Maya Widmaier-Picasso has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
Claude Picasso has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
Pablo Picasso painted Femme au fauteuil on 5 March 1949, only a little more than a month before the birth of his daughter, Paloma. Towards the end of the pregnancy of his then partner Françoise Gilot, when they were staying in Paris rather than their new home in Vallauris, Picasso created a series of images of women in armchairs; these bare a striking resemblance to earlier pictures of Françoise. Looking at Femme au fauteuil, it appears that the hair and the face with wide eyes and sensuous mouth which had appeared in Picasso's early drawings of Françoise have been codified, gaining an abstract quality while retaining their roots in their original; this is especially visible in the depiction of the mouth, which resembles two pairs of cherries. Femme au fauteuil thus appears to invoke a world of sensuality as well as fruitfulness, or fecundity; meanwhile, there is something in the puckering of the lips that remains strongly suggestive. While Picasso has rendered much of Femme au fauteuil in a palette which is dominated by deliberately leaden greys and earthy ochres, Picasso has mixed reds into the grey of the face and neck, adding a resonant hint of flesh to her skin; at the same time, the lips and the top of the clothing, with their vibrant red, are pushed into pulsing relief, adding an intense vitality to the composition. This is only too apt, coming on the brink of the birth of his child, and indeed on the brink of the celebration of Françoise's saint day on the 7 March, an event marked by a letter from her artistic hero and Picasso's friend and rival, Henri Matisse.
Many of Picasso's earliest images of Françoise had been drawings which focussed on her open face and youthful looks, even in his incarnation of her as the Femme-fleur, an image which dwelled on her curvaceous body and sense of youthful fertility. This reflected his incredible enthusiasm for her: while Dora Maar had been his perfect model and indeed partner during the years of the Occupation, as soon as Liberation was in the air, he increasingly turned towards the youthful optimism of Françoise, a young aspiring artist who had caught his eye when she was dining in Le Catalan, the restaurant which he frequented during the Occupation, often holding court. Gradually, he allowed Françoise increasing access to his life and within some months they were a couple. The presence of the young, beautiful painter was revivifying for Picasso, who was himself in his sixties, while she was in her early twenties. While she was not the brooding intellectual that Dora had been, she also lacked the psychological problems of her predecessor; nonetheless, she was an able match for Picasso with whom he was able to discuss art in conversations recorded for posterity in her books Life with Picasso and Matisse and Picasso. In 1947, Françoise would give birth to their son Claude and soon after that, the couple decided to have another child; it was during this second pregnancy that Femme au fauteuil was painted.
Within a short time of their meeting, Picasso had begun to celebrate Françoise in his pictures. Her wide eyes, generous lips and flowing hair often dominated Picasso's images of her. In Femme au fauteuil, each of those features has evolved into something more abstracted. The earlier image of her flowing locks has been transformed into a set of striations which add a vibrant dynamism to the canvas. Meanwhile, one of her eyes has become an hypnotic whirlpool filled with concentric circles; the other has been presented sideways. This is a device that links the depiction to Picasso's earlier Cubism, the revolutionary movement he pioneered in which he presented the visual world as though seen in the round. At the same time, it echoes the depiction of Françoise's eyes, which he often presented as unequal. It also appears to resemble the Eye of Horus amulets of ancient Egypt; this single sideways eye was a feature that would often come to appear in the later pictures that Picasso created of his subsequent partner, and second wife, Jacqueline Roque.
Invoking ancient Egypt introduces the realm of the mythic to this picture. Indeed, it is more than a portrait: it is a symbol, albeit a highly personalised one. The face itself appears to recall the tribal sculptures that had so enthralled Picasso earlier in his career. Meanwhile, the almost layered composition of the head also recalls Picaso's own forays into sculpture: at this time, he was indeed on the brink of beginning another campaign into the realm of the plastic arts, which would, perhaps aptly, include a sculpture of a pregnant woman the following year. The accumulation of forms which comprises the head in Femme au fauteuil prefigures the so-called 'cut-out' sculptures which Picasso would, over a decade later, create, several of which would be enlarged and placed in civic spaces in several places throughout the world.
The eyes, the cherry-like mouth and the form of the head invoke Picasso's private lexicon of symbols; they are trumped, though, by the presence of the armchair itself. While it was only natural that chairs should have featured in the work of an artist rooted in the figurative world, it was during the late 1930s and early 1940s that they had their apotheosis within his work. This was mainly through the images of his then lover, Dora Maar, a photographer in her own right whose own tormented personality had made her the perfect Muse for Picasso during the years of the Spanish Civil War, and then the Second World War. In those pictures, the torment of the times was expressed in the anxiety of the pictures, with Dora often shown as the weeping woman, sitting in a chair as though bound into it, as if it were some form of torture device. As Picasso explained to André Malraux a few years before Femme au fauteuil was painted, 'Dora, for me, was always a weeping woman... And it's 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, A. Malraux, Picasso's Mask, New York, 1976, p. 138).
