This large studio interior, a foot taller than Picasso himself, is the third in an important series of eleven L’Atelier compositions that the artist painted during the course of just over a week, between 23 and 31 October 1955. He completed this canvas on the second day of his efforts, featuring the impressive height of the ornately carved window in his studio at "La Californie," a large, Art Nouveau villa built around 1900 that overlooked Cannes and the Mediterranean.
Picasso had purchased the building and its grounds that summer—"La Californie" was the first home that he acquired for himself in the south. "La Galloise," the house in Vallauris that Picasso bought for Françoise Gilot, and where he had lived since the summer of 1948, was too small to accommodate his burgeoning output and the many works he wanted to move from his pre-war studio and storage spaces in Paris. His relationship with Françoise had ended during the summer of 1953, and although legal title to "La Galloise" remained hers, he continued to reside there after Françoise, and their children Claude and Paloma, returned to Paris. Picasso began living with Jacqueline Roque in September 1954; finding a new home was an essential step in marking this momentous change in his domestic life.
One evening, while strolling in the hills above Cannes, Picasso and Jacqueline first saw "La Californie." “Its clumsy 1900 style, its pretentious wrought iron staircase and the stylized carvings round the windows, did not deter him,” Roland Penrose wrote. “Its vulgarity was something he could dominate and even use, for the house that the attraction of well-lit rooms with high ceilings and space which would take him years to fill” (Picasso: His Life and Work, third ed., Berkeley, 1981, pp. 401-402). "La Californie" was located, moreover, close to Picasso’s pottery studio in Vallauris, and was sufficiently secluded behind a high iron fence; the artist required an increasing degree of privacy as his fame attracted ever-growing numbers of admirers and favor-seekers who threatened to interfere with his rigorous daily work routine.
Picasso moved into "La Californie" during the early fall of 1955, and quickly set up his studio in the spacious, high-ceilinged room on the second floor above the entrance. Flooded with light from a southern exposure, this space opened out through a set of French doors onto a balcony that overlooked a garden below, which included several tall palm trees. These features became the key elements in the composition of the Atelier paintings and are visible in the background of the present canvas. “[Picasso] was happy at once in the luminous atmosphere of the lofty rooms,” Penrose recalled. “Day by day he saw his studio anew” (ibid., p. 404).
"La Californie" became the locus of Picasso’s creative activity for the next three-and-a half years, but not until he had claimed this space as his own by painting it. “He quickly responded to the stimulus of the place in a series of what he called paysages d’intérieur: interior landscapes,” Marie-Laure Bernadac explained. “For Picasso, his studio is a self-portrait in itself. Sensitive to its ritual, its secret poetry, he marks with his presence the environment and the objects in it, and makes his territory into his own ‘second skin’” (Late Picasso, exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, London, 1988, p. 58).
Picasso commenced the Atelier series on 23 October, two days before his 74th birthday. He painted two pictures that day (Zervos, vol. 16, nos. 486 and 487), and the present canvas on the 24th (no. 488). He did not work during 25-27 October, days given over to his birthday celebrations. He resumed the Atelier canvases with two paintings done on 28 October (Zervos, vol. 16, nos. 490 and 489, in order of completion). Picasso concluded the series with four paintings he began on 30 October, three of which he completed that same day (Zervos, vol. 16, nos. 495, 494, and 493, in order of completion). He finished the fourth, the final painting in this Atelier series, on the following day (Zervos, vol. 16, no. 497). Picasso also made several drawings during this period, the most elaborate of which is Zervos, vol. 16, no. 475, executed on 29 October, probably prior to undertaking the two canvases annotated with the same date.
The October 1955 L’Atelier series is Picasso’s eulogy to his old friend and erstwhile rival, Henri Matisse, who died in Nice on 3 November 1954. Always afraid of news of death, Picasso, acutely aware of Matisse’s ill-health, refused to answer the phone when Marguerite Duthuit called repeatedly to tell him of her father’s passing. Nor did he attend the funeral. Nevertheless, Matisse’s death greatly affected Picasso, who struggled to come to terms with it. He paid his respects in the way he knew best, and on 13 December he commenced the series Femmes d’Alger, which totaled fifteen canvases in all, the last of which is dated 14 February 1955 (Zervos, vol. 16, nos. 342-343, 345-349, 352-357, and 359-360). The subject was based on Delacroix’s painting in the Louvre, which had also influenced Matisse’s odalisques; Picasso’s series indeed served as a tribute to both masters. “When Matisse died,” Picasso told Penrose, “he left his odalisques to me as a legacy, and this is my idea of the Orient though I have never been there” (quoted in R. Penrose, op. cit., 1981, p. 396).
The thematic inspiration for Picasso’s Atelier paintings came from the Vence interiors that Matisse executed in 1946-1948, the last group of paintings he made before concentrating on his paper cut-outs. Picasso may have viewed some of these paintings in Matisse’s studio while they were still in progress; he is known to have seen thirteen works from this series in a private preview he was given of the exhibition of Matisse’s recent works at the Musée National d’Art Moderne in Paris, organized to honor his eightieth birthday, which opened on 9 June 1949. Such was Picasso’s admiration for Matisse’s Vence interiors, and perhaps no small measure of envy, that he hastily arranged an exhibition of his own recent works at the Maison de la Pensée française in Paris, which he intended to coincide and compete with Matisse’s show. When Matisse learned of these plans he wrote to a friend, “I have been told in several quarters that he [Picasso] is organizing an offensive, and I am waiting to see it... I’ll let you know how the prizefight turns out” (quoted in M. Billot, ed., The Vence Chapel: The Archive of a Creation, Milan, 1999, p. 208).
Picasso’s Atelier paintings thus recall some of the most intense moments in his rivalry with Matisse, a complex and decades-long history of competition and mutual influence. Picasso, nevertheless, ultimately resolved this rivalry in dual acts of homage. “The La Californie studio paintings are amongst the most overtly Matissean works that Picasso ever produced and, like the variations on Delacroix’s Women of Algiers, can justifiably be regarded as homages to his departed friend... Picasso appears to be attempting to create an environment, a spirit to which Matisse would have responded, and this gives these pictures an elegiac cast that is rare in Picasso’s work. The windows, the palm trees and foliage beyond, read like Matissean quotes” (Matisse Picasso, exh. cat., The Tate Gallery, London, 2002, p. 299).
While some of the objects that Picasso depicts in these paysages d’intérieur vary from canvas to canvas, there are several that he included in all of them–the female bust set atop a stool, and the painter’s palette and brushes placed on a chair. The latter objects recall Van Gogh’s famous 1888 painting of his chair in Arles, on which he laid out his pipe and tobacco (Hulsker, no. 1635; The Tate Gallery, London). This room is the center of Picasso’s creative world; these objects are the means by which he makes his art, and the bust is the idealized emblem of art itself (it is Tête de femme, 1953, Musée Picasso, Paris). The latter may also suggest the spirit of Matisse, alluding to his sculpted oeuvre, of no less significance to the course of 20th century art than were his paintings.
“The visual tributes Picasso paid to Matisse in the work of the second half of the 1950s are in some respects a form of mourning,” John Golding wrote. “Yet in a curious way Picasso also resented Matisse’s death and this may help to account for the fact that while his own dialogue with the past was becoming ever more overt, his own art was simultaneously becoming more internalised. During 1963 and 1964, he [again] concentrated on the theme of the studio, the artist and model, so dear to Matisse. In these works Matissean references recede and are subsumed into a sense of the totality of art which comes flooding through Picasso’s vision as never before’ (ibid., pp. 300-301)