Picasso’s Women: Fernande to Jacqueline by John Richardson

John Richardson would not have been surprised to know that a Google search of “Picasso and women” turns up a staggering 38.2 million results. By comparison, the same search of Henri Matisse, the artist Picasso both admired and envied, gets 11 million hits, fewer by around 75 percent. And Georges Braque, best known for having introduced Cubism with Picasso, yields a meager 3.48 million. Richardson, inarguably the Picasso biographer, put forth his thesis succinctly in the first volume of his biography of the artist: “After seeing at first hand how closely Picasso’s personal life and art impinged on each other, I decided to try charting his developments through his portraits.... The successive images Picasso devised for his women always permeated his style.”

This was hardly hyperbole. From early affairs to his first sustained lover, Fernande Olivier, to his second wife and greatest muse, Jacqueline Roque Picasso, Pablo Picasso was relentless in expressing his every feeling about the women in his life on canvas and in sketches, bronze sculpture, ceramics, and even jewelry. As the artist famously said, “My work is like a diary.” For Richardson, then, addressing Picasso’s commingling of women and art has helped the rest of us wrestle with and understand Picasso’s protean genius. It was a bull’s-eye reckoning of the man whom Richardson knew until Picasso’s death, in 1973, at the age of 91.

They first met briefly in 1948, when Richardson was a handsome 24-year-old living in Paris with the British art historian Douglas Cooper. Picasso was already famous; Richardson soon would be. Their next meeting was a few years later, at Picasso’s home in Vallauris, in southeastern France. This time Richardson felt the Picasso gaze: intense, boring, direct. Picasso looked at him, he said, “long enough to induce a responsive quiver.”

Richardson moved to New York in 1960 and soon after mounted a sort of intramural retrospective of Picasso, spread among nine Manhattan galleries simultaneously. An aspiring writer, he considered starting work on a catalogue of Picasso’s art, to which Picasso more than agreed, giving Richardson courtside access to his work and personal life. What was planned as a one-off catalogue morphed into an idée fixe, a quest to document Picasso’s life that spanned the rest of Richardson’s. Three decades later, in 1991, Volume One appeared, with the second and third close behind (in 1996 and 2007). At the time of his death, this last March, Richardson was working to complete his fourth and final volume, to be published next year.

The Life of Pablo

Picasso’s Women is a visual valentine to Sir John and the six Picasso exhibitions he curated for the Gagosian gallery in New York and London from 2009 to 2017. (Larry Gagosian writes the book’s foreword.) Each show was a sensation in and beyond the art world, benefiting from Richardson’s well-honed eye, his intimate understanding of the artist, and his unique access to Picasso’s family and private lenders all over the world.

Picasso’s muse Sylvette David was one of the few (with Sara Murphy) who claims she didn’t sleep with him.

This celebratory book—for it is anything but solemn—features eight of Picasso’s wives and lovers: Fernande Olivier, Olga Khokhlova Picasso, Sara Murphy, Marie-Thérèse Walter, Dora Maar, Françoise Gilot, Sylvette David, and Jacqueline Roque Picasso (although Murphy and David seem to be gate-crashers in this regard). The opening pages are all Richardson: a reprint of a two-part article published in The Observer in October 1962 still impresses nearly 60 years later. Consider even the first sentence, “Those who seek hidden meanings in Picasso’s art are wasting their time, for the inspiration of nearly all his work comes from his daily life.” (As a reminder, this was decades before Richardson started working on his master biographies.)

Picasso’s “daily life” in the Gagosian book is served up more as sprints than the marathon style of the Richardson biographies. A short paragraph, selected from one of Sir John’s biographies or memoirs, introduces roughly a half-dozen paintings, sketches, and bronze works on each of the Picasso women.

“Those who seek hidden meanings in Picasso’s art are wasting their time.”

Fernande Olivier opens the story. It’s evening and she’s taking a stroll along the Place Ravignan. So is Picasso. As she passes by, he laughs and hands her a kitten. Moments later she goes with him to his studio. The year was 1904 and they were 23. For the next seven years, Picasso would sketch, paint, and sculpt Fernande’s likeness. Their relationship was his work.

When la belle Fernande, as she became known, appears early on in their affair, in Nu à la Chevelure Tirée, 1905, she is looking down, away from the viewer. Instead, it is the male gaze of Picasso that sneaks up on us, presenting her naked body as a terrain, his terrain, to be discovered. As Picasso’s roving exploration of Fernande continues in his sketches, paintings, and sculptures over the years, she goes from being adored to being scorned, from adulation to expiration. His bronze sculptures are potent proof. The Fernande of 1906 is all rounded cheeks; by 1909 her face is cratered, sunken like an old woman. She has ceased to excite him personally, but not artistically—Picasso’s waning affection for Fernande is writ large when he adapts her visage to each of the five women in Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907), what John Richardson called Picasso’s “great brothel composition.” Thus begins this lifelong fusion of love and art.

Beaucoup d’Amours

Olga is the Russian dancer from the Ballets Russes and his first wife—they wed in 1918, but separated when she discovered not only that Picasso had a lover but one who lived across the street and was six months pregnant. (They remained legally married until Olga’s death, in 1955.) The lover was Marie-Thérèse Walter, Picasso’s amour fou.

In Le rêve (Marie-Thérèse), of 1932, gentleness and calm, innocence on the cusp prevails. The palette is soft, though not exactly virginal. Exposure is all about: the voyeuristic appeal of a woman caught unaware, while sleeping; the rounded shoulder that echoes the bosom peeping above the bodice; the nipple that speaks of rapture and motherhood. Marie-Thérèse’s hands are not so subtly joined in a V below her midriff. So where is the artist? He is not only looking at his mistress; he has enveloped her in his passion, the heated red and yellow of the chair, holding her close.

Fernande Olivier ceased to excite Picasso personally, but not artistically.

Then Dora Maar comes into the picture, more earthquake than gentle meadow. The palette darkens and deepens, eyes grow large and black-rimmed. Maar, her Cubist face painted with more planes and angles than broken glass, is a wrecking ball in the artist’s studio. Her presence in Picasso’s “Weeping Women” series of the 1930s and in other works into the 1940s is cacophonous; her presence in his life likewise combustible.

More earthquake than gentle meadow: the artist Dora Maar with Picasso in Antibes.

And so it goes, each woman in the artist’s life new fodder for his work in the studio. Richardson tells us, almost as an aside, “Fernande was the first of Picasso’s mistresses to undergo a process that a subsequent lover, Françoise Gilot, would describe as first the plinth, then the doormat.”

Finally, love triumphs. Her name is Jacqueline Roque, who is 27 to Picasso’s 70 when they meet. She is everywhere in his art and life, the quiet adrenaline of sustained love.

One closes the book wistfully. More texts from John Richardson, more of his voice talking in our ear, would have deepened the book. And a chronology of the women would have provided useful stage notes. Over the past decade or so, Gagosian has masterfully presented the duet that was Picasso and Richardson. It was a relationship and commitment that the great historian navigated brilliantly, and with a wink. “When you know him well,” he wrote of Picasso, “you can relax, even if it is like going to sleep with the light on.”

Ruth Peltason is a writer and editor based in New York City