The figures in these portraits are caught between the naturalistic curves of flesh and the sharp geometry of Cubism. Cubism was developed in 1908-9 by Picasso and the artist Georges Braque. In the early years, the style was characterised by its muted colours and fragmented images of objects or people; painted not from a single fixed viewpoint but from different positions, and rendered as a series of shifting, angular planes. The influence of African art was crucial to Cubism, and in the portraits shown here, it emerges forcefully in the masks that stand in for a face. 

The earliest work is Picasso’s Woman with a Fan 1908. The masked head of the woman, and the throne on which she sits are Picasso’s debt to Africa, but there are also references to classical art in the off-the-shoulder drapery, as well as to Cézanne. A year later in Woman with Fan 1909 Picasso is completely absorbed in Cubism, fragmenting the figure and meshing it with the architectonic background. At this point, Picasso remains resistant to Matissean colour. For his part, Matisse recognised the brilliance of Cubism, though he never fully adopted its techniques. ‘Picasso shatters forms. I am their servant’, he later said. However, he took aspects of the style that interested him, and co-opted them for his own ends, as the paintings in this room reveal. 

Matisse’s Portrait of Mlle Yvonne Landsberg 1914, for example, is surrounded by radiating arcs, scored into the paint. While these lines suggest an aura, which seems to relate to Matisse’s perception of the shy young woman, they also correspond to Cubist grids, meshing the figure into the background. Another painting, his Portrait of Madame Matisse 1913 had originally been much more naturalistic. As Matisse worked on it, the face lost its familiar features, and became a mask. Its colour suggests that it is based on an African Fang death mask, examples of which both artists owned. The vivid hues, however, remain distinctly Matissean. 

Picasso was clearly intrigued by the portrait of Madame Matisse since, in the following year, he made what looks very much like a playful rejoinder. His Portrait of a Young Girl 1914 pushes Cubist fragmentation of the figure much further than Matisse had done, but it is still possible to discern a woman sitting in an armchair. Like the modish Madame Matisse, she wears an elaborate hat and scarf, and both figures have the same paw-like hands. Picasso now also picks up on Matisse in his bravura display of pattern and colour.