Pablo Picasso painted Femme au costume turc dans un fauteuil on 20 November 1955. This picture is one of a small group of portraits showing Jacqueline Roque in the costume of an 'odalisque', a woman of the harem. The identification of the model is clear from comparison with other works from the selected series, and also with portraits that Picasso had created of her during the course of 1954 and 1955; indeed, a little over a year before he painted Femme au costume turc dans un fauteuil, he had drawn an intimate image of Jacqueline's face showing the nose, as here, facing to the right while the rest appeared predominantly orientated towards the left. That had been one of Picasso's early depictions of Jacqueline: while they had met in 1952, when she was assisting Suzanne Ramié in the workshop in Vallauris where Picasso made his ceramics, it was only later in 1953 that she had become established as the artist's partner, especially following the final rupture with Françoise Gilot in September that year. Femme au costume turc dans un fauteuil therefore dates from relatively early in this relationship and is a colourful, tender celebration of Jacqueline, whom Picasso would marry six years later and who would become one of the most important muses of the artist's entire life.
In Femme au costume turc dans un fauteuil, Picasso has shown Jacqueline in the exotic garb of a woman of the seraglio. The theme of the odalisque derived from Picasso's variations upon Eugène Delacroix's celebrated masterpiece, Les femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement, now in the Louvre, Paris. Picasso had created his own versions of Les femmes d'Alger from December 1954 until early 1955 in his studio in the rue des Grands Augustins in Paris. In Femme au costume turc dans un fauteuil, painted at the end of 1955, Picasso has returned to the theme of the odalisque with relish: this is one of a series of pictures in which he painted a single woman dressed as an odalisque, taking his cues from Delacroix, from Ingres, from himself, and crucially from Henri Matisse. In this string of portraits, Picasso created a new sequence of variations, showing Jacqueline sometimes more figuratively, sometimes less. She appears in profile in some pictures, facing the viewer in others, here sitting upon a chair, there upon the floor. Picasso appears to have been playfully exploring the pictorial potential of Jacqueline's striking features, for instance by inverting the nose in Femme au costume turc dans un fauteuil or, in another work painted six days later and sold at Christie's New York in November 2007, by creating a heavier, more stylised impression of the head.
Picasso had long been intrigued by Delacroix's works. Gilot would recall a visit to the Louvre with Georges Salle, when Picasso had been given the chance to compare his own works to the Old Masters there. Picasso 'then asked to see some of his paintings beside Delacroix's Death of Sardanapalus, The Massacre of Chios and The Women of Algiers,' Gilot wrote. 'He had often spoken to me of making his own version of The Women of Algiers and had taken me to the Louvre on an average of once a month to study it... I asked him how he felt about the Delacroix. His eyes narrowed and he said, "That bastard. He's really good"' (F. Gilot & C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, Toronto & London, 1964, p. 203). This shows the extent to which the idea of tackling Delacroix had gestated within Picasso over the decades. However, it was perhaps a number of external influences and events that finally prompted him to confront it in his own series of works, and later in the portraits of Jacqueline such as Femme au costume turc dans un fauteuil. One of these was Jacqueline (whose resemblance to the woman squatting to the right of the composition in Delacroix's original had been noted by several people) and another was the death of Matisse.
It was at the end of 1954 that Matisse had died. He and Picasso, the two towering giants of twentieth-century art, had increasingly found solace in each other's company during their later years, having earlier enjoyed a more thorny friendship heavily spiced with rivalry. Picasso was more and more willing to admit to Matisse's brilliance, even going so far as to declare that, 'All things considered, there is only Matisse’ (Picasso, quoted in J. Golding, 'Introduction’, pp. 13-24, Cowling et al., ed., Matisse Picasso, exh. cat., London, 2002, p. 24). When Matisse died, Picasso initially appeared to be in denial, refusing to answer the phone to hear the news, let alone to attend the funeral. Now, deprived of any contemporaries with whom to discuss the nature and ramifications of art, Picasso sought out the company of the long-departed masters, be it Delacroix, Edouard Manet or Diego Velazquez. Picasso, made aware of the issue of his own legacy and standing in the history of art, especially during a period of international retrospectives that were causing a constant re-evaluation of his impact upon the development of painting, turned to the pantheon of painters of the past for inspiration, company and conversation. At the same time, he was placing himself all the more firmly within that firmament.
