Picasso painted two other portraits of Olga in the same dress, both of which can be found in public collections, including The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. and the Musée Picasso, Paris.
During the early months of 1923, Picasso completed a trio of large, exquisitely refined portraits of his wife, the Russian-born ballerina Olga Khokhlova, clad in an elegant blue dress with a fur collar. Two are rendered with oils, including the present version, and one with pastel, but all three share a supremely delicate, restrained touch that heightens the sitter’s pensive air, bringing forth her innermost reality. In the version in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., Olga averts her gaze from the viewer, a serenely impenetrable expression on her fine, flawlessly chiseled features; in the Musée Picasso pastel, she is entirely absorbed in her own thoughts, her bowed head resting against one hand in a traditional posture of contemplation (Zervos, vol. 5, nos. 29 and 38). In the present portrait, the most enigmatic of the group, she has paused in a moment of reverie in the midst of writing a letter, pen in hand and inkwell before her on the desk; her private thoughts remain a mystery to us, and likely to Picasso as well, but she shares them here with some unknown confidante.
Together, this sequence of paintings—not so much likenesses as idealizations—showcases the subtle power of expression that Picasso could summon forth while working in the urbane, coolly classicizing style of portraiture that Olga had inspired in his work. “Picasso saw his wife as a classical type,” Elizabeth Cowling has written, “classical in the regularity and clear definition of her features, classical in the styling of her hair, classical in her reserve and poise” (Picasso, Style and Meaning, London, 2002, p. 416). Here, the tactile sensuality of her blue dress—its fur collar brushing against the immaculate skin of her neck, the tassels on the sleeve gently grazing her forearm—contrasts with her ethereal beauty and distant, dignified mien, which seems to mask an inner sadness.
Picasso and Olga first met in Rome in February 1917 while preparing and rehearsing Serge Diaghilev’s premiere production of the ballet Parade. They married the following year and took an apartment on the fashionable rue la Boétie, the new epicenter of the Parisian art trade. Thereafter, Olga assumed a variety of guises in her husband’s art. Often, he transformed her into a Greco-Roman goddess, her body and features exaggerated volumetrically to mythological proportions; elsewhere, she is portrayed as an exquisitely beautiful Italianate Madonna, a Spanish matron in a lace mantilla, or most tenderly, a new mother in touching maternity scenes inspired by the birth of their sole child—a son, Paulo—in 1921. In the present painting, Olga appears as a stylishly dressed haute bourgeoise woman in a contemporary domestic setting, yet she remains as exalted and untouchable as any classical deity or Renaissance Virgin. “Picasso’s poetry verges on the unreal,” Josep Palau i Fabre has written, “in the sense that it often manages to situate the present in the past or the future, one step away from legend” (op. cit., 1999, p. 364).
Shortly before his voyage to Italy in 1917, Picasso had begun to travel two distinct stylistic avenues in his work, alternating with apparent ease between his late synthetic cubist manner and the more naturalistic, classically inflected mode of figuration that Olga would come to embody in his art. Although partisans of each manner endeavored to discredit his efforts in the other, the contrasting notions of cubism and classicism were, to Picasso’s mind, dual sides of the same coin—the totality of Western art in its most provocative, modern form, capable of generating a potent dialectic from which new, transformative ideas might issue forth. “We all know that Art is not truth,” he insisted. “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth. The artist must know the manner whereby to convince others of the truthfulness of his lies” (quoted in D. Ashton, ed., Picasso on Art, New York, 1972, p. 4).
Following the 1918 armistice, an ethos of renewal linked to a heightened awareness of tradition emerged to hold sway over the European avant-garde. Adhering to le rappel à l’ordre—the “call to order,” as formulated by Picasso’s friend Jean Cocteau—artists increasingly turned away from modernist contemporaneity to mine the Latinate Gallic past, from classical antiquity and the Italian Renaissance to the great French masters of recent centuries, most notably Poussin, David, and Ingres. This humanistic cultural imperative, they believed, could assuage and eventually heal the wounds that four years of unprecedented carnage had inflicted on the national body and soul, satisfying a deep yearning for harmony, unity, stability, and order.
Picasso’s ongoing exploration of classicism as a means of expanding the expressive parameters of contemporary art gained new impetus after the war from the shared, collective context of the rappel à l’ordre, together with the personal, biographical circumstance of his marriage to Olga, his own classical muse. By the end of the decade, he had adopted a broad array of classically inspired subjects and elements of style which he retooled and forged into an eclectic, highly individual display of unbounded invention, with multivalent inferences of context and meaning. “To me there is no past or future in art,” he declared. “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” (ibid., p. 4).
The present La Lettre is an illustrative case in point, replete with sources in the history of art. As in Ingres’s great female portraits, Olga is here depicted with impeccable academic precision; her skin appears like porcelain, polished to perfection and catching the light. To render the minute details of her hair and dress, Picasso used an exceptionally fine brush, dipped in black paint and handled like a pen, recalling Ingres’s flawless ink drawings; cross-hatching in the bodice creates a subtly sculptural effect. “These academic tours de force,” John Richardson has written about La Lettre and the two related portraits of Olga in a blue dress, “are unashamedly Ingresque” (op. cit., 2007, pp. 218 and 219). At the same time, as Richardson has noted, the silken sheen of these works suggests that Picasso was studying 18th century pastel portraits in the stock of his new dealer Paul Rosenberg. In La Lettre, he handled the oil paints as gently as pastel, covering the canvas with a light, almost evanescent touch to create a surface of admirable delicacy.
