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From 1916 onwards Gris became interested in painting figures, leading him to seek inspiration in the work of the great masters of the past. Various drawings of this period copy works by Raphael, Velázquez and Cézanne, in addition to three oils based on Corot. Seated Woman looks to Corot in the counterbalance of the curved and straight lines and the interplay of chiaroscuro. However, the use of a high viewpoint that flattens the forms and the painting’s overall structure of juxtaposed, oblique lines recall Cézanne’s female portraits. In comparison with Portrait of Josette Gris, 1916, with which this painting forms a pair, Seated Woman is more varied and complex, both from a formal and chromatic viewpoint. This may be partly explained by the party dress that Josette is wearing here, although some experts have also pointed to the possible influence of Picasso’s painting The Italian Woman of 1917.
As a Spaniard, Gris was a non-combatant in the First World War. His war was uncomfortable, nonetheless. Foreigners on the home-front were under constant suspicion, and the supply of food and heating fuel was often erratic. Early on, the sudden end to the income for his dealer Kahnweiler meant real poverty, but in 1915 Léonce Rosenberg, who had collected Cubist work before the war, decided to move into the space left in the market by Kahnweiler's exile, and began to take an interest in Gris' painting. In April 1916, Gris signed a contract with Rosenberg, and between 1916 and 1920 he was to be one of the group of Cubists supported by the dealer's galerie de l'Effort Moderne; among them were Léger, Metzinger, Severini, Herbin, Lipchitz and Laurens. Gris in particular was to be considered a leading figure in the so-called "Return to Order" in the final years of the war, and in the half decade that followed it.
Gris dates Seated Woman "5-17", a date confirmed by Léonce Rosenberg's galerie de l'Effort Moderne stock-books. On 5 May 1917 he wrote to Rosenberg from Paris: "Picasso got back the day before yesterday, came to see me. We spent the evening together. I told him what you wrote to me about the two paintings he did in Rome [...] I showed him my latest stuff and he doesn't seem to think too badly of it. I was really pleased because, as you well know, I'm always inclined to think everything I do is dreadful." Picasso had been in Rome with Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, designing the sets and costumes for the production of Parade, a ballet devised by Jean Cocteau to music by Erik Satie. The opening night of Parade in Paris was at the Théâtre du Châtelet on 18 May 1917, and Gris was an enthusiastic member of the audience. On Picasso's invitation he had attended rehearsals as well. Seated Woman was, therefore, painted at a time of especially close relations between Gris and Picasso.
One of the two pictures painted by Picasso in Rome to which Gris refers in his letter of 5 May is The Italian Woman (L'Italienne). The relationship of this to the present Seated Woman is a telling one. The fancy-dress subject of Picasso's picture is based on tourist postcards, themselves closely related to the genre of fancy-dress peasant figure paintings associated most obviously with Corot. As we shall see, Gris' painting is probably based on a sitter, who could well be his common-law wife Josette, but the pose of the figure and the accent on elaborate costume also relate it in general terms to Corot's peasant figure paintings. This is underlined by the fact that Seated Woman is a sequel to Gris' Corotesque Potrait of Madame Josette Gris painted in October 1916 and to his Cubist adaptation of Corot's Woman with a Mandolin of a month earlier. It represents, indeed, like Picasso's The Italian Woman, a high-point in a campaign (backed by Léonice Rosenberg) to attach Cubism to a notion of the French tradition, which gave a leading role to Camille Corot in the 19th century. Picasso and Braque together had been the first to attempt an accommodation between Corot and Cubism, with their treatments of the theme of the woman with a mandolin in 1910, but the question of a specific Picasso influence in this case is irrelevant, for Gris had turned to Corot before Picasso's trip to Rome, and his letter of 5 May 1917 suggests that, despite his mention of Rosenberg's opinion of Picasso's Roman pictures (including The Italian Woman), he himself had not been able to see them. The fact remains, however, that Picasso's return from Rome with so uncompromising a Cubist picture on so explicitly a Corotesque theme would have confirmed for the two of them a common direction that was both Cubist and traditionalist, whether or not they had made their respective moves independently.
