Pablo Picasso - 20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale New York Wednesday, May 17, 2023 | Phillips

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    One of the great portraitists of the 20th century, Picasso painted Tête de femme au chignon in 1952, the final year of his pivotal relationship with the artist Françoise Gilot. Facing to the left, the figure here sits with her hair pulled back in the titular chignon style, and gazes out a grey window marked by black bars. Growing out of a decade’s worth of portraiture of Gilot, Tête de femme au chignon works in a visual idiom inspired by two of Picasso’s greatest post-war influences, Henri Matisse and the wider history of portraiture in Western art. With her sculptural, immutable expression, the figure in Tête de femme au chignon reaches beyond any specific model to reveal an artist disassembling the inherited norms of representation into an inventive and colorful portrait.


    Françoise Gilot and Pablo Picasso in Vallauris, 1952. Image: © Boris Lipnitzki / Studio Lipnitzki / Roger-Viollet

    Picasso and Gilot first met in Paris in 1943, when Gilot was a 21-year-old ingénue of watercolors and ceramics who sought the older artist’s advice, and, eventually, his companionship. From the very beginning of their relationship, Picasso took great pleasure in painting Gilot, and she made several portraits of him in return.i To Picasso, her face became a series of symbols—wild, wide hair, circonflexe accents for eyebrows, and an open face like a full moon. She was his consummate muse.


    Pablo Picasso, La Femme-Fleur, 1946. Private collection. Image: Artothek / Bridgeman Images, Artwork: © 2023 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    1946 represented a turning point in the pair’s relationship; they moved together from Paris to Vallauris, in the South of France, and visited Henri Matisse’s studio in the region, in Vence. Matisse and Picasso had been professional rivals since the beginning of the 20th century, and their sense of competition was founded on a mutual respect that only deepened as the artists aged. By the end of World War II, Matisse and Picasso were the two most famous and innovative artists working in France.ii Thus, when Matisse told Picasso that, if he were to paint Gilot’s portrait, he would paint her hair green, Picasso took the comment as a challenge.iii The resulting portrait, La Femme-Fleur, 1946, private collection, in which Gilot’s face is transposed onto the center of a flower, marked a shift in Picasso’s representations of Gilot that endured through the end of their relationship.

    “Matisse isn’t the only one who can paint you with green hair.”
    —Pablo Picasso to Françoise Gilot, 1946.

    Tête de femme au chignon, like La Femme-Fleur, gives Gilot green hair, but while the hair of La Femme-Fleur forms rounded petals for the sitter’s face, Gilot’s green chignon in Tête de femme au chignon is much more angular. Here, Picasso cleverly documents the shifting mood between himself and Gilot, from the openness of a new relationship in the 1940s, to the more protective approach to Gilot of 1952. Matisse’s influence extends beyond Gilot’s tresses, too, to the use of color across the composition. Her blue-grey skin tone recalls the “lunar coolness” of the round blue face in La Femme-Fleur, which was inspired by Matisse’s paper cut-out method. Matisse also joked that, while he would paint Gilot’s hair green, Picasso would likely paint her body blue.iv The application of paint beyond the figure, too, shows the subtle impact of Picasso’s friend and rival.


    In 1945, Picasso shared that his current method was to “use less and less color, and allow the virgin canvas to play its part more and more.” “No utterance,” according to art historian Yve-Alain Bois, “could be more Matissean.”v Picasso’s “Matissean” quality shows in the restrained background of Tête de femme au chignon, and the way in which the whiteness of the canvas shines through the blue, scarlet, and yellow pigments of Gilot’s face. Her expression becomes a map of luminous shapes—diamond cheekbones, prismatic nose, and bell-shaped eyes with pearl-like tear ducts—recalling both Picasso’s own structural Cubism and Matisse’s cut-paper method. Matisse’s words, therefore, influenced not just the color of Gilot’s hair in Tête de femme au chignon, but the way in which Picasso applied that color to the canvas.


    Henri Matisse, Portrait of Françoise Gilot, 1947. Private collection. Artwork: © 2023 Succession H. Matisse / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

    Matisse, for his part, did make a cut-paper portrait of Gilot in 1947, though, ironically, he began the portrait with a fragment of black paper that looked like “a portrait in profile of Françoise with her long hair.”vi Still, he made a composition of black and magenta shapes, on a background of bright, apple green. As Gilot said, “it was just perfect.”vii


    Picasso’s post-war works were increasingly influenced by his sense of place within a larger narrative of master artists throughout history. As an artist practicing in France, Picasso’s success was tied intrinsically to French national and art historical pride, and the artist reveled in the knowledge that each work he made would someday have its own art historical significance.viii Through this lens, then, Tête de femme au chignon transcends its role as a portrait inspired by Gilot, and as a painterly engagement with Matisse, and becomes the art historical archetype of the woman at the window.