In Femme au fauteuil, Picasso appears to have resuscitated this symbol, seemingly using it instead in a depiction of Françoise. This reveals the cross-germination of reference points that recurred throughout much of Picasso's career. While it is often believed that Picasso's life can be divided between his various lovers, with each one ushering in a new style and a new visual idiom, there was in fact a great deal of blurring and bleeding of these various forms. Picasso appears in part to have deliberately and playfully indulged in this Protean ability to traipse between styles; while he was involved with both Dora and his previous partner, Marie-Thérèse Walter, each was sometimes shown in a guise that recalled the styles more often associated with the other. In Femme au fauteuil, this decision to intermingle his styles is evident by comparison with some of the armchair images of Dora. Picasso has taken the palette and the chair and revived them, also distorting the facial features. However, much of Françoise remains, for instance in the hair, the eyes, the mouth and indeed the absence of one of Dora's eccentric hats.
Perhaps, considering Françoise's pregnancy during this period, Picasso's next comment to André Malraux about the armchairs in his pictures is relevant: 'Or else the armchair is there to protect her' (Picasso, quoted in ibid., p. 138). For Picasso, the armchair also served a purely formal purpose, as he explained to Françoise herself during an argument she discussed in her memoir of the relationship between the Spanish artist and his contemporary, Henri Matisse: 'They are necessary as architectonic props, to stabilise the composition. Isn't it natural for a model to sit while posing for the painter?' (Picasso, quoted in F. Gilot, Matisse and Picasso: A Friendship in Art, London, 1990, p. 150). Françoise in turn would protest that, considering Picasso did not work from life, this appeared moot; intriguingly, it was during this argument that Picasso had also attacked Matisse's statement, made decades earlier in 1908, that a painting should provide the comfort of an armchair to businessmen as well as artists and intellectuals (see H. Matisse, 'Notes d'un peintre', La grande revue, Vol. 52, 1908, pp. 731-45).
This concept of art as a source of comfort was anathema to Picasso, and would lead to a slightly bitter exchange between the two painters as they discussed art with Françoise. Looking at Femme au fauteuil, it is clear that the chair, which appears to have melded in part with the woman's head and whose back strut is deliberately uneven, appearing higher on the right than on the left, Picasso has clearly eschewed the saccharine lyricism of some of his earlier images of Françoise for a grittier expressionism that is heightened by the frenetic brushwork in some parts. Indeed, in appearance and in style, Femme au fauteuil appears to serve as a bridge between the angst-ridden images of Dora and Picasso's subsequent, almost Informel images of Jacqueline.
In this sense, Femme au fauteuil also acts as an indicator of Picasso's deflated optimism in the wake of the Second World War. At the point of Liberation, Picasso had created vibrant images of tomatoes, filled with appetite and potential. These are recalled in the red, round forms of the clothes in Femme au fauteuil and also in the contrast between that luminous colour and the rest of the canvas. However, the wartime palette appears to have crept back into Femme au fauteuil. This may well reflect the atmosphere of the age, saturated as it was by the Existentialism espoused by writers such as Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre, the latter of whom Picasso had known during the years of the Occupation. It may also reflect the dissipated optimism that had come in the wake of the War. While people had hoped that the Second World War would be the conflict to end all conflicts, the French bombardment of the port of Haiphong in 1946 had served to puncture the bubble of optimism while also paving the way for the later Indochinese and Vietnam wars. In Femme au fauteuil, on the one hand the viewer sees the rich, organic brown of the rich tresses of the woman's hair and the globular curve of the red breast, which recalls the images of the fecund Françoise that Picasso had created a few years earlier showing her as the Femme-fleur; on the other hand, there is a jutting angularity that hints at a discontent. Picasso appears to be conflicted in his own right, torn between his own hopes and aspirations on the brink of the birth of a new child and his worries about the world around him.
It was in part because of those worries that Picasso had joined the Communist Party at the end of the Second World War. During 1949, the month before Femme au fauteuil was painted, Picasso had been visited in his studio by the poet Louis Aragon, a prominent member of the party. Aragon had seen a lithograph of a dove, one of Picasso's oldest motifs which was in part a tribute to his father, who had often painted pigeons; Aragon asked that he might be able to use the image for a poster, reincarnating it as a dove of peace. Posters soon appeared throughout Paris showing Picasso's pigeon-cum-dove; indeed, it became the visual motif for the World Peace Congress organised by the Communist Party in Paris in 1949, which opened the day after his daughter was born. It was only apt that he should name her, in tribute to both his own father and to this hope for peace, Paloma, the Spanish word for dove.