Françoise Gilot ended her relationship with Picasso in November, 1953, and departed with her their two children Claude and Paloma; the artist was isolated and alone in his home for the first time in many years. But before long there was a new woman in his life, Jacqueline Roque, whom he had met in Madoura in 1952. He began to paint and draw her in the spring of 1954.
In November of the same year Henri Matisse died. Matisse was Picasso's friend and in the public view Picasso's only real rival. Both men had been aware that between them they had determined the course of painting in the 20th century more than anyone else. Matisse's passing gave Picasso pause to reflect on their careers and the current direction of his own work, now he was less than two years away from his 75th birthday. He was thinking more about tradition and artists of the past, and in 1954 he turned to Delacroix's Femmes d'Algers, 1833 (coll. Musee du Louvre, Paris), a painting that had been on his mind since the 1940s.
All of these events converge in Picasso's treatment of the subject of the odalisque, the female harem slave, which had been a favorite exotic subject of European painters since the Baroque. If Delacroix's painting provided the impetus for Picasso's new interest in Orientalism, then Jacqueline's presence embodied this historical fantasy and brought it to life. " In her physique, in her strange likeness to one of the women in the [Delacroix] painting,
in her temperament, her calm, her sensuous nature, [Jacqueline] represented the ultimate odalisque" (M.- L. Bernadac, "Picasso 1953-1972: Painting as Model", Late Picasso, exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, 1988, p.55).
Picasso did not hesitate to acknowledge his debt to Matisse. The odalisque was a frequent theme in Matisse's painting from the 1920s onward; Matisse was drawn to this subject for its sensuality as well as the considerable possibilities it offered for integrating the figure in an ornamental background. "When Matisse died", said Picasso, "he left his odalisques to me as a legacy. After all, why shouldn't one inherit something from one's friends?" (quoted in ibid.)
In 1968 Picasso turned to a second series of odalisques, and continued them on and off for the next several years, this time inspired by Ingres' Le bain turk, 1863 (coll. Musée du Louvre, Paris). In doing so Picasso was returning to the artist whose work had been a guiding model in the development of his Neo-classical style more than thirty years earlier.
The subject of the present work is Jacqueline in the guise of an odalisque. She is bare above the waist and the colorful flowing forms below are the loose pants typical of harem costume. The rich, vibrant color, built up with the application of one color crayon over another, as well the placement of the model in an interior space, is reminiscent of Matisse's odalisque paintings.
In hundreds of portraits and drawings of this late period Picasso idolizes Jacqueline and depicts her in numerous roles and imaginary situations. Whereas Matisse used professional models to play out his artistic fantasies, Picasso at the end of his life had his Muse Jacqueline, who embodied the feminine myth in all its variations. "No painter has ever gone so far in unveiling the feminine universe in all the complexity of its real and fantasy life. This intimate, passionate awareness is a constant source of renewal for his painting, which revels in the variety of repertoire of forms it affords, mineral and carnal by turns. He thus works with an infinite range of possibilities that make all metamorphoses possible." (ibid., p. 80).