Thought not Pablo Picasso’s most famous work, Women of Algiers (a.k.a. Les Femmes d'Alger) has again become a hot topic thanks to a recent record-breaking sale and overly sensitive censors. But there's much more to Women of Algiers than those salacious headlines let on.
1. Women of Algiers is a tribute series.
More than 120 years after French Romantic Eugène Delacroix completed his painting Women of Algiers in their Apartment, Picasso became more than a little obsessed with it. In the winter of 1954, the Spanish artist began the first of 15 oil paintings and hundreds of sketches that would make up his Women of Algiers, Versions A through O. The last was completed on Valentine's Day 1955.
2. Version A and Version B were completed on the same day.
On December 13, 1954, Picasso began his two-month blitz of Women of Algiers with these two paintings. The first featured vibrant colors, while the second favored a monochrome palette per the grisaille method.
3. Picasso's then-girlfriend Jacqueline Roque modeled for Women of Algiers.
By the time he got to Version C, Picasso had brought Roque into his series, believing the woman who would become his second wife closely resembled the figure kneeling in the right side of Delacroix's painting.
Roque's figure, squat and short-waisted, is believed to have been the model for many of the three main figures in the Women of Algiers series. Historians have also noted Roque's face appears in Version O on the figure on the left.
4. Women of Algiers' versions were improvised.
Art dealer and Picasso promoter Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler later recounted a memory of their creation, saying, "Picasso had been telling me that he always thought about the following day's picture in the Femmes d'Alger series and wondered what it would be like. He repeated: 'You see, it's not time regained, but time for discovery.'"
5. Picasso feared no one would like Version K.
This Women of Algiers entry combined grisaille and Cubism. But as Picasso had co-founded the avant-garde movement nearly 50 years before, he fretted to Kahnweiler, "My feeling is that nobody will like it any more."
6. Version L may have had a divine inspiration.
One of five monochrome Women of Algiers, Version L features just one woman, sitting sturdy, hookah in hand. This version may have pulled from an ancient Middle Eastern goddess of love and war. The lot notes from its 2011 auction (where it sold for $21 million) declares, "She is the goddess Astarte enthroned in her temple, seated en majesté, but also sphinxlike, inscrutable, a mythic image of sexually powerful and fertile womanhood brought forward from the distant past, to be approached with deference and awe."
7. Version M was painted the same day Picasso lost his wife.
Russian ballerina Olga Picasso, née Khokhlova, lovingly captured in Portrait d'Olga dans un fauteuil (Olga in an Armchair), passed away of cancer on February 11, 1955. Though still legally married, the pair had been estranged for 20 years because of his philandering.
8. Version O is the ultimate in more ways than one.
The final installment of the Women in Algiers series, Version O is also its most lauded. American art critic Leo Steinberg wrote, "Everything comes together in Canvas O ... a synthesis on many levels," while New York Magazine's Jerry Saltz calls Version O "an epic master class on the ways of painting, art history, color, structure, and form." Its popularity makes it the piece that’s most often mistakenly called simply Women of Algiers.
9. Version O broke the record for most expensive artwork to be sold at auction.
On May 12, 2015, Version O sold at Christie's in New York for $179 million. Not only did this beat the predicted sale price by nearly $40 million, it also blew past the previous record holder, Francis Bacon’s triptych Three Studies of Lucian Freud, which went for $142.4 million in November 2013.
10. Version O was at the center of a recent censorship scandal.
News of its record-breaking price won headlines around the world, but the appreciation of the work went off the rails when a New York Fox affiliate station blurred out the painting’s Cubist depictions of breasts so as not to offend its viewers. Instead, the station offended art lovers, prompting a public apology.
11. THE SERIES ALSO PAID TRIBUTE TO HENRI MATISSE
When he was still reeling from the November 1954 death of his dear friend and rival Matisse, Picasso saw his Women of Algiers as the chance to tackle a subject his frenemy had long loved—the odalisques (harem/chambermaids often depicted nude). When English artist Roland Penrose came by to behold the whole series, Picasso explained, "When Matisse died, he left his odalisques to me as a legacy, and this is my idea of the Orient though I have never been there.'"
Picasso later told Kahnweiler, "I sometimes say to myself that perhaps this is an inheritance from Matisse. Why shouldn't we inherit from our friends, after all?"
12. Women of Algiers inspired Picasso to move in 1955.
In the foothills of Cannes, Picasso found La Californie, a grand villa that he felt "matched" the feel of Women of Algiers. Finished with the series, but not his obsession, he and Roque moved from Paris to this magical place "partly for its Orientalist air."
13. Picasso believed Delacroix would have liked his Women of Algiers.
"I wonder what Delacroix would say if he saw these pictures," the artist once pondered to Kahnweiler, who replied that Delacroix would probably appreciate them. Picasso concurred, "Yes, I think so. I would say to him: 'You had Rubens in mind, and painted a Delacroix. I paint them with you in mind and make something different again.'"
14. Picasso's dealer fought to have Women of Algiers sold together.
Picasso was skeptical that anyone could be convinced to purchase all 15 pieces as a set. But Kahnweiler was his champion, making it a condition of sale: all or nothing.
In June of 1956, American collectors Victor and Sally Ganz paid $212,500 to become the proud owners of the whole set. Before long, the couple sold 10 to the Saidenberg Gallery, keeping only Versions C, H, K, M, and O for themselves.
15. Following their debut, it has been difficult to see Women in Algiers.
From June to October of 1955, the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris displayed the entire series together as part of a retrospective exhibition of the last 55 years of Picasso's career. Since then, pieces have scattered to private collections and various museums. Version H can be seen at Tate Liverpool, while Version L belongs to Berlin's Museum Berggruen. But at the time of publication, neither SFMOMA's version nor Version N at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum are on display.