Picasso’s inspiration in creating the pastel Femme accoudée was twofold, as he pursued parallel interests in matters of subject and style. The sitter is the artist’s wife Olga, née Khokhlova, whom he met in 1917 while she was a leading dancer in Serge Diaghilev’s Les Ballets Russes. They married the following year, and soon after took an apartment on the rue la Boétie, the new epicenter of the Parisian art trade; the gallery of dealer Paul Rosenberg, whom Picasso met while on his honeymoon with Olga, was a couple of doors away. Sales were making Picasso a wealthy man. On 4 February 1921, Olga presented her husband, who would turn forty later that year, with a son as his first-born, the sole male heir on his side of the Ruiz-Picasso family. The child was named Paulo Joseph, to mark the line of succession from Picasso’s father, Don José Ruiz, also a painter, who died in 1913. The grateful artist celebrated the event in a series of maternity drawings and paintings, while also honoring Olga as a timeless model of graceful, fruitful femininity in figure paintings and portraits.
The idea of generational continuity, in a wider art historical context, had also become paramount at this juncture in shaping Picasso’s paintings and drawings. During the previous decade, in the invention and development of Cubism, he was instrumental in taking modernism toward a new frontier in the perception, analysis, and representation of reality as conceptually deduced forms. He continued into the 1920s to paint in this manner, enriched by his continually evolving, inventive synthesis of formal elements toward innovative pictorial ends. By the end of the First World War in 1918, Picasso had moreover expanded the scope of his thematic interests to engage in a dialogue with the art of the past. In response to the trauma of the recently concluded war, le rappel à l’ordre—“the call to order”—had gone out, promulgating a return to humanist values in the context of a new classicism. In the hands of lesser artists, the result was often an escapist palliative of familiar conservative styles. Picasso, however, had already anticipated this development, having created classicized drawings as early as 1914—he had something more far-reaching and transformative in mind. He sought to employ the re-awakening of the classical impetus as a means of reinvigorating modernist syntax and expanding the parameters of contemporary content. It was time, Picasso believed, to ground the new art in the eternal values that had governed image-making from antiquity, through the Renaissance, and beyond.
“To me there is no past or future in art,” Picasso declared in a statement taken by Marius de Zayas, published in 1923. “If a work of art cannot always live in the present it must not be considered at all. The art of the Greeks, of the Egyptians, of the great painters who lived in other times, is not an art of the past; perhaps it is more alive today than it ever was” (D. Ashton, ed., Picasso on Art, New York, 1972, p. 4).
The subjects of Cubism were typically things—common, everyday objects in static compositions. After seven years of cubist practice, Picasso wished to break from still-life to real life; he was eager to pick up where he had left off with the primary subjects of his formative, pre-cubist youth, such as the archaically styled figures and heads he created at Gósol during the summer of 1906, and to once again explore in his art the characterful expression of the human visage and figure. “The body—usually the female body—was always, by a very long way, his principal subject,” Elizabeth Cowling has observed. “Nothing interested him as much, both in itself and because it gave him direct access to human emotion and human drama” (Picasso: Style and Meaning, London, 2002, p. 393). The emotional intimacy of marriage and the deepening investment of paternal responsibility were rites of passage that surely encouraged Picasso to experience more deeply, in a directly involved and most personal manner, his sensual life as a man, now a family man as well, and to configure his art-making as a vital, personal record expressive of his own humanity.
Picasso drew the present pastel portrait of Olga during the fall of 1921, after he and his family had returned to their Paris apartment following an idyllic summer spent in Fontainebleau, once the seasonal retreat of the kings of France—the royal palace, its grounds, and the town were steeped in the arts and architecture of the French classical ideal. “Fontainebleau proved to be the apogee of Picasso’s classicism,” John Richardson declared (Picasso: The Classical Period, exh. cat., C & M Arts, New York, 2003, p. 19). Having improvised a studio in a carriage house adjacent to the villa they rented, “Picasso spent the next three months turning out a succession of masterpieces—far more than he had done in the previous three months in Paris. Now that the baby had eclipsed him as the main focus of the household, he preferred to shut himself away in the garage and wrestle with classicism…After his return to Paris on September 23 or 24, Picasso continued to work as triumphantly as he had at Fontainebleau. The momentum generated in the course of the summer carried him through into the following year” (A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years 1917-1932, New York, 2007, pp. 190 and 203).
From the end of the war until 1924, Picasso worked simultaneously in two divergent, distinct pictorial idioms, producing ground-breaking canvases in both cubist and classical manners. While working in Fontainebleau during the summer of 1921, Picasso completed the two versions of Trois musiciens, definitive statements, both, of late synthetic cubism (Zervos, nos. 331 and 332). He also painted and drew, at times on a monumental scale, classical bathers and nudes, iconic images of a mother and child, and the allegorical Trois femmes à la fontaine (Zervos, no. 322). Whether draped or nude, these figures manifest the modeled solidity and the timeless, idealized features of ancient statuary. The women’s coiffures, pulled back or left wavy and loose, are those of classical goddesses or nymphs; their smoothly molded faces, eyes, and small lips, dominated by what Picasso described as a “Renaissance” nose, were conceived as if from cut and polished stone.