1917 was also the year that Gris moved decisively towards a "purified" Cubist method, whose starting point was claimed to be in non-objective formal configurations and compositional structures, rather than in subject-matter. The question of whether Gris's starting point was his sitter in this case is, therefore, important. Cooper states that this pictures is "a portrait of Madame Josette Gris." He gives no evidence. But it can be assumed that this was corroborated by Madame Gris herself. Certainly the costume is not regional peasant dress, as it is so obviously in The Italian Woman; it bears no relation, for instance, to Touraine regional costume of the kind that Gris would have known from his visit to Beaulieu-lès-Loches. It is, rather, the costume of a Parisian dressed up to go out, and the likelihood must be that this is a more elaborate Parisian complement to the simpler provincial portrait of Josette painted at Beaulieu.
Josette Gris was born Charlotte Augusta Fernande Herpin in Loches in 1894, daughter of a bank employee and a schoolteacher. Her upbringing seems to have been partially Parisian, but she retained close ties with their family in Beaulieu and Loches, for her paternal grandfather, the retired financial administrator of the hospital at Loches, was the one who found her and Gris their accommodation just outside Beaulieu in 1916, and then again in 1918 and 1920. Her background seems to have been petty bourgeois with aspirations, for she boarded at the École Riart in Loches, a school designed for the daughters of the provincial bonne bourgeosie. Despite her straitened circumstances with Gris, she possessed a well developed taste for good clothes, as demonstrated by the fact that on their return from Beaulieu at the end of 1916 Gris exchanged a small picture for a dress made especially for her by Madame Bongard, the couturier sister of Paul Poiret.
Josette, we know, did not sit for the 1916 portrait, but we also know that she did sit for portrait drawings at that time. If this is indeed a second full-length portrait, it can be assumed, once again, that if she sat, she sat only for drawings; no such drawings survive. It is extremely unlikely that a non-objective compositional structure suggested the subject. The exact repetition of size of the 1916 portrait and the comparable use of a structure of overlapping triangles drawn from the edges of the format strongly suggest that the idea of a figure-subject came first in the picture's conception. In particular, the idiosyncratic feature of the pleated cloak fits the broad planar structure of the composition so well that the likelihood is of a fairly specific figure-idea as the starting point. This conclusion is further encouraged by the fact that there are no pentimenti visible on the paint surface to suggest the adjustment of shapes and configurations to fit a subject that has emerged during the process of painting, though many of the most legible details-the white outlines of brow, nose and mouth, the black eye, the ear-ring, and the white outlines of the costume-were painted in late.
Appropiately, Josette dressed up to go out is the pretext for a far more intricately developed pictorial structure than Josette dressed down to stay in. By comparison with the 1916 portrait, there is a distinctly greater variety in the play between straight and curved and in the slants of the obliques of the overlapping triangles. The result is greater richness and a hint of destabilised tension.
The picture was sold to Léonice Rosenberg for 350 francs, the price fixed for a 50M format work by Gris in his contract with the dealer of 18 May 1916. It is listed in the galerie de l'Effort Moderne stock-books priced at 500 francs. Eventually it was bought from the gallery by the Swiss banker Raoul La Roche, whose collection of Cubist art was one of the most judicious to be formed in the 1920s and 1930s. The illustration of the work in Rosenberg's Bulletin de l'Effort Moderne indicates that the sale did not occur before 1927. La Roche's paintings and sculptures were housed in the Parisian villa designed and built for him by Le Corbusier between 1923 and 1925. From the early 1920s, Le Corbusier acted as a respected adviser in his purchasing. On La Roche's death, the work passed to his heir in Basel, where it remained until the sale from which it was bought by the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection.