From the final day of 1967, through the entire month of January 1968 and well into February, Picasso preoccupied himself with drawings of odalisques in a Turkish bath, inspired by Ingres's Le bain turc, (1863; coll. Musée du Louvre, Paris). In most of the drawings the nude girls lounge about undisturbed, in others a pasha oggles their charms. In one example dated 27 January (Zervos, vol. 27, no. 191) an old crone serving as a chaperone stares at one of her charges. Then, suddenly, in the third week of February, there was a abrupt change of scene, and Picasso embarked on a new series, taking as his theme the story of Celestina, in which the figure of the old crone assumed a central role.
La Celestina was first published anonymously in Burgos in 1499 in the form of a dramatic dialogue. The book went into many editions, with sections added after 1501 bearing the name of Fernando de Rojas, about whom nothing is known. The anti-hero of the story is the vain cavalier Calisto, who seeks to seduce Melibea, the daughter of a wealthy burgher. When he is rebuffed, his scheming servant Sempronio solicits the aid of Celestina, an old witch and procuress. "Her wordly wisdom, frankness, wit, learning and deviousness; her superstition, vanity, and greed; her pagan delight in the pleasures of the flesh make her one of the great figures of all time" (L.B. Simpson, trans., The Celestina, Berkeley, 1955, p. vii).
Picasso was familiar with the Celestina story as a young man. In March 1904 he painted a portrait of an old, half-blind woman named Carlota Valdivia, whom he met at café-concert in Barcelona. He depicted her wrapped in a black hooded mantle and called her La Celestine (Zervos, vol. 1, no. 183). One of the masterworks of his Blue period, Picasso kept this painting until 1938, and he returned to the image of the old woman in his own old age.
The present drawing may refer to Act III, Scene 2, in which Sempronio takes up with the whore Elicia, as Celestina, her mother, looks on. Picasso ended the series of Celestina drawings in early March, but went on to execute numerous etchings and aquatints on this theme later in the spring, which were collected in his celebrated 347 Gravures, published by Galerie Louise Leiris in 1969. 66 of Picasso's Celestina prints were used to illustrate an edition of Le Celestine, with de Rojas listed as the author, that was published by Atelier Crommelynck in 1971.