Woman in White (1923) by Pablo Picasso
Meaning and Interpretation of Neoclassical Portrait

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Woman in White
By Pablo Picasso.
Regarded as one of the
greatest portrait paintings
of neoclassical idiom.

Woman in White (1923)


Articles about Modern Portraits


Name: Woman in White (1923)
Artist: Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Medium: Oil on canvas
Genre: Portrait art
Movement/Style: Classical realism
Location: Metropolitan Museum of Art

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

To appreciate works by
20th century painters
like Pablo Picasso, see:
How to Appreciate Paintings.

Analysis of Woman in White

The greatest representative of Spanish Painting, and the dominant figure in modern art of the 20th century, Pablo Picasso moved effortlessly from academic art to expressionism, then co-invented Cubism and Collage with Georges Braque, becoming in the process the leader of the Ecole de Paris. An earlier portrait is Portrait of Gertrude Stein (1906), while later examples of his talent include Weeping Woman (1937, Tate Collection) and Guernica (1937, Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid). For more examples of his use of the classical idiom, see: Neoclassical Figure Paintings by Picasso (1906-30).

Paradoxically, no artist did more to overturn the traditional notion, or misconception, of art as a passive record of appearance than did Picasso - see, for instance, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon - while at the same time, contributing so much to the continuing vitality of the Classical Revival in modern art (1900-30). Woman in White is an outstanding example of his power to revitalize that tradition. See also: Two Nudes (1906, Museum of Modern Art, New York); Two Women Running on the Beach (The Race) (1922, Musee Picasso, Paris); Large Bather (1921, Musee de l'Orangerie, Paris); as well as Seated Woman (Picasso) (1920, Musee Picasso, Paris).

Picasso's renewed interest in the art of classical antiquity was sparked by his first visit to Italy in 1917. He spent most of his time in Rome with Serge Diaghilev (1872-1929) and the Ballets Russes (1909-29), discussing the decor which he designed for the ballet Parade, performed later that year in Paris. He also fell in love with one of Diaghilev's dancers, Olga Koklova, whom he married in 1918. From Rome, Picasso journeyed to Naples and Pompeii, where he saw the sculpture and frescos in houses excavated from under the volcanic ash of Vesuvius. He wrote to Gertrude Stein that he had "made Pompeiian fantasies and caricatures of Diaghilev, Bakst and some dancers".

Woman in White is one of several portraits by Picasso completed during his Neoclassical Period, which lasted from 1918 to 1925. But there was nothing obsequious about Picasso's admiration for the classical art he found in Rome and Pompeii. He parodied the style in paintings inhabited by giant women draped in white tunics with folds as hard as the fluting of classical columns. By the same token, he took the most overworked stereotypes of the classical tradition and re-invested them with candour and freshness.

NOTE: Compare the neoclassical style of Fernand Leger, another French Cubist who joined the classical revival, with paintings like: The Mechanic (1920); Three Women (Le Grand Dejeuner) (1921); Nudes against a Red Background (1923); and Two Sisters (1935, SMPK, Berlin).



Painted in September 1923 after the artist had returned to Paris from a holiday at Cap d'Antibes on the French Riviera, Woman in white has all the ingredients of a classical beauty: a straight nose; almond-shaped eyes; small, full lips; hair pulled back before fluttering loose. The same features may be found in the delicate profiles on Greek pottery, or in the goddesses of Pompeiian mural paintings. It was an art formula, but one which Picasso's painting transcends. Woman in White has the vivid precision, and in her folded arms the self-composure, of a real portrait, and it may well have been conceived as an idealized portrait of Olga Koklova. However, in the catalogue to the important exhibition "Picasso and Portraiture" (1996), MOMA's curator of painting William Rubin (1927-2006) wrote that Picasso's muse in this portrait and numerous others, made between 1922 and 1923, was in fact the American beauty Sara Murphy (1883-1975), with whom Picasso was infatuated during the early 1920s. It is also possible that Picasso combined the physical attributes of both Koklova and Murphy into a single idealized portrait - something he did quite often.

In any event, Picasso succeeds in transforming the seated figure into a dreamlike vision of delicate perfection and refinement. He does this by applying several layers of white wash and by superimposing contours in soft tones of grey and brown. His idealized treatment of her facial features derives from his study of Greek art, while the informality of her pose, together with the loose-fitting, almost translucent dress, gives her a soft relaxed air.

The painting was once part of the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. It was sold in 1947, along with Picasso's La Coiffure and thirty-eight other paintings, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of an agreement whereby the Metropolitan, MOMA, and the Whitney Museum of American Art attempted to rationalize their collecting policies so as to eliminate duplication and competition. Under this agreement, MOMA would, naturally enough, be responsible for 'modern art', while the Metropolitan would confine itself to what was termed 'classical art' - art which had stood the test of time and 'become part of the cultural history of mankind'. (The agreement between the three museums lapsed in 1952.)

Articles about Modern Portraits

Young Italian Woman Leaning on her Elbow (1900)
Timeless classical-style portrait purchased by Matisse.

La Vie (Life) (1903)
A major work from Picasso's Blue Period: his symbolist tribute to Casagemas.

Boy with a Pipe (Garcon à la Pipe) (1905)
Rose Period painting which sold for a world record $104 million in 2004.

Portrait of Juan Gris (1915) by Modigliani.
Typical Modigliani genius.

Portrait of Jeanne Hebuterne (1918) by Modigliani.
A painting of the artist's muse and the tragic mother of his child.

Portrait of Madeleine Castaing (1928) by Chaim Soutine.
Painting of his leading supporter.


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