The inhabitants of the museum: Fernande Olivier, Picasso’s first muse

Fernande Olivier, Picasso’s first muse
Pablo Picasso. Fernande Olivier with a black mantilla. 1905-1906. Oil on canvas. 100 x 81 cm. Salomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York Thannhauser Collection. Donated by Hilde Thannhauser, 1991. 91.3914


Fernande Olivier is another of the inhabitants of the museum to be found housed within the Picasso museum. She is known for having been Picasso’s first muse and for having written two books about their relationship. The story of Olivier is so intense that it has even been recently re-told by the author Isabel Clara-Simó.

Let it be known, however, that Fernande’s real name was Amélie Lang. Born in Paris on the 6th of June in 1881, she had a turbulent childhood and ended up in the custody of a sister of her mother, who wished to force her into marriage. She ran away and instead married a man who she later left in 1900 because he was maltreating her. It was at this point that she chose to adopt the pseudonym Fernande Olivier, in order for her identity to remain hidden.

Four years later, in 1904, Fernande met Picasso. The Andalusian  artist had moved to Paris for good after four previous visits and was living in the Bateau-L’avoir, 13 Rue de Ravignan in the Montmartre neighbourhood. The Bateau- L’avoir building was frequented by many writers and artists of the era such as Guillaume Apollinaire and André Salmon. Olivier was often there posing as a model.

The relationship between Picasso and Olivier began quickly, just at the beginning of the painter’s Rose Period. Olivier was to become an important source of inspiration for him, and between 1905 and 1906 Picasso dedicated works to her such as the portrait with the black mantilla which can be found in the Guggenheim museum in New York, or the sculpture Head of a woman [Fernande Olivier] which was incorporated into our permanent collection in 2000.

Parallel to this, Picasso continued to move towards his cubist style with The Young Ladies of Avignon (1907). One of the women in the painting was inspired by Olivier.

Fernande Olivier, Picasso’s first muse
Fernande Olivier, photographed by Pablo Picasso, 1906. Musée Picasso, Paris © RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY, Photo: Madeleine Coursaget.


In 1909 after a brief stay in Barcelona, the couple moved out to spend summer in Horta de San Joan, a place that Picasso considered idyllic. Olivier wrote some cards that are conserved at the Centre d’Horta, and help to give us a sense of her experience. Olivier wrote about the incredible landscapes that surrounded them, and of some eccentric acquaintances, but notably, she related times spent “in the square with the nobility of the town, given that Pablo was shut up in that place he called his workshop.” In general, Olivier seemed touched by the kindness of neighbours and as a result ensured that she even managed to pick up a little Catalan.

After the summer, the couple returned to Paris, but changed their residence to 11 Boulevard de Clichy, here Picasso did an important portrait of Olivier that can now be seen at the Fitzwilliam museum in Cambridge.

In 1910, the two of them came back to Catalonia on holiday and divided their time between Barcelona and Cadaqués. But in the summer of 1911 there was a change: Picasso left for Ceret and in autumn met Eva Gouel, who was to become his new companion and lover until 1915. Olivier was therefore obliged to take up various jobs to make ends meet: from cashier to butcher to seller of antiques. She also sporadically wrote and took art classes.

Fernande Olivier, Picasso’s first muse
Pablo Picasso. Head of a Woman [Fernande Olivier]. París, 1906. Bronze. 35,7 x 24,8 x 25,4 cm. MPB 113035.


In 1930, barely twenty years after her separation with Picasso, when he was already an internationally renowned artist, Olivier published six chapters of her recollections of their relationship in the Belgian broadsheet, Le Soir. These were later collected in the book, Picasso et ses amis (1933). The intervention of Picasso’s lawyers prevented Olivier from publishing the rest of her story which would see the light in 1988 in “Loving Picasso” (written for Picasso).

Fernande Olivier spent the final years of her life in anonymity, even though in the fifties she had a few short communications with Picasso. She died in Paris on the 29th of January in 1966, aged 84. Her biography has been written by Isabel Clara-Simó in the book L’amant de Picasso (Editorial Bromera Alzira, 2015). The Valencian author makes a claim for the feminist spirit of Olivier, as she defends the catalan-ness of Picasso and the cubist movement at the time of the couples’ stay at Horta de Sant Joan.

We invite you to come to the Picasso Museum to see Head of Woman, the sculpture that Picasso made inspired by Oliver, and of course to meet the other inhabitants of the museum.


Written by the Museu Picasso


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