In this manner, Picasso also executed a dozen pastels of heads and busts. A photograph that Picasso took in his Fontainebleau studio shows Olga seated amidst a group of five such works related to Trois femmes à la fontaine. Rendered in the powdery texture and subtle tints of the delicate pastel medium, these images possess a dream-like translucence, if they were apparitions from antiquity lit from within. At the same time, Picasso’s volumetric treatment in strong contrasts of light and shadow imbues these heads with an earthy presence, a stone-like permanence which is all the more impressive for having been drawn on large sheets of paper, with the heads appearing life-size or even greater in scale.
Picasso typically relished the idea of working against the grain of convention, and contravened “the call to order” in the aberrant facial and body proportions he chose to employ in his classical figures. In Femme accoudée, Picasso subjected Olga’s finely boned Slavic features to subtle rococo distortions, widening the space between her eyes while miniaturizing her lips. Present here, too, as a hallmark of Picasso’s classical manner, is the apparent enlargement of the sitter’s arms and hands. The artist recalled a dream that had frightened him as a boy, in which his limbs, and those of people around him, suddenly grew to bulging size and then as quickly shrunk to tiny, useless appendages. Such anti-naturalistic elasticity in plastic forms stems from precedents in Picasso’s earlier figurative styles, as well as his cubist practice, and would prevail throughout his subsequent oeuvre. Akin to the mythic dimension that underlies the serious evocation of classical antiquity, a psychological impetus moreover became evident in Picasso’s work during the early 1920s, and contributed to his interest in the emerging Surrealist movement later in the decade.
Picasso retained a strong interest in Cubism, but because his commitment was no longer exclusive, his burgeoning classical production prompted accusations from members of the avant-garde that he was repudiating modernism. “Cubism is an art of creation, not of reproduction or interpretation,” the poet Pierre Reverdy declared in 1917. “No cubist painter should execute a portrait” (quoted in M. FitzGerald, Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996, p. 301). Picasso rejected any such dogmatic, strictly partisan view of art history. He abhorred the repetitious, circumspect, and all too orderly production of various veteran and latecomer cubist painters during the post-war period, and made every effort to avoid this cul-de-sac in his own work. “The several manners I have used in my art must not be considered an evolution,” he stated to de Zayas. “If the subjects I have wanted to express have suggested different ways of expression I have never hesitated to adopt them…Whenever I have something to say, I have said it in the manner in which I have felt it ought to be said. This does not imply either evolution or progress, but an adaption of the idea one wants to express and the means to express that idea” (quoted in D. Ashton, ed., op. cit., 1972, p. 5).
Picasso’s initial, first-hand encounter with antiquity coincided with his meeting and falling in love with Olga. They were both in Rome during early 1917, preparing Diaghilev’s production of the ballet Parade; Picasso was designing the costumes and stage sets. In the company of the writer Jean Cocteau and the choreographer Léonide Massine, the artist visited Naples and viewed the excavated remains of ancient Pompeii. “Picasso was thrilled by the majestic ruins,” Massine later recalled, “and climbed endlessly over broken columns to stand staring at fragments of Roman statuary” (quoted in J. Clair, ed., Picasso, 1917-1924: The Italian Journey, exh. cat., Palazzo Grassi, Venice, 1998, pp. 79-80). Picasso examined surviving artworks on display at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples, and there probably purchased a postcard of the Farnese Juno, now thought to be the goddess Artemis, a Roman copy after a Greek sculpture carved in the fifth century BCE. This sculpture became the basic model for Picasso’s female Fontainebleau heads. Picasso also took the opportunity to study examples of ancient fresco painting; a photograph taken by Cocteau at Pompeii shows Picasso pointing to a mural depicting Bacchus and Silenus. The artist brought home postcards, now in the Musée Picasso, of this and other Pompeian wall paintings. The muted, terracotta palette of Picasso’s Fontainebleau canvases and pastels suggests the partly faded, though still earthy resonance of ancient fresco technique. Before returning to Paris, Picasso visited Florence, where he admired the primitives in the Uffizi, the paintings of Raphael, and the sculptures of Michelangelo.
In addition to referencing Greek and Roman prototypes, Picasso’s paintings from the early 1920s acknowledge the classical tradition manifest in the art of Poussin, Ingres, and Puvis de Chavannes. Picasso remained from early in his career a steadfast admirer of the Italianate aspect in the naturalism of Corot—the pensive, hand-to-cheek gesture appears frequently in the latter’s portraits. The voluptuous, classicized late nudes of Renoir, replete with volumetric gigantism in the models’ hands and limbs—works which Rosenberg featured in his gallery—cast their spell on Picasso, who eventually acquired seven of the artist’s figure paintings. He also owned a bathers composition by Cézanne—“he was like our father,” Picasso claimed (D. Ashton, ed., op. cit., 1972, p. 162; Rewald, no. 365; Musée Picasso, Paris). Cézanne had been determined “to remake Poussin according to nature.”
Having refracted the image of Olga through the lens of art history, Picasso affectionately idealized his wife. His classical women, their timeless, universal aspect notwithstanding, display a more intimate emotional relationship to the “muse” that inspired them than is elsewhere apparent among his contemporaries. For Picasso, the relationship between the artist and his model would always remain fundamental to his art—the definitive model in any given period is the woman he loved. Olga was not the earliest in this line; she was, however, the first whose image largely dominated a particular style. Each of her successors—Marie-Thérèse Walter, Dora Maar, Françoise Gilot, and Jacqueline Roque—would likewise lend their names and faces to a stylistic period in Picasso’s oeuvre. Each of them would be rewarded with various, occasional representations that reveal the continuing legacy of the classicism that Olga Picasso had inspired in her husband’s art.