Femme de Profil

Femme de Profil

Woman in Profile

Artist: Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Medium: Pencil drawing on paper
Dimensions: 172 x 112 mm, 6 3/4 x 4 3/8 ”
Signature: Signed “Picasso” in pencil in lower left
•C. Zervos, Pablo Picasso, Paris, 1983, Vol. 6, no. 437 (ills.)
•H. Chipp & A. Wofsy, The Picasso Project, Picasso’s Paintings, Watercolors, Drawings and Sculpture: The Blue Period – 1902–1904, no. 1902/03-012, ills. p. 81
•Mallen, Enrique, ed. Online Picasso Project. Sam Houston State
University. 1997-2017. OPP.02:083
Paper: Laid paper, cream in tone
Watermark: See photo below
Provenance: Anonymous sale, Maître Rheims, Palais Galliera, Paris, March 14, 1967, lot 75.
Bernard Poissonnier, Paris
Anon. sale, Ader-Picard-Tajan, Paris, June 22, 1988, lot 21.
Private collection, Paris
Authentication: This work has been directly inspected and authenticated both by Claude Picasso and by Maya Widmaier Picasso.  Their photo-certificates of authenticity will accompany the sale.
Price: On request


Let’s say you like Picasso’s Blue Period and are particularly fond of his depiction of Madeleine, his short-lived consort with the topknot of hair, whom he immortalized with markedly elongated fingers.  Let’s say you’ve already acquired one or more of the three great prints of her, the etchings Le Repas Frugal (Bloch 1) and Tête de Femme: Madeleine (Bloch 3) and the drypoint Tête de Femme, de Profil (Bloch 6, see later in this catalogue), and maybe even one or two other prints from the series, but you’re still not satisfied.  Or let’s say you’re not a print collector at all but are looking for a nice painting or drawing.  Small problem, though—you don’t happen to have a hundred million lying around for such an investment.  Another small problem—all but one of the paintings are in museums.  And so are two of the four drawings Picasso did of Madeleine.  That leaves one drawing in private hands, Jeune Fille Accoudée (below), and the lovely drawing at hand.

1903 - Jeune Fille Accoudée
Jeune Fille Accoudée

Jeune Fille Accoudée sold at auction recently for close to $1.4 million (Christie’s London Evening Sale, February 2, 2016).  Admittedly, it’s twice the size of ours, and it was executed in blue pencil, which is nice of course since the color matches the style.  Yet Femme de Profil is also a stunning work of art. It captures Madeleine in a more delicate pose, and, though a bit sketchier perhaps, catches Picasso in the act of working out the details of her elongated digits and the complexity of that pose. And, last but not least, this little gem is available for a small fraction of that price.

Though you may have to see the actual drawing to fully appreciate this, the deep psychological probing of this drawing is as profound as any Blue or Rose Period painting.  All the more remarkably in view of his economy of line, Picasso has somehow managed to lay bare his subject’s soul.

This lovely pose, real or imagined, is apparently unique in Picasso’s oeuvre. Despite its engaging form, it was not to be repeated (though of course Picasso created many wonderful subsequent variations of a woman leaning on her elbow). Here we see Madeleine’s left arm resting on a structure, presumably a table, which edge has caught the skin of her forearm and caused it to fold. The fingers of that arm are draped over an unknown surface, perhaps a rail? The fingers on the right form a delicate composition resembling wilted flowers, borrowing the line of her neck to fill out the bouquet. The attitude of the right hand is depicted almost identically in Le Repas Frugal, suggesting that Picasso drew it contemporaneously with that etching in 1904.  In the etching, it is the left hand upon which the chin is resting, but of course the print is the mirror image of the design Picasso created on the copper plate:

Le Repas Frugal
Le Repas Frugal

It is less clear whether Madeleine also served as the model for the woman’s face in Le Repas Frugal.

Interestingly, an alternate title for this drawing, Fille au Bain (Girl at Bath), is inscribed in ink on the back of the old frame in which we received this drawing (we have since had it richly reframed).  Perhaps that is what she’s up to after all, though I remain unconvinced, as neither of her hands is occupied and her pose seems more contemplative than might be expected of a woman focused on a task.

Picasso first arrived in Paris in 1900, where he craved being, as Paris was the epicenter of the art world at the time.  But for several years thereafter, whenever his money ran out, he shuttled back and forth to Barcelona for a steady roof over his head, home-cooked meals, and doting parents.  In 1904 he finally permanently expatriated himself, and in short order met the subject of this portrait.

Who was this mysterious woman?  John Richardson informs us, “A new face in his work reveals that Picasso had found a new mistress.  Madeleine she was called; all we know is that she was a model.  To judge by a very literal portrait in profile (this reemerged only in 1968, when the artist discovered that its cardboard support had been used to back a frame) and a large black chalk drawing of Madeleine squatting cross-legged on the floor, she was pretty in a delicate, birdlike way….  Madeleine’s thick hair, loosely drawn back into a chignon, and her boyishly lean body recur in a number of works done over the next six or nine months—works that mirror the blurring of the Blue into the Rose period.  Two idealized versions of her chart this process: the blueish Woman in a Chemise and the very similar but pinkish Seated Nude (in the Musée d’Art Moderne, Paris) done a month or two later.  Madeleine’s bone structure also inspired the Woman with Helmet of Hair, the skeletal Woman Ironing (La Repasseuse, below) and the no less skeletal girl in The Frugal Repast.    Picasso would always take pleasure in the fact that the skinny allure he contrived for his Blue period girls predicted a look that fashionable women would cultivate decades later.”  (John Richardson, A Life of Picasso, Volume I, pp. 302 and 304.)

