Painted not from any conventional distance, but close in, as if face-to-face in quiet conversation, Nu les bras croisés may be likened to a tenderly intimate encounter between two lovers in a softly illumined bedroom, late in the evening. As if he and this woman were lying side-by-side in bed, Picasso has transferred this most private, personal vantage point to the viewer. She props herself on her elbows as they talk; her wide-open, radiant gaze reveals an affectionate, guileless regard for her partner. She is Jacqueline Roque, Picasso’s mistress since the summer of 1954. This scene may well depict a cold February night at their mountainside chateau in Vauvenargues. A little more than a year after Picasso painted this touching moment, the woman at his side became his second wife, for whom the final years of Picasso’s epic life in art have been designated “l’époque Jacqueline.”
Some five years previously, Pablo Picasso elevated Jacqueline to the role of domina, both in his work and in his home, when he painted her as the sultan’s sumptuously garbed favorite in the culminating version—lettered “O” and dated 14 February 1955—of the fifteen harem paintings he created in homage to Delacroix’s Les femmes d’Alger (Zervos, vol. 16, no. 360; sold, Christie’s New York,11 May 2015, lot 8A). From orientalist odalisque to “the nude as nude”—as Picasso subsequently preferred to paint her, in the fundamental relationship of an artist and his model—Jacqueline reigned as sole, absolute muse in the studio, and as the loving companion, indispensable assistant, and ever mindful, protective, and nurturing feminine presence in Picasso’s daily life.
After painting Jacqueline as a seated nude on 21 June 1959 (Zervos, vol. 18, no. 488), Picasso did not again touch a brush to canvas for the remainder of the year. He had become preoccupied instead with the final stages of a project that had first been proposed to him back in 1927, a tribute to bullfighting—a modern equivalent of Francisco Goya’s Tauromaquia of 1815. Between July and December 1959, Picasso filled entire sketchbooks with corrida scenes, even after La Tauromaquia, illustrated with his 26 aquatints and an etching, was published in Barcelona on 25 October 1959, his 78th birthday. Picasso continued to feature the bullfight in his work far into the next year.
Among these numerous studies of torreros, picadores, and wounded bulls, Picasso also first revealed, in a series of drawings executed 10-11 August 1959 (Zervos, vol. 19, nos. 35-43), the subject of his next tribute to an earlier master—Edouard Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe, which scandalized the Parisian art world when it was first shown at the Salon des Refusés in 1863 (Musée d’Orsay, Paris). Viewed from the side with her legs drawn up and in, a young woman is seated outdoors, nude, amid two fully dressed gentleman artists; another woman, attired in her chemise only, leans to dip her hands into the water of the pond behind them. The compactness of posture in both these female figures appears to have fascinated Picasso, who often depicted his nude subjects in similarly casual, but unusual poses, as if to deliberately side-step the horizontal, reclining convention of the nude in repose perennially favored by many artists.
Picasso inaugurated his production in 1960 with more than two dozen drawings on the theme of le bain de pieds, depicting a woman washing the feet of a seated nude; these studies resulted in the artist’s first oil painting in nearly six months, dated 30 January 1960 (Zervos, vol. 19, no. 157), conceived after Rembrandt’s Bethsabée au bain, 1654 (Musée du Louvre, Paris). Picasso created a dozen figure paintings of Jacqueline—nude, seated, and in most compositions bending forward, attending to her feet—as well as the present Nu les bras croisés, during the next several weeks. Based on the drawings he had done six months earlier, the artist completed on 27-28 February his first large canvases after Manet’s Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (Zervos, vol. 19, nos. 200-201). The two nudes, in pale pink against the dark greenery, are even more prominent than in Manet’s composition.
Jacqueline never needed to pose for Picasso—her constant proximity was sufficient inspiration for the artist’s Protean imagination. He enjoyed wildly rummaging through all manners of art since the Renaissance, as well as earlier phases of his own oeuvre, to come up with suitable situational and stylistic guises for Jacqueline, who, in Picasso’s eye, appeared capable of embodying any woman and all women. He typically depicted Jacqueline’s visage, even if ostensibly frontal, as a profile folded back on itself, with a surrealist’s suggestion of the complex inner self. This multiple view, all-in-one, planar approach—Picasso’s early cubism still at work—resulted in the cut, bent, and welded metal sculptures that Picasso created of Jacqueline’s head and figure, beginning in late 1960.
From these many strands in his work, each focused on the nude—always Jacqueline—Picasso commenced his concerted campaign on the theme le peintre et son modèle in February 1963. “The great search for freedom in painting is begun anew,” Picasso’s close friend Hélène Parmelin announced. “A strange freedom! Every time he embraces her, she takes advantage to enfold the creator. Each time he has her, he loses her. If he wants to keep her, he must begin everything all over again… And from this moment on he paints like a madman, perhaps never before with such frenzy” (Picasso: The Artist and his Model, New York, 1965, p. 10).