Nu couché is the first of three important pictures that Picasso painted in wartime Paris showing a reclining nude in an interior. This series was clearly of great importance to Picasso. The artist had committed himself to three major themes during the German occupation, drawing on several of the principal and traditional genres of European painting: the still-life, portraiture, and the female nude. While the first two series have received a great deal of attention, especially the portraits of Dora Maar, the wartime sequence of nudes has yet to achieve the recognition that it merits. The female nude was the first of these themes that preoccupied the artist, indeed it became his obsession in 1941-1942. He began making numerous drawings in May 1941, and then a few watercolors and gouaches on paper in November, December and at the turn of the year. Then, suddenly, on 25 January 1942 he painted Nu couché on panel. This small painting became the virtual prototype for the two largest canvases he painted during the Occupation, at a time when canvas was not easily available and was extremely expensive. The largest painting was L'aubade (fig. 1), painted on May 4, 1942. The second in size was Nu couché (fig. 2), which was done on 30 September 1942.
Picasso employed a grisaille tonality in the present Nu couché to striking effect. The realization of the female figure is crystalline in its clarity and precision, and the small format actually focuses and intensifies the powerful expressiveness of her forms. This panel contains all of the basic components of the reclining nude seen in the monumental L'aubade. It depicts the same uneasy sleeper with large feet, twisted legs and mask-like features, with her arms raised to her head. Some of these features also appear in the large Nu couché, in which the figure reclines in the reverse direction. The present study is actually closer in its austere depiction of the bed in the latter painting than to L'aubade; the artist has employed a series of angular and parallel striations on the bed to describe the creasing of the sheets and to help accentuate the weight of the model's body on the bed.
Picasso must have realized that he created something quite extraordinarily meaningful, fully realized and complete in the Nu couché panel painting. The drawings and watercolors on paper which had previously taken up so much of his attention suddenly ceased. Picasso let this theme lie fallow for more than three months, until he suddenly took it up again and quickly executed the monumental painting L'aubade. The canvas is enormous (76 3/4 x 104 3/8 in.; 195 x 265 cm.), and represents a nude woman lying on a bed with a female musician holding a Renaissance-style lute seated in front of her. Picasso later said of this picture, "I painted it for myself. When you look at a nude made by someone else, he uses the traditional manner to express the form... But for me, I use a revolutionary expression... I paint this way because it's a result of my thought. I have worked for years to obtain this result" (quoted in M. McCully, ed., A Picasso Anthology, Princeton, 1997, p. 228).
Picasso then abandoned the subject once again, and did not return to it until 30 September 1942, when he painted the large Nu couché, which shows the sleeper reversed and alone (see fig. 2). Finally, on 28 June 1943, he painted a third large canvas, Grand nu couché (Z. vol. 13, no 65; Musée Picasso, Paris), again showing the figure reversed and alone. She fills most of the canvas, but is rendered in a looser manner than the previous versions. Three paintings done in April 1944 (Z. vol. 13, nos. 273, 288 and 303) were the final reclining nudes that Picasso made during the Occupation. In each of these is an altogether more relaxed and less probing approach to the figure. It becomes clear, when taking an overview of the entire sequence of nudes done over the course of more than two years, that Picasso emptied his most passionate emotions into the three pictures done in 1942, beginning with the present Nu couché.
In this important group of nudes, Picasso made explicit references to significant influences on his art. Paramount was the great Spanish tradition to which he believed he was heir, especially the works of Goya. Picasso first imitated Goya's La maja nuda (Museo del Prado, Madrid) in a painting of Fernande Olivier which he made in Gosol during the summer of 1906 (Z. vol. 1, no. 317; Cleveland Museum of Art). The black and gray palette of Goya's masterpiece resonates in the grisaille tonality of the Nu couché panel, and also influenced the earthy tones seen in the large Nu couché on canvas.
Picasso was also making reference to nudes by Matisse in recent prints, but more especially to his Nu bleu: Souvenir de Biskra, 1907 (The Cone Collection, The Baltimore Museum of Art), the painting that had set off the rivalry between the two artists that eventually led to Picasso painting Les demoiselles d'Avignon (Z. vol. 2, no. 18; The Museum of Modern Art, New York) later that same year. Another considerable influence was that of Gauguin. One of Picasso's earliest images of a woman asleep was directly modeled after Gauguin's Manao Tupapau (Wildenstein, no. 457; Private collection). Picasso's fascination with crossed legs may have derived from Gauguin's Te Arii Vahine, 1896 (W. 542; The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg). Picasso saw this painting at the 1906 Salon d'Automne and was deeply impressed; indeed, it was an important source for the figure seen second from the left in Les demoiselles d'Avignon.
While it is not surprising that Picasso used the works of other masters as the starting point for his own investigation, it is curious that so many of the pictures to which he alluded were those that first influenced him in 1906 and 1907. Moreover, the reclining nudes of the time of the Occupation explicitly recall Picasso's own works from 1907-1908. This is especially noticeable when comparing these figures to an early cubist work such as Nu à la draperie (fig. 3). This pose is extremely similar to the one in the present picture, a fact that becomes more evident when Nu à la draperie is turned on its left side so that the figure appears to be reclining. Related as well is the network of lines radiating around the figure, which is echoed in the creases and folds in the bed sheets in the Nu couché panel painting. Picasso's fascination with this pose in 1907-08 was so great that he continued to study it in one painting after another, and he even referred to it in poses seen in drawings done in his final decades of his career.
The likely explanation for Picasso's renewed interest in his own early cubist works is that Christian Zervos was, in 1941, in the midst of preparing the second volume of his catalogue of Picasso's works, which in two parts covers the years 1906-1917. Zervos was in constant touch with the artist. Thus, at the very time that Picasso was planning his series of reclining nudes, he would have had cause to closely re-examine and consider his own works from 1906-1908.
Like many of the figures that Picasso painted during the Occupation, the figure in the reclining nude series appears anxious and confined. With wartime shortages of all kinds, and burdensome restrictions on travel and the personal expression of political views, most people under the Occupation were forced to exist in a state of simple self-preservation, leading joyless and menaced lives. Picasso's metaphor for these times was the prone female figure, vulnerable in her nudity, and placed in an interior that reflected her reduced and fearful circumstances. The Occupation was indeed a period in which daily living seemed like a long nightmare, especially in Paris, where such trying and straitened circumstances seemed so inimical to the lively and worldly spirit of the city and its inhabitants. For Picasso's parisienne, who represented the entire population of France under the yoke of occupation, the only escape would be the temporary oblivion of sleep, and perhaps in sleep a growing dream of liberation, regeneration and peace.
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, L'aubade, 1942. Musée d'Art Moderne, Paris.
(fig. 2) Pablo Picasso, Nu couché, 1942. Formerly in the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Victor W. Ganz; sale, Christie's, New York, 10 November 1997, lot 49.
(fig. 3) Pablo Picasso, Nu à la draperie, 1907. The Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg.