Exploding with colour and with darting lines covering the canvas, Pablo Picasso's Femme assise is an incredibly energetic picture dating from the beginning of 1949, when his partner Françoise Gilot was heavily pregnant with their daughter Paloma. This picture is filled with rich yellows, reds, blues and greens, a celebration, in highly modern terms, of the impending miracle of birth. At the same time, the diagrammatic forms recall the wire armatures of Picasso's earlier three-dimensional works created with the sculptor Julio González as well as some of his own stylised sculptural depictions of pregnant women from the same year.
The origin of these forms of line in Picasso's collaborations with González relates to a more general development that took place in his work during the late 1940s. At the end of 1948, only a few months before Femme assise was painted, Picasso created two versions of a large-scale picture entitled La cuisine. In those works, he showed the interior of the kitchen at his apartment on the rue des Grands Augustins in Paris, rendered with a nearmonochrome background upon which were a number of lines, circles and grids, resembling a circuit board. These shapes in fact mark out the space of the kitchen, as well as the birdcages and Spanish plates within it; one of these pictures is now in The Museum of Modern Art, New York while the other is in the Musée Picasso, Paris. Those pictures appeared to reprise, albeit on the two-dimensional surface of the canvas, Picasso's project for a monument for his friend, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire. Picasso's original maquette for this, which was a construction made with joining wires, had been created in 1928, ten years after the poet's death, and La cuisine was painted twenty years after that. Like those two large paintings of his kitchen, Femme assise takes a similar visual language, but adds a vast dose of energy, both in the form of its colours and in its intense, vivid and vigorous brushwork.
Looking at Femme assise, it is clear that this picture comprises a fusion of a number of influences. Indeed, it taps into both the development of his own representations of his partner, Françoise, and also into his longer-standing exploration of the theme of the sitting woman. This was a theme that remained primarily linked to Dora Maar, the photographer whom Françoise had supplanted in Picasso's affections. Picasso would often playfully blend the stylistic tropes that were associated with one of his lovers with the features of another, playing complex games with his viewers, as is the case in this representation of Françoise in an armchair, the attribute of Dora. A fractured and intense presence in Picasso's life, Dora had a darkness that had in turn been perfectly suited to the era of tension and oppression that had come about with the civil war in his native Spain and then in the Second World War. Picasso had channelled her anxieties into his paintings from the period, often showing her tormented, sitting in an armchair.
Only a few years before Femme assise was painted, Picasso would tell Andr Malraux that, 'Dora, for me, was always a weeping woman... And its important, because women are suffering machines... When I paint a woman in an armchair, the armchair implies old age or death, right? So, too bad for her' (Picasso to André Malraux, in A. Malraux, Picasso's Mask, New York, 1976, p. 138). The armchair remained a presence in some of Picasso's pictures of Françoise. This was the case even during the early stages of their relationship, for instance in the sensual image of her from 1946 which is now in the Musée Picasso. That work appears to share some of the compositional foundations of Femme assise, for instance the blue torso, the yellow in the background and the bold use of grey in order both to add to the sense of structure and solidity in the picture and also to push the colours all the more to the fore. Similarly, these areas of colour would be echoed in a picture of Françoise dating to 1947 which is now in the Musée Picasso, Antibes, in which her body and head are made up of looping circles and lines that contain blue around the breast and one of her arms and green around the right-hand edge of the chair and its bottom. In Femme assise, those compositional devices have again appeared, yet in a manner that reveals the extent to which Picasso has pushed his iconography: the constraints of those earlier pictures, with their stained-glass like containment of colours within fields, have been thrown to the wind. Instead, there is a dynamism to Femme assise, with the red, green and yellow areas, which recall the glyphs of the paintings of Picasso's compatriot Joan Miró, creating a sense of swirling motion and energy that drags the eye repeatedly across the canvas.
The armature-like forms, with lines leading from circle to circle as though tracing the movements of particles, recall diagrams of atomic movements, a pertinent subject during the late 1940s when the Cold War was becoming increasingly tense. Picasso must have been aware of this simmering conflict and of the escalation of the nuclear standoff in his capacity as a member of the Communist Party whose First International Peace Conference he was due to attend a month after Femme assise was painted. This invocation of immense forces of atomic energy may also link to the imminent delivery of his child. However, the veneer of the scientific is deliberately disrupted by the intensely subjective and stylised manner of presentation. Picasso has shown Françoise in a manner that is far from scientific, instead twisting various aspects of visual language to his own purposes. The flashes of colour recall Gjon Mili's famous photographs taken around this time, in which he encouraged Picasso and indeed Françoise to 'draw' in the air with an electric light, taking the photograph with an extended exposure in order that the patterns were recorded on the negative. They have an electric, pulsing energy to them that adds an incredible and unconventional sense of life to Femme assise. At the same time, some of the similar dark lines within the composition appear like some form of X-ray image of Françoise's skeleton, peeking through the grey and blue of her clothing. These ball-and-bar structures appeared in a number of Picasso's pictures during this period. Derived in part from the sculptures that he had created two decades earlier, that themselves had allowed Picasso to 'draw' in three dimensions, they often have a calligraphic elegance and reveal the draughtsmanship that underpins so much of his work.
