Between 1954 and 1963 Picasso produced several series of variotions on Old Master paintings including reworkings of Edouard Manet's The Luncheon on the Grass, Diego Velazquez's Las Meninas and Jocques-Louis David's (1748-1825) The Rape of the Sabine Women. The first of these series, however, examined Eugene Delacroix's (1798-1863) Women of Algiers (1834), Picasso produced 15 oils based on this work in a frenzied period of activity in the winter of 1954-55.
Picasso had first made a sketch version of the work as early as 1940 and throughout the decade regularly visited the Louvre specifically to look at Delacroix's canvas. However, like so many of Picasso's variations, the works, including this oil sketch, were only loosely based upon the original. Here Picasso has again distorted the forms of the women seated in the foreground, twisting their bodies into impossible contortions so that front and back views are simultaneously presented to the viewer. The emphasis on the odalisque is also closely related to Picasso's admiration for Henri Matisse, who specialized in the representation of women in such exotic costumes. Matisse's recent death inspired Picasso to engage with this subject.