet bent-wood wicker-backed rocking chairs took pride of place, appearing countless times in photos and paintings – particularly the atelier scenes the artist was working on at this time – of La Californie, and serving as the object on which Jacqueline is reclining in the present work. ‘Jacqueline sometimes mirrored Picasso sitting in his favourite turn-of-the-century rocker. He had two’, the photographer and friend of the artist, David Douglas Duncan recalled. ‘They followed him whenever he changed homes, his always faithful refuge in which to curl up, isolated – just to think. One of his first portraits of Jacqueline was drawn in charcoal when she pulled her feet up into the companion chair [Zervos XVI, no. 326]’ (D.D. Duncan, Picasso and Jacqueline, New York, 1988, p. 123).
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, nos. 2-19, 22-32, 35). In several related ink drawings, Jacqueline is clearly shown tying up her hair, and it is this action that she appears to be undertaking in the present work. On the same day that he painted Femme se coiffant, Picasso also completed Femme nu accroupie (Zervos XVII, no. 2), which shows a seated nude in the same position, and the following day, the artist created the large and monumental Femmes à la toilette (now in the Musée Picasso, Paris), which similarly continues on the theme of the present work, depicting two nude figures, one standing and the other seated while she combs through her hair. The range of iterations of this pose suggests that the artist was clearly taken by this motif. Transforming his ever-present muse from nude to clothed, primitive to classical, mythological to contemporary, Picasso immersed himself in the depiction of his adoring lover. Throughout the rest of 1956, Picasso continued to return to the image of Jacqueline, adorned in the same deep green dress, seated, as in the present work, pensively in the same wicker chair. Regal and statuesque, Jacqueline appears in Femme se coiffant and the rest of these paintings as an unmovable, everlasting presence in the artist’s world; an essential presence in his life and art.
This pose runs like a thread throughout Picasso’s entire oeuvre. The theme of the woman arranging her hair has a long and distinguished history in Western art, dating back to a lost masterpiece by the Classical Greek painter, Apelles, which depicts the iconic motif of the goddess Aphrodite rising from the sea and wringing out her long flowing hair. From Titian and Ingres, to modern artists who reframed this pose in an unequivocally contemporary setting such as Degas, who captured women immersed in this private, intimate ritual, and Renoir who likewise pictured voluptuous nudes in their toilette, this theme provided rich stimulus for artists, and Picasso was no exception. Throughout his career, this motif had appeared repeatedly, beginning in the remote Spanish village of Gósol in the summer of 1906 with Femme se coiffant (Museum of Modern Art, New York) and Le Harem (Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland). A year later, this same seductive stance was once more transformed in the artist’s monumental, groundbreaking work, Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907, Museum of Modern Art, New York), in which the centre figure stands frontally, both arms raised above her head in a pose of unabashed, unequivocal sexual power.
The theme of the seated female portrait is also reminiscent of an artist who was at the forefront of Picasso’s mind at this time: Henri Matisse. Picasso had once declared: 'You have got to be able to picture side by side everything Matisse and I were doing at that time. No one has ever looked at Matisse’s painting more carefully than I; and no one has looked at mine more carefully than he’ (Picasso, quoted in J. Golding, 'Introduction’, in E. Cowling et al., Matisse Picasso, exh. cat., London, 2002, p. 13). The artist’s lifelong friend and greatest rival, Matisse had died in November 1954. Devastated, Picasso did not attend his funeral, his death greatly affecting the artist for years to come. As he had throughout his life, Picasso processed his grief through his art. Most famously, the artist’s great 1954-55 series Les Femmes d’Alger, which he begun just six weeks after Matisse’s death, paid homage not only to Delacroix, but to Matisse and his exotic Orientalist visions, complete with recumbent, decoratively adorned odalisques. ‘When Matisse died,’ Picasso told Roland Penrose, ‘he left his odalisques to me as a legacy, and this is my idea of the Orient though I have never been there’ (Picasso, quoted in R. Penrose, Picasso: His Life and Work, Berkeley, 1981, p. 396). Likewise Picasso’s subsequent atelier scenes of the mid-1950s serve as tributes to the great French artist’s late series of Vence interiors.
Throughout Matisse’s career, the theme of the seated woman pictured in richly decorative interiors had served as endless inspiration for the artist. Picasso himself owned one such painting: Jeune fille assise, robe persane, from 1942 (Musée Picasso, Paris). Considered together, this work and Femme se coiffant abound in similarities: both female protagonists are pictured with a knowing, somewhat seductive, beguiling and powerful gaze, their casual, relaxed poses – Matisse’s figure is languidly reclining in a large, leather-backed chair, her elbow resting on her arm as she props herself up – exuding an air of compelling confidence and self-assurance. Likewise, both artists have translated their models onto the canvas with a combination of flattened colour and line. While Picasso’s monochrome background is undoubtedly a stark contrast to Matisse’s rich green interior setting, these artists have both used pattern – Picasso in the crisscross pattern of the wicker chair, Matisse in the decorative leaf motif of the background – to define the visual space and frame their revered female sitters.