The motif of a woman writing a letter—or more commonly, reading one—also calls to mind 18th-century French precedent, in particular the genre scenes of Greuze and Fragonard. In Picasso’s re-imagining of the theme, however, there is no trace of the moralizing, sentimentality, or eroticism with which earlier artists—for whom the letter, by default, was a love letter—imbued such imagery. Instead, the portrait of Olga at her writing desk has a hushed, introspective quality that suggests the influence of Corot, whose moody late figure paintings had occupied a key place in Picasso’s personal trove of artistic sources since the Corot retrospective at the 1909 Salon d’Automne. Italy had been a revelation for Corot, as Picasso well understood during his own stay in Rome, Naples, and Florence in 1917. “Picasso speaks only of this master,” wrote his traveling companion Cocteau, “who touches us more deeply than all the Italians obsessed with grandeur” (quoted in E. Cowling, op. cit., 2002, p. 309).
By the time Picasso painted La Lettre in April 1923, intimations of unease had become evident in his relationship with Olga. He had grown resentful of Olga’s determination to gentrify him and rankled by her pampering of Paulo. Then, in the summer of 1922, Olga suffered a sudden, unknown illness and had to be rushed back to Paris from Dinard for an emergency operation. Following her recovery, she and Picasso began to live increasingly separate lives. Melancholic by nature, and ever fretful on behalf of her family, who had been on the losing side of the Russian Revolution, Olga sunk more deeply into herself. Picasso, in turn, may have taken up once more with his on-again, off-again mistress Irène Lagut, who then shared a lover, the dissolute writer Raymond Radiguet, with Cocteau—a ménage of which the demure Olga surely disapproved, if she was aware of it. The change in Picasso’s attitude toward his wife is reflected in his portraits from this period, where Olga is not an object of heated erotic desire, but rather of coolly detached pride and admiration—tinged, in La Lettre, with a certain nostalgic tenderness.
This canvas was one of 16 pictures by Picasso to feature in a landmark exhibition in New York and Chicago—the artist’s first solo showing in America—during the winter of 1923-1924. The impresario of the exhibition was the dealer Paul Rosenberg, who had represented Picasso since 1918; the artist’s home on the rue La Boétie was next door to Rosenberg’s gallery, with its extensive stock of paintings by 19th century masters. Unlike his brother Léonce, a staunch advocate of cubism, Paul Rosenberg principally promoted Picasso’s newer, more naturalistic manner, steeped as it was in French tradition. All 16 works in the American exhibition were thoroughly classicizing in subject and style, creating the impression of a unified series. Among them were La Lettre and the related National Gallery canvas; the mournful Femme à la voile bleue (Los Angeles County Museum of Art); a young Saltimbanque, seen on his own and paired with a lover (both National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.); and two paintings of the model Jacinto Salvadó as Harlequin (Musée national d'art moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, and Kunstmuseum, Basel).
“The ten current  paintings were some of the most exquisitely beautiful images Picasso ever created,” Michael FitzGerald has written (op. cit., 1995, p. 123). The meditative, musing women and the commedia dell’arte characters together recall the artist’s Rose Period nearly two decades earlier, as does the muted, monochromatic tonality that prevailed among the works on view. Now, though, Picasso refracted his subjects explicitly through the lens of the classical past and the eternal values that had governed image-making since antiquity. “The size and scale of these monumental personages fit the tradition of classical figure painting, and the delicacy of their drawing glides back through Picasso’s early work to the virtuosity of Renaissance masters” (ibid.).
The exhibition opened on 17 November at Wildenstein & Co. in New York and remained there until 8 December, when it moved to The Art Institute of Chicago under the auspices of that city’s Arts Club. Rosenberg’s hopes were high—the show had been a long time in the making—but response was mixed. Critics took the dealer to task for omitting cubism from the show, neglecting the diversity of Picasso’s current production, and collectors were dismayed by the high prices. “A great succès d’estime et moral,” Rosenberg reassured Picasso in a letter dated 21 November. “Everyone finds it marvelous and says, Finally, a good exhibition of beautiful paintings!” (quoted in ibid., p. 124). “The most popular,” he subsequently reported, “are the woman with the blue veil and La Réponse [the present painting]. It’s just as we thought” (quoted in J. Richardson, op. cit., 2007, p. 247).
The Rosenberg exhibition would come to define a fundamental divide in Picasso’s art and life. In 1925, the artist’s decade-long fascination with classicism gave way to an utterly transformative immersion in the convulsive intensity of the surrealist revolution. Picasso and Olga’s marriage continued to unravel beyond repair, and her likeness largely disappeared from his art. In January 1927, the artist began a passionate affair—the surrealist amour fou he had so desperately been seeking—with 17-year-old Marie-Thérèse Walter. His conjugal relationship with Olga ended with a hard-fought legal separation in 1935; they remained officially married, however, and he supported her financially until her death in 1955.