Between 1954 and 1963 Picasso produced several series of variations 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. Added to this rich mix was the geopolitics of the time, which saw an uprising in the French colony of Algeria that would eventually lead to the country's independence.
In this work, Picasso has distilled all of these ingredients into one large-scale painting of great quality: a study not only of the Arabesque, but also a serious enquiry into the nature of colour, line and composition. In 2015, Picasso's The Women of Algiers has set a new world record for the most expensive artwork to be sold at auction after reaching $179m in New York. The record is only broken by the auctioned price of Salvator Mundi by Leonardo da Vinci in 2017.