It was no coincidence that Picasso's Les femmes d'Alger began to make their sunny, sensuous appearance in his paintings just over a month after Matisse's death. The connection between this theme and the heady, orientalised world of languorous sexuality of Matisse's fictive harem scenes, was immediately recognised. To Roland Penrose, who commented upon it during a visit to Picasso's studio in 1955, he declared: 'when Matisse died he left his odalisques to me as a legacy, and this is my idea of the orient though I have never been there' (Picasso, quoted in R. Penrose, Picasso: His Life and Work, London, 1958, pp. 351-52). This is no less the case in Femme au costume turc dans un fauteuil: in this picture and its sister works, the single female figure is clearly intended to echo the odalisques of Delacroix's world, of Ingres' pictorial universe, and also crucially of Matisse's oeuvre. These pictures all serve as tributes to the departed master.
Picasso was all the more aware of the orientalising universe of the senses with which Matisse infused his pictures as he owned one of his 1942 paintings showing a woman in a 'robe persane', which is now in the Musée Picasso, Paris. This may have helped to set the precedent of the solitary female figure which Picasso explored in Femme au costume turc dans un fauteuil and the other pictures Picasso painted during the days just before and after. After all, unlike in the Femmes d'Alger, here the woman is shown upon a seat, rather than the floor, marking a significant rupture with both Delacroix's picture and with several of Picasso's own pictures showing her as an odalisque. Looking at Femme au costume turc dans un fauteuil, the composition is more in keeping with those of Matisse.
Picasso painted a nude odalisque just over a week after Femme au costume turc dans un fauteuil which appears to have marked a culminating point in the series and is now owned by the Musée national d'Art moderne, Paris; in that picture, there is a strong similarity with several of the paintings by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. Picasso had long looked to the classicising Ingres with reverence. He had even been spotted by Ernest Ansermet looking at his own reflection in the mirror and referring to himself as, 'Monsieur Ingres' (see P. Schneider, Matisse, London, 1984, p. 502). Now, with the nude shown wearing her exotic, patterned headwear, it is Ingres' Grande odalisque and the central figure in Le bain turc that are echoed. Indeed, looking at the vigorous painting style of Femme au costume turc dans un fauteuil and its incandescent palette, with the reds and yellows burning against the darker background, Picasso's comments to Penrose on the occasion of another of his visits to the artist's studio in 1955 appear relevant: he declared that, 'he wanted some day to do a version of the Odalisque of Ingres à la Van Gogh' (Penrose, quoted in E. Cowling, Visiting Picasso: The Notebooks and Letters of Roland Penrose, London, 2006, p. 105).
Even in his variations upon the theme of Les femmes d'Alger, Picasso had made reference to Ingres, deliberately creating a juxtaposition between the works of two artists whose views were completely at odds with one another. This may even have been a parallel to his own relationship with Matisse. Delacroix's Les femmes d'Algers dans leur appartement nonetheless remains the key to Femme au costume turc dans un fauteuil, as is made clear by the evolution of the theme as it approached the nude with the headscarf in the Musée national d'Art moderne. While Femme au costume turc dans un fauteuil and some of the other pictures from that date and the day before show Jacqueline seated in a chair, from the 22 November, two days later, she is shown instead cross-legged on the ground, as is the central figure in Delacroix's work. Even in Femme au costume turc dans un fauteuil, the costume appears to echo that of Delacroix's odalisques, be it the central figure whose skin is partially exposed through the filter of her chiffon-like top or the red and gold of the left-hand woman who is lying, looking out from the scene.
