Seated Woman (1920) by Pablo Picasso
Interpretation of Neoclassical-style Female Figure Painting

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"Seated Woman"
By Picasso.
Considered to be one of the
greatest 20th century paintings.

Seated Woman (1920)


Picasso's Modern Classicism
Analysis of Seated Woman
Explanation of other Paintings by Picasso


Name: Seated Woman (1920)
Artist: Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Medium: Oil painting on canvas
Genre: Figure painting
Movement: Classical Revival
Location: Musee Picasso, Paris

For an understanding of other pictures from the 19th and 20th centuries, see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

For analysis of paintings
by classicist painters
like Picasso, see:
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Picasso's Modern Classicism

One of the greatest modern artists and the leading representative of the school of Spanish painting, Pablo Picasso was famous for embracing a wide variety of styles, from abstract art to classical representational art. See, for instance, the contrast in style between two of his most expensive paintings - Les femmes d'Alger (Version O) (1955, private collection), a straightforward example of Cubism; and Boy with a Pipe (Garcon à la Pipe) (1905, private collection), a perfect example of neoclassical naturalism.

That Picasso himself - at any rate after 1914 - did not see Cubism and Classicism as incompatible, is suggested by the ease with which he switched between the two manners. For they always coexisted in his work, and were employed by him simultaneously as the subject or the mood demanded. Picasso was not unique in this ability to juggle avant-garde and classical styles. But he was unique in his flexibility, and in the sheer variety of classical styles which he commanded at any given time. For more about his classical works, please see: Neoclassical Paintings by Picasso (1906-30).

For his best neoclassical-style works, please see: Two Nudes (1906, Museum of Modern Art, New York); Large Bather (1921, Musee de l'Orangerie, Paris); Two Women Running on the Beach (The Race) (1922, Musee Picasso, Paris); and Woman in White (1923, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City).

NOTE: Picasso's classical works owe a debt to earlier paintings by Cezanne, like The Large Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses) (1894-1905) and Young Italian Woman Leaning on her Elbow (1900, Getty).



Analysis of Seated Woman by Pablo Picasso

This picture was painted in Paris in the autumn of 1920 after Picasso's return from Juan-les-Pins. It appears to originate in the sketching he made there of Olga resting or reading in an armchair, so while it has the monumentality of the antique, it has also a domestic and contemporary context - as the chair reminds us.

The motif of the woman seated in an armchair was one Picasso used again and again in the 1920s and 1930s. He relished its intrinsic simplicity and sheer commonness, because those qualities guaranteed him complete freedom to explore the expressive possibilities of the great range of styles he chose to use at different moments. Here, even though the pose is casual, not hieratic, it seems likely that Picasso was drawing on Greek Early Classical sculpture, or at least provincial forms of Greek sculpture, which lack the grace, naturalism and sophistication usually associated with classical art. (The Archeological Museum in Madrid has substantial collections of these 'rustic' or 'primitive' forms.) Moreover Seated Woman is akin to paintings done in 1906 after Picasso's return from Gosol when he was under the direct influence of Iberian sculpture, for it too is wilfully blocky, rough and primitive in appearance.

Seated Woman is sombre and gloomy in mood, for Picasso has done everything to dramatise the deep shadows from which the figure emerges. The hot pinks and the whites are laid over layers of grey-black, so that the painting is unified by the darks rather than the lights. Although nothing is happening we cannot help but associate the figure with tragedy, and thus with classical sources which depict death or mourning. We could compare her, for instance, with statues of grieving women of the so-called "Penelope" type, or with the heavily draped figure of the mourning Agamemnon in the fresco of the "Sacrifice of Iphigenia" in the Archeological Museum in Naples. Where Renoir saw only joy in the classical world, Picasso as often as not saw tragedy.

NOTE: Other members of the European avant-garde also joined the classical "Call to Order". Leger, with paintings like: The Mechanic (1920); Three Women (1921); Nudes against a Red Background (1923); and Two Sisters (1935). Giorgio de Chirico with pictures like: Uncertainty of the Poet (1913), and Song of Love (1914); Carra with Renaissance-inspired works like The Drunken Gentleman (1916)

Explanation of other Paintings by Picasso

La Vie (Life) (1903) Cleveland Museum of Art, Ohio.

Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1906) Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY.

Les Demoiselles d'Avignon (1907) Museum of Modern Art, NY.

Guernica (1937) Reina Sofia, Madrid.

Weeping Woman (1937) Tate Collection, London.

• For the meaning of other 20th century neoclassical paintings, see: Homepage.

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