Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881–1973)
Oil, water-based paint, and crayon on canvas
39 x 31 1/2 in. (99.1 x 80 cm)
Rogers Fund, 1951; acquired from The Museum of Modern Art, Lillie P. Bliss Collection (53.140.4)
© 2011 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York
Picasso's Woman in White is a masterpiece of his Neoclassical Period, which lasted from 1918 to 1925. Here, the artist depicts a seated figure as a dreamlike vision of fragile perfection and refinement. He achieves this effect through the application of several layers of white wash and superimposed contours in soft shades of brown and gray. As in many of his other figures of the period, the idealized treatment of her facial features reflects Picasso's study of classical art. Her informal pose, along with the loose-fitting, almost diaphanous dress, gives the figure a gentle and relaxed air. The muted color scheme adds a romantic and pensive tone.
Although the model was always thought to be the artist's Russian wife Olga Khokhlova, it has recently been suggested that Picasso's muse was actually an American beauty, Sara Murphy, wife of the painter Gerald Murphy, with whom Picasso was infatuated between 1921 and 1924. The Murphys were a wealthy expatriate couple living in Paris in the 1920s, and their unconventional lifestyle attracted a circle of artists and writers including F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Picasso and Olga met them in the fall of 1921, and the two families remained close over the next two summers, vacationing together in 1923.
We may never know the true identity of the sitter, but since Picasso frequently fused the features of different people into a single idealized portrait, it is possible that this is just such a case. If so, the features of Olga and Sara are integrated here into a masterful and striking composition, full of tenderness and classical beauty.