    Johannes Vermeer, Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, 1659. Gemäldegalerie, Dresden. Image: bpk Bildagentur /  Gemäldegalerie, Dresden / Wolfgang Kreische / Art Resource, NY

    The woman at the window is a painterly trope of portraiture that finds its origins in the Dutch Golden Age, with masterworks such as Johannes Vermeer’s Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, 1659, Gemäldegalerie, Dresden, which also depicts a woman in profile, facing a window. Picasso signifies the window in Tête de femme au chignon by both demarcating the windowsill with a line along Gilot’s neck, and by painting the reflective quality of the window itself. He doubles Gilot’s cheek and lips to Cubist effect, and the space of diagonal white brushstrokes above her forehead perhaps recalls a smudgy, fingerprinted window in sunlight.


    In traditional art historical analysis, the figure of the woman at the window represents themes of introspection and longing. It also symbolizes the division of public (male) space, which is outside the window, and private (female) space, inside the home. As a trope, the woman at the window is an inherently inscrutable figure. The viewer cannot see what she sees, and so, cannot know exactly what she is observing, and thinking about. There is an internal part of her that will never be known.


    Françoise Gilot, both within Tête de femme au chignon and in real life, always remained a bit inscrutable to Picasso. Unlike past lovers, many of whom devoted themselves entirely to Picasso and his art, Gilot retained a measure of independence throughout their relationship, which was closely tied to her identity as an artist in her own right. Her independence created a tension that began as a source of mutual artistic inspiration for the pair, but by 1952, it became insurmountable.ix Picasso wanted to have a third child, but Gilot, who was the primary caregiver to their two extant children, refused. She wanted Picasso to take on a more active role as father, so she could spend more time on her art practice. Picasso, too, refused, and so Gilot left in 1953—the only partner of his to ever do so.x


    The personal and art historical collide in Tête de femme au chignon, a consummate example of Picasso’s post-war approach to portraiture. The artist deftly navigates his inheritance of Western tropes, such as the woman at the window, and reinterprets them through his personal muse, Gilot, and friendly rival, Matisse. The unified result is a testament to Picasso’s innovation; a mark that an art historical reputation is not given, but earned.



    i Michael C. FitzGerald, “A Triangle of Ambitions: Art, Politics, and Family during the Postwar Years with Françoise Gilot,” in William Rubin, ed., Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation, exh. cat., Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996, p. 415-417.

    ii Yve-Alain Bois, Matisse and Picasso, Paris, 1998, p. 179.

    iii Françoise Gilot with Carlton Lake, My Life with Picasso, New York, 1965, p. 94.

    iv FitzGerald, 420; Gilot, 94; Bois, 189.

    v Bois, 179.

    vi Henri Matisse, quoted in Françoise Gilot, Matisse and Picasso: A Friendship in Art, New York, 1990, p. 72.

    vii Françoise Gilot, Matisse and Picasso: A Friendship in Art, 73.

    viii FitzGerald, 409.

    ix “Picasso and Françoise Gilot: Paris-Vallauris, 1943-1953,” Gagosian Gallery, 2012, online.

    x FitzGerald, 435; Thessaly La Force, “Françoise Gilot, 97, Does Not Regret Her Pablo Picasso Memoir,” T Magazine, Jun. 11, 2019, online.

    • Provenance

      Estate of the artist
      Marina Picasso (by descent from the above)
      Krugier Gallery, New York (acquired from the above)
      Landau Fine Art, Montreal (acquired from the above)
      Orix Corporation, Japan (acquired from the above)
      Acquired from the above by the present owner circa 2002

    • Literature

      Christian Zervos, Pablo Picasso. Œuvres de 1946 à 1953, Paris, 1965, vol. 15, no. 210, p. 166 (illustrated, p. 123)

    • Artist Biography

      Pablo Picasso

      Spanish • 1881 - 1973

      One of the most dominant and influential artists of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso was a master of endless reinvention. While significantly contributing to the movements of Surrealism, Neoclassicism and Expressionism, he is best known for pioneering the groundbreaking movement of Cubism alongside fellow artist Georges Braque in the 1910s. In his practice, he drew on African and Iberian visual culture as well as the developments in the fast-changing world around him.

      Throughout his long and prolific career, the Spanish-born artist consistently pushed the boundaries of art to new extremes. Picasso's oeuvre is famously characterized by a radical diversity of styles, ranging from his early forays in Cubism to his Classical Period and his later more gestural expressionist work, and a diverse array of media including printmaking, drawing, ceramics and sculpture as well as theater sets and costumes designs. 

      View More Works

Property from an Important Collection, Japan

Ο ◆4

Tête de femme au chignon

dated "24 mai 52" on the reverse
oil on canvas
28 3/4 x 23 1/2 in. (73 x 59.7 cm)
Painted on May 24, 1952.

Full Cataloguing

$6,000,000 - 9,000,000 

Sold for $7,320,000

Contact Specialist

Carolyn Mayer
Associate Specialist, Head of Evening Sale, New York
+1 212 940 1206

20th Century & Contemporary Art Evening Sale

New York Auction 17 May 2023