Fernande Olivier

Eva, Olga, Marie-Therese, Dora, Francoise, Genevieve, Jacqueline. To art lovers and muse enthusiasts, Picasso’s mistresses/wives are familiar to us on a first name basis. We know those beautiful fascinating women listed above, and we know Picasso’s paintings of them. I think, however, that the woman with whom Picasso had his first serious relationship receives somewhat less attention than she deserves. After all, this is the woman who took up with Picasso when he was still basically a nobody, just another struggling artist in Paris.

Her name was Fernande Olivier, but she was born Amélie Lang in 1881 in the garment district of Paris. A child out of wedlock, Fernande was orphaned almost immediately when her mother dropped her off at a relative’s house and was rarely seen again. The foundling infant was raised by resentful, abusive relatives, and it’s no surprise that Fernande would develop emotional issues with trust, intimacy, and affection.

Fernande Olivier with a little girl, in a photograph taken by Picasso:

As a young teen, Fernande Olivier excelled at school and found escape in the popular novels of the day. Her passion for reading expanded, as it often does, into writing. As a result, Fernande kept extensive personal journals throughout her life. When she was 18, Fernande was assaulted and raped by a male acquaintance. Rather than expressing sympathy and protection, her adoptive family forced Fernande to marry the man, probably as a way of getting rid of her.

The “marriage”, predictably, was miserable, and marred Fernande’s perceptions of sex and male/female relations. In her journals, Fernande asked simply “Is this really what love is?”. She lamented the lack of tenderness and affection, and described sex with her husband as “cruel, brutal possession”, and “filthy and hateful”. Fernande deserved a lot better than the shithead she was pressured into marrying. Believing that she could find a better life out there in the world, Fernande picked up and left the dirtbag behind. You go girl.

Soon Fernande was working as an artist’s model in Montmartre, thanks to a sculptor who offered her her first posing job. Life among the Paris bohemians suited Fernande well, although the search for genuine intimacy and tenderness with a man was still elusive. Fernande had many lovers, none of whom encouraged Fernande to pursue her own interests or treated her as anything other than a model and mistress. Some even mistook her for a prostitute.

It was inevitable that Fernande and Picasso would cross paths in 1904 Paris. Fernande recorded her first impressions of the “Spanish artist” in her diaries:

For some time now I’ve been bumping into him wherever I go, and he looks at me with his huge deep eyes, sharp but brooding, full of suppressed fire. I don’t find him particularly attractive, but his strangely intense gaze forces me to look at him in return, although I’ve never answered him when he tries to make conversation. I don’t know where to place him on the social scale and I can’t tell how old he is.

Picasso was 23, and in 1905 he and Fernande moved in together at the Bateau Lavoir studios. The relationship would last several years. Fernande, of course, posed for Picasso regularly and was the subject of many of his Rose Period works.

This is Picasso’s Fernande With a Black Mantilla, from 1905:

Given Fernande’s issues with cold, insensitive male personalities, one might wonder how and why she’d embark on a long term relationship with, of all people, the conventionally macho, self-centered Picasso. Well the answer is that genuine love existed between the two. Yes, Picasso truly loved Fernande and even asked her to marry him. This is not to say that the relationship wasn’t flawed. It was. The notoriously jealous Picasso forbid Fernande from posing for any other artists while they were together and didn’t want her to leave the house without him. He would literally lock her in like a hostage.

But in her journals, Fernande acknowledged Picasso’s tender side. Yes, he had one. When she was sick, he took care of her and was occasionally able to express love and kindness- that is when he allowed himself to do so. But Picasso’s attentiveness toward his lover was hardly consistent and could not be counted on in the long term.

This beautiful drawing is called Portrait de Fernande, 1906. From the page on pablo-ruiz-picasso.net.

Things started to fall apart between Picasso and Fernande around 1909. They spent the summer at Horta de Ebro, and Picasso created a series of  Cubist Fernande portraits there. But when they returned to Paris, the arguing got worse. Friend of the couple Gertrude Stein witnessed the conflicts between the two and observed that Picasso was picking on trivial things. Fernande’s patience had been pushed to brink and she yelled at Picasso, calling him “a precocious child”. Things exacerbated when Fernande developed a painful, very serious kidney infection, which was too much for Picasso to handle.

Fernande and Picasso continued to live together as friends even though their romance was over. Then, in 1912, Picasso met and became involved with Eva Gouel.

Many years later, Fernande was alone and in very ill health. She contacted Picasso for help and he obliged with a small pension. It was the least he could do for his first muse, his first serious companion, the woman who stood by him during those early Paris years. Fernande Olivier died in 1966. Fortunately, she left behind her colorful, observant, deeply felt memoirs about her life.

Some links to articles about Fernande Olivier:

“Whose Melancholy” from artnet

Artist and Model” from the NY Times