Maya Widmaier-Picasso has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
Claude Picasso has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
Painted on 28 November 1924, Pablo Picasso’s Buste de femme au voile bleu is among the last of a series of elegant and hauntingly enigmatic neoclassical portraits that the artist painted during the early years of the decade. The sitter’s dark hair, pensive, melancholy gaze, and fine, flawlessly chiseled features immediately bespeak the presence and character of Picasso’s wife, the Russian-born ballerina Olga Khokhlova. This painting showcases the culminating, subtle power of expression that Picasso could summon forth while working in the urbane and coolly sensual style of portraiture Olga had inspired in his work. Within months, the artist’s decade-long fascination with classicism would give way to an utterly transformative immersion in the convulsive intensity of the surrealist revolution.
The couple first met in Rome during February 1917, while preparing and rehearsing Serge Diaghilev’s premiere production of the ballet Parade. Graced with a delicate, classical beauty, Olga assumed a variety of guises in her husband’s art: she is at times a fashionably dressed haute bourgeoise woman rendered with impressive academic precision; or perhaps a Greco-Roman goddess, her body and features exaggerated volumetrically to mythological proportions; and most tenderly, a new mother in touching maternity scenes inspired by the birth of their sole child—a son, Paulo—in 1921. Here she is a exquisitely beautiful Italianate Madonna, the iridescent blue veil casting soulful shadows across her idealized visage. An impenetrable façade of serenity and poise appears to mask an inner sadness. Immaculate and self-contained, Olga remains mysterious, both to the viewer, and perhaps, to the painter—her husband—as well.
During the First World War, Picasso had begun working simultaneously in both his later synthetic cubist manner, and a newer naturalistic, classically-inflected mode of figuration, alternating effortlessly between these patently dissimilar means of representation. Following the 1918 armistice, a purposeful revival of the arts of antiquity and the classical spirit emerged to hold sway over the European avant-garde. Adhering to le rappel à l’ordre—the “return to order”—artists turned aside from modernist contemporaneity to mine the past, from antiquity and the Italian Renaissance, to the great French masters of recent centuries—Poussin, David, and Ingres paramount among them—to satisfy a common yearning for harmony, unity, order, and stability. Steeped in the Latinate Gallic tradition, this aesthetic prescription, they believed, could assuage and heal memories of the unprecedented anguish and devastation wrought by four years of total war.
Picasso created Ingres-inspired, fine line drawings as early as 1914, and by the end of the decade he had adopted a broad array of classically inspired subjects and elements of style which he retooled and forged into an eclectic but independent, personal display of unbounded invention. He had collapsed the antipodal notions of tradition and modernity into a single, all-inclusive program of innovative art-making, as newly and genuinely classical as it was modern, but a modernism profoundly enhanced—fired, finally, with the genius of the living past. None among Picasso’s contemporaries could match his depth and versatility, or his ability to create new forms, with multivalent inferences of context and meaning. “[Picasso] now appears as a lone artist with multiple personae,” Kenneth Silver has written. “This is the Renaissance conception of a solitary, protean, overwhelming genius; Picasso in the 1920s becomes a modern Michelangelo” (Esprit de Corps: The Art of the Parisian Avant-Garde and the First World War, 1914-1925, London, 1989, p. 316).
Buste de femme au voile bleu is an illustrative case in point. Various sources root this bust-length portrait in the art of the past. Cloaked in a luminous blue veil, subdued, meditative, and radiating an inner light against the dark background, Olga evokes a Quattrocento Madonna. The veil motif, a signifier since antiquity of the wearer’s social standing and married status, also invites comparison with Raphael’s La donna velata (circa 1516; Palazzo Pitti, Florence), which the artist had likely seen in Florence while traveling in Italy during 1917. “Picasso’s poetry verges on the unreal,” Josep Palau i Fabre has written, “in the sense that it often manages to situate the present in the past or the future, one step away from legend. Here we are not in rue la Boétie in 1923 but in Florence, or at least in the Italian Renaissance” (op. cit., 1999, p. 364).
Following in this distinguished lineage, the classical spirit of Ingres is detectable in the precise, linear contouring and balancing of forms in Buste de femme au voile bleu, as well as the use of integral areas of local color to construct the composition. While Picasso’s neoclassicism in his figure paintings acted as a stylistic counter-weight to the synthetic cubist approach he generally employed in still-life pictures, the mechanics of composition in both fields of endeavor sprang from a shared, constructive principle—the laying down of flat, contoured forms, one upon on another, generated the development of the overall image.
As a Spaniard, Picasso grew up among women who traditionally wore a veil or other forms of woven head covering when outdoors and in public. This article of specifically feminine attire surely held some special significance for him; he was moreover alert to other artists who shared this fascination. Among them was Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, whose figure paintings Picasso had greatly admired since viewing the Corot retrospective held during the 1909 Salon d’Automne in Paris—four years after Picasso had studied the paintings of Ingres on a similar occasion. Italy had been a revelation for Corot, as Picasso well understood during his own stay in Rome, Naples, and Florence. “Long live Corot!” Jean Cocteau, Picasso’s traveling companion, wrote to his mother in Paris. “He should have been buried under the lid of Raphael’s tomb… Rome seems to be his creation. Picasso speaks only of this master, who touches us more deeply than all the Italians obsessed with grandeur” (quoted in E. Cowling, Picasso: Style and Meaning, London, 2002, p. 309). From the inventory of his new dealer Paul Rosenberg, who specialized in 19th century art, Picasso acquired Corot’s L’Italienne Maria di Sorre assise, in which the peasant sitter wears a white head covering.
During the winter of 1923, a year before he painted the present canvas, Picasso completed three portraits of Olga (Zervos, vol. 5, nos. 29-30 and 38), all of which feature his wife in the same deep blue dress and brown fur collar, while revealing a similar expression of delicate beauty coupled with a deep, almost mournful introspection. “Though still unashamedly Ingresque,” John Richardson has written, these paintings moreover reflect Picasso’s growing interest in the 18th-century French virtuoso pastellists J.-B. Greuze, J.-B. Perroneneau and Quentin de la Tour. Ominously, as Richardson added, “The chill in these academic tours de force indicates that Picasso’s feelings for his wife were cooling” (A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932, vol. 3, London, 2007, pp. 218 and 219).
As in Ingres’ great female portraits, the sitter’s skin in Picasso’s present depiction of Olga appears like porcelain, polished and perfect; the artist heightened the effect by contrasting the flesh tones against the blue veil and the dark black shadows that surround Olga’s visage and figure. Her meditative gaze, focused away from the artist and outside the picture, suggests that she is aloof and distant. Intimations of unease and detachment in the Picassos’ relationship were indeed becoming evident. Olga had suffered a sudden, unknown illness at the end of the summer of 1923, and after the couple returned to Paris, they began to live increasingly separate lives. Palau i Fabre detected in Buste de femme au voile bleu “a verification…a way of recording the point at which Olga’s feeling toward him stood… However, the blue veil—el azul tan bonito—masks the drama and allows us to contemplate, above all, an Italianate painting of great beauty” (op. cit., 1999, p. 431).
The Picassos’ marriage continued to unravel, beyond repair, during the ensuing years, especially after the artist, on the evening of 8 January 1927, struck up a conversation with seventeen-year-old Marie-Thérèse Walter outside the Galeries Lafayette department store in Paris. He had found the surrealist amour fou he had been so desperately seeking. Picasso’s conjugal relationship with Olga ended with a hard-fought legal separation in 1935; they remained officially married, however, and he supported her financially until her death in 1955.