Intriguingly, it was in the squatting woman on the right of Delacroix's picture that people noted the similarity with Jacqueline. It was doubtless this coincidence which helped to suggest this exploration of her features in the original pictures based on Les femmes d'Alger dans leur appartement and later in Femme au costume turc dans un fauteuil and the other related pictures. John Richardson suggested that, as well as her appearance, Jacqueline's character made this subject all the more relevant, helping to usher in the Femmes d'Alger and the portraits in Turkish costume:
'Françoise had not been the Delacroix type. Jacqueline, on the contrary, epitomised it - and not just in physiognomy. All three of Delacroix's "Women of Algiers" have the same squat, short-waisted torso that we find in numerous paintings of Jacqueline... All three "Women of Algiers" likewise manifest Jacqueline's submissiveness towards the absent but ever present pasha, the painter. And then, there is the African connection: Jacqueline had lived for many years as the wife of a colonial official in Upper Volta, now called Burkina. As Picasso remarked, "Ouagadougou may not be Algiers, nonetheless Jacqueline has an African provenance"' (J. Richardson, 'L’Epoque Jacqueline,’ pp. 17-48, in Late Picasso: Paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints 1953-1972, exh. cat., London & Paris, 1988, p. 18).
This connection to Africa was in fact more than Picasso's own: despite being the collector of African art and allowing it to infuse his works as he worked towards Cubism via the Demoiselles d'Avignon, despite sometimes showing his penchant for the Orientalist, he had never made it South of the Mediterranean. His direct experience stretched only to the Moorish culture evident in Andalusia. However, while Picasso may never have made the trip into the realm of the Arabs that he would celebrate in his Femmes d'Alger and in Femme au costume turc dans un fauteuil, he was able to approach them through Jacqueline, as though by proxy. In addition, Femme au costume turc dans un fauteuil was painted only shortly after Picasso had acquired a new home in the form of the Villa La Californie, near Cannes. This expansive building would soon affect Picasso's works: the arabesques and curlicues of its window frames would come to define many of his interiors, adding a new hint of the exotic. Meanwhile, Picasso was beginning to feel himself more and more established in the warmth and light of the South of France, and it began to tell in his pictures. Even in the dark interior shown in Femme au costume turc dans un fauteuil, Picasso has managed to channel some of Delacroix's North Africa and Matisse's studio, giving the impression that this is a nook of welcome shade within which the radiance of the woman's costume glows.
Picasso had sought a new retreat as he was finding that his celebrity profile was eroding his liberties: in Paris, he was feeling his life was hampered by journalists who recognised him wherever he went near his now-legendary studio in the rue des Grands Augustins. Meanwhile, he was uncomfortable in his residence in Vallauris, which was relatively small and carried with it overbearing associations with Françoise Gilot. Now, he sought a new, more private residence, a domain in the South of France - his own retreat, his own harem. Picasso linked the acquisition of the Villa La Californie in the Summer of 1955, just a few months before he painted Femme au costume turc dans un fauteuil, to his series of variations upon Delacroix: 'I thought so much about Femmes d'Alger that I found La Californie; that's how it is with painting. And Delacroix had already met Jacqueline' (Picasso, quoted in P. Daix, Picasso: Life and Art, New York, 1993, p. 329). Looking at Femme au costume turc dans un fauteuil and the pictures Picasso created during the same weeks, it is clear that this marked the consummation of a union that had been solemnised with this purchase of a new home: now, Picasso, Jacqueline and indeed Delacroix were together at last. This was noted by Penrose: 'Many of the paintings produced in the new house are portraits of Jacqueline. In some of them she is wearing a Turkish dress reminiscent of the Dames d'Alger. The classical lines of her profile and the large, dark eyes that Picasso has given her are impressive in their likeness. In others, representation has been sacrificed to gay improvisations with flat brilliant patches of colour, which recall the most daring inventions of Matisse' (Penrose, op. cit., 1958, p. 358).