The intensity of the curving pools of colour that so animate the surface of Femme assise may reveal Picasso's regard for his friend and artistic rival, Henri Matisse, who by this time had begun his experiments with the cut-out. This was a collage-like technique that allowed him to place entire fields of pre-coloured paper onto the picture surface, gradually resulting in lyrical compositions that are celebrated to this day. The yellow at the right of Femme assise in particular echoes the use of those paper fragments, yet Picasso has twisted them to a new purpose, adding a textured, painterly dimension in part through the vivid juxtapositions of colour and in part through his decision to keep some of the canvas in reserve, allowing the primed surface to show through and therefore create a contrast that underscores the substantiality of the thick, gestural swathes of oils.
That interest in collage, a technique in which Picasso had already proved himself a pioneer and an expert during the years of his Cubism, was integral to some of the pictures of Françoise that were painted at the beginning of 1949 like Femme assise. For in one of the works painted five days before Femme assise and subsequently illustrated in Picasso and Portraiture, the 1996 exhibition organised by the legendary curator William Rubin, Picasso appears to have taken one of his own lithographs of her face and essentially copied it onto a canvas before painting around it (see W. Rubin, ed., Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation, exh. cat., London, 1996, p. 429). That picture featured a near-rectangle of black-and white showing Françoise's face and contrasting with the fields of surrounding colour. Picasso subsequently created a number of variations on this theme, spinning away from the original seed of an idea which he now used as a mere springboard for a rich seam of portrayals of Franoise. Picasso's love of variations was a characteristic that Franoise had observed first-hand in him, especially with La cuisine: he would often like to see the various routes and manoeuvres that were opened up by a single original idea (see F. Gilot & C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, Toronto & London, 1964, pp. 220-21). Comparing Femme assise to the far less gestural, more collage-like Femme dans un fauteuil that featured the print device and which had been painted five days earlier, one can trace the evolution of this compositional concept, as the kernel of the lithograph-inspired portrait of Françoise gradually becomes something far livelier, far freer. The traces of that print composition are still visible in the part-Cubist rendering of her features, constructed using angular lines and ovals for the nose and eyes. These have been subjected to deliberate distortions, but crucially serve as a figurative anchor for the incredible vitality of the maelstrom of brushwork and colour of the rest of the canvas: the Cubistic construction of the face contrasts with the dynamic fluidity of the bold fields of yellow, green and red or the incredibly textured background.
Françoise gave birth to Paloma exactly a month after Femme assise was painted, and on the same day that Picasso himself was to address the Communist-organised First International Peace Conference, to which he had given a lithograph of a dove as a logo, using the motif that had been so associated with his painter father and which would lend his daughter her name. Perhaps reflecting the sudden impact that being a father to a baby had on Picasso's life after this, the birth of his fourth child and the second by Françoise, after a series of vibrant pictures such as Femme assise in March that year, Picasso painted little during the rest of 1949, making Femme assise a rare insight into this period of change into the artist's life.
Femme assise was formerly in the collection of Leigh B. Block, an American steel magnate and philanthropist who owned an incredible string of masterpieces, many of which are in the museum founded in his and his wifes name, while others are in other prominent public galleries, most importantly the Art Institute of Chicago. As well as Picassos Femme assise, Blocks collection featured iconic works by artists such as Georges Braque, Paul Cézanne, Henri 'Le Douanier' Rousseau and the self-portrait with bandaged ear of Vincent van Gogh. Block was married to Mary Lasker, the daughter of one of the fathers of modern advertising, Albert D. Lasker. Lasker and his third wife, the philanthropist Mary Lasker (née Woodard) encouraged Mary and her sister Frances, who became Mrs Sidney Brody, in their collecting and their own generous donations to charity. In 1955, Block sold Femme assise at auction, where it was acquired by Mary Lasker, Mary Blocks stepmother.