La Repasseuse
La Repasseuse

Christian Zervos, the first chronicler of Picasso’s oeuvre, dates the present drawing to 1902 or -03.  Yet a review of Blue and Rose Period works leads to the conclusion that Picasso more likely executed this piece after meeting this model in 1904, or, less likely, in early 1905.  Femme de profil bears a great resemblance to the aforementioned print as well as to a number of oils and gouaches, for which it may have been a preparatory work. The small size of this piece would seem to support the conclusion that it was preparatory for something.  On the other hand, Picasso, in Paris in 1904 and thereafter, was dirt poor, and canvas and paper were often beyond his means.  So scarce were supplies that he often overpainted his canvases, sometimes more than once.  Yet this drawing, unlike so many of the crude sketches of the period on notebook (carnet) paper, seems to have been executed on fine, hand-made laid paper.  And Picasso famously used paper and canvas of widely disparate proportions, so that the size of his art is not necessarily correlated with how accomplished it is.  Great Picassos come in all sizes, including our little Madeleine.

In addition to the three other related drawings of Madeleine, it is important to view our drawing in the broader context of Picasso’s Blue and Rose Period drawings in general.  Any such analysis would conclude that our drawing is exceptional, as most of the others were quick sketches, often caricatured or pornographic.  Not that there’s anything wrong with such subject matter, but rather the vast majority of these drawings are neither aesthetically appealing nor particularly important works in Picasso’s oeuvre. Our drawing, on the other hand, is so important as to be fairly screaming for museum acquisition. After all, the Blue Period is when Picasso became Picasso, and, as I have shown, there is almost nothing else in his works on paper comparable to this wonderful drawing.

This drawing must also be viewed in the context of Picasso’s Saltimbanque paintings and prints, with which it was surely contemporaneous, Zervos’s dating notwithstanding, to which it is stylistically and (presumably) thematically related, and which featured portraits based primarily on Madeleine. “Saltimbanque” means circus performer or acrobat in French, though many of the paintings, drawings, and prints of the period are portraits with no apparent relation to the circus.  In striving for universality at this time, Picasso progressively stripped his images of all narrative and almost all references, leaving much to the viewer’s interpretation.  Here in our drawing there is a hint of a table upon which the model’s arms rest, but really no clue as to where his model is or what she is doing or thinking.

Elizabeth Cowling in her recent, wonderful monograph, provides excellent insights into Picasso’s intentions and influences as follows, referring to drawings and paintings of the period:

“Picasso’s desire to return to a more classical style of expression led him back to drawing in which he had first learned the rudiments of the classical idiom….  [In drawings of the period] a new classicizing note is sounded…producing an overall decorative harmony; the drawing is elegant, incisive and economical; the mood is tranquil, if tinged with melancholy.  There are also unmistakable, if non-specific, echoes from Italian Renaissance painting of the late fifteenth-century—Filippino Lippi and Botticelli, especially—in the treatment of faces and figures…. (Elizabeth Cowling, Picasso: Style and Meaning, Phaidon 2002, pp.121-2)

“Picasso had striven to purge his painting of realist detail during the Blue Period, and in Woman Ironing [another portrait of Madeleine] he was at pains to be as minimally informative as Degas himself in his late pictures of women ironing or at their toilette…. (Ibid., p.118)

“…the composition as a whole breathes an air of enigma and dream-like suspension unconnected with Degas’s work.  Instead this is exactly the sort of atmosphere conjured up by Puvis de Chavannes in ambiguous mood-paintings….  Puvis’s reputation among avant-garde artists was at a high at this time and he was celebrated in a special memorial exhibition at the Salon d’Automne in 1904.  For Picasso he was particularly useful as an exponent of a modern form of classicism, and at this moment he was even more useful than Degas because his works had nothing to do with reality and the contemporary world, but possessed the kind of nostalgic, archaizing, otherworldly poetry which Picasso sought to capture in the Saltimbanque series.” (Ibid., p. 123)

“But the Saltimbanque paintings tell nothing concrete about Picasso’s own life or about his friends or even about his feelings, and, tempting as it is to do so, it is imprudent to infer anything about his life and his feelings from them.  Instead, what the Saltimbanque paintings do indicate is that Picasso was using his art as a means of escaping from banal, exigent ‘reality’ into a world of myth.  To describe them as autobiographical is to put the equation the wrong way round: they are artificial because their poetic imagery and allusive style were devised to mask, not to reveal, reality… [an effort] to distance the figures from the present and to lend them epic timelessness.” (Ibid., p. 131)


A final note about the scale of this work.  For those of you who saw Paulo’s below portrait in posters all over Paris for that amazing Grand Palais exhibit some years back, I bet you were shocked to behold the diminutive size of this gouache, lent to the exhibit by the Musée Picasso, when you subsequently saw it in the flesh:


At 11.8 x 10.5 cm, it is considerably smaller than our drawing. But did that diminish from its beauty or power? If anything, the realization that such a small work could still be such a masterpiece only added to its power. Well, Femme de Profil is admittedly a fine-lined pencil drawing in contrast to the boldly painted Paulo, but that doesn’t mean that, given the proper viewing distance, it isn’t a magnificent work. In its magnificent gold-leaf frame, it resembles a brilliant gem in a golden jewelry box.