About this artwork
This painting dates to one of the most productive and inventive periods of Pablo Picasso’s career, a summer stay in the town of Horta de Ebro (now Horta de San Juan) in Spain, which lasted, with minor interruptions, from May to September of 1909. During these months, Picasso produced a series of landscapes, heads, and still lifes that are among the most highly acclaimed achievements of early Cubism. Fernande Olivier, Picasso’s mistress, was the model for the series of heads that the artist produced at this time.
In this painting, the contrast between the naturalistic still life in the background and the boldly faceted figure in the foreground illustrates an important stage in Picasso’s evolution at the time. A series of still lifes by Picasso that were inspired by the art of Paul Cezanne preceded Picasso’s powerful probing into the nature of solid form, which is exemplified here by the treatment of the head. By vigorously modeling the form in a manner that blatantly disregards the rules of illusionistic painting, Picasso conveyed information about the subject’s underlying structure, about its development in the round (Olivier’s bun, for example, which would normally not be visible from the front, is brought into full view), and a remarkably tactile sense of its projections and recessions. Not surprisingly, these highly sculptural portraits led Picasso to turn, as he did intermittently throughout his career, to actual sculpture upon his return to Paris in the autumn of 1909. The result was the head of Fernande Olivier, an early bronze cast of which is in the Art Institute. In this sculpture, Picasso combined the faceting of the face seen in our painting with the scalloped treatment of the hair found in a drawing from this same period, which is also in the collection of the Art Institute. The artist then energized the head through a dynamic torsion of the neck, replacing the relaxed, fleshy folds in the painting with an emphasis on the taut curve of the back of the neck, as the head bends and twists in space. Although Cubism was to exert an enormous influence on the move toward abstraction among many artists in the early part of this century, Fernande Olivier reminds us that Cubism itself was firmly rooted in an intense study of material reality.
This painting was once in the famed collection of expatriates Leo and Gertrude Stein in Paris, and can in fact be seen hanging on the wall of Gertrude Stein’s study in a photograph of 1914/15.
—Entry, Margherita Andreotti, Art Institute of Chicago Museum Studies, Vol. 20, No. 2, The Joseph Winterbotham Collection at The Art Institute of Chicago (1994), p. 138-139.
- Pablo Picasso
- Head of a Woman
- Oil on canvas
- 23 3/4 × 20 1/8 in. (60.3 × 51.1 cm)
- Joseph Winterbotham Collection
- © 2018 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York