Picasso's Women: Fernande Olivier

Pablo Picasso - Head of Woman (Fernande), 1909
Pablo Picasso (Spanish, 1881-1973). Head of Woman (Fernande), 1909. Oil on canvas. 65 x 55 cm. Städel Museum, Frankfurt am Main. © Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Amélie Lang-Percheron-Belvallé-la Baume (a.k.a. Fernande Olivier)

Her Connection to Pablo Picasso


Date and Place of Birth:

June 6, 1881, Paris

Early Life:

Fernande Olivier may be Picasso' first great love. They met in Montmarte on the rue Ravignon, not far from his studio in the ramshackle building nicknamed the Bateau Lavoir ("Washboat House" - also called the "Trapper's House" by Picasso's Gang).

She recalled that it was a stormy day during the summer of 1904.

Fernande was a model and a bit of an artist as well. Her sketches of herself and Picasso appear in her memoirs Picasso and his Friends (published in 1933). A few other works are in private collections.

Born out-of-wedlock to Clara Lang and an unknown father, she lived with a foster family named Belvallé (or Bellevallé or Bellvallet) in Montmarte (John Richardson conjectures that the family name was a French version of Schoenfeld, a typical decision for Jews who wanted to assimilate). The husband manufactured silk flowers and was kind. His wife was another story.

When Fernande was seduced by a shop assistant Paul-Émile Percheron, Madame Belvallé insisted that she marry the brute or be sent off to a reformatory. Fernande married Percheron on August 8, 1899. Percheron beat her and caused a miscarriage that prevented her from having children.

She ran away from Percheron to live with the sculpture Laurent Debienne (we know nothing about this work and wonder if his real name was la Baume, which Fernande added to her own mysterious accumulation of names). This relationship turned her into a model. She posed for several important artists, including Fernand Cormon (1845-1924), Charles Auguste-Émile Carolus Duran (1837-1917), Giovanni Boldini (1832-1941) and Degas (1834-1917).

Her Years with Picasso:

She stayed with Ricard and Benedetto Canals (Ricard Canals i Llambí, 1876-1931), who lived in the Bateau Lavoir, in 1901 when she met the artist Joaquim Sunyer (1874-1956). She was living with Sunyer in 1904 when she met Picasso. They became lovers then, but she did not move into Picasso's studio until 1905.

Fernande's Pre-Raphaelesque beauty ushered in Picasso's Rose Period. Her nubile, womanly body inspired Picasso to seek out the influence of Degas' women at their toilette and Odilon Redon's ethereal drawing. She lived like a captive Ingres odalisque, without shoes for a while and forced to stay indoors while Picasso brought in the necessary provisions.

She also participated in the opium sessions introduced by Max Jacob and André Salmon, who were also part of the infamous la bande à Picasso (Picasso's Gang). Max Jacob met Picasso in 1901, when the Spanish artist exhibited at Berthe Weill's gallery in Montmartre. Salmon met Picasso through a mutual friend, the Catalan sculptor Manuel Hugué (Manolo, 1872-1945) probably around November 1904.

Fernande described her life with Picasso in her first memoir Picasso et ses amis (1933), and then she repeated most of these stories and added others in her second book Souvenirs intimes (1988).

The couple had their ups and downs. In 1907, when Picasso worked on Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, Fernarde had left Picasso for a while. Fernande was replaced by Eva Gouel (Marcelle Humbert), whom Picasso took up with in 1911. Picasso and Fernande split up in 1912. The famous sculpture Head of a Woman (Fernande), 1909, worked through aspects of early Cubism.

Known Examples of Fernande Olivier in Picasso's Art:

A brief list of works with Fernande Olivier:

Head of Fernande, 1905, Musée Picasso.

The Artist Watching Fernande (Meditation), 1905, Private Collection.

Family of Saltimbanques (?), 1905, National Gallery, Washington, D.C.

Woman Combing her Hair, 1906, Private Collection.

Two Nudes, 1906, Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Head of a Woman (Fernande), 1909, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Date and Place of Death:

January 26, 1966, Paris


Richardson, John and Marilyn McCully. A Life of Picasso, Volume 1: 1881-1906.
New York: Random House, 1991.

Olivier, Fernande, Picasso and his Friends. Translated by Jane Miller.
New York: Appleton-Century, 1965.

Olivier, Fernande, Loving Picasso: A Private Journal of Fernande Olivier.
Translated by Christine Baker and Michael Raeburn
Forward and notes by Marilyn McCully
Epilogue by John Richardson.
New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001