Fernande Olivier

Fernande Olivier

Amélie Lang


Paris, France


Fernande Olivier, (her given name Amélie Lang) was born June 1881. She was the product of a young girl and a married man. At the age of two, Amélie was orphaned to an uncaring Aunt of her father's relation, where she lived until the Aunt tried to arrange a marriage for her with an older accountant. Disagreeing with this decision, Amélie ran away, at the age of 18, and married a physically and sexually abusive man, Paul Percheron. The marriage was short-lived. In April 1900, at the age of 19, Amélie ran away again, never bothering to get divorced. Fearing her husband might one day find her, Amélie Lang changed her name to Fernande Olivier.

Picasso's mistress and maybe muse during the key moments of the development of Cubism was born Amélie Lang, went by the name of Fernande Olivier, and signed her letters to Gertrude Stein, Fernande Belvalet, or Belvallé. Just as Picasso faceted appearances, she apparently multiplied her identity. Forced to marry very young so as not to remain a burden for her unloving adoptive parents, then abused by her new husband, she had fled the married nest without a sou, and searched for work. Pretty as she was yet alone in the world, she had found herself aggressively pursued by men who took her for a prostitute, and by women who offered her the tenderness that she had been deprived of as a child.

Fernande fended off some suitors, and cozied up to others, but discovered that her road to independence was posing for artists. That was her occupation when Picasso met her in 1904, invited her to move in with him at the Bateau Lavoir, which she did after much soul searching. Picasso's jealousy was so intense that in the first phase of their relationship he did not let Fernande go out without him, and apparently locked her inside when he went out alone (until a fire broke out, and she had to jump out a window to escape). He apparently changed his ways after the lesbian couple Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas entered their life and he allowed Fernande to go to Alice's hotel to give her French lessons "twice a week for three hours." Chaperoned by Alice, Fernande saw "her women friends," went to art galleries, and shopped, or so Toklas reports in her memoirs (What Is Remembered, pp. 29, 35).

Fernande wrote long and loving letters to Alice and Gertrude during the summer of 1909 but, after her affair with Picasso broke up, Fernande tactfully excluded herself from the Stein's milieu, allegedly saying in her letter of adieux to Gertrude Stein that she realized their friends would have to choose, and of course they would choose Picasso. "She Fernande said that she would always remember their intercourse with pleasure and that she would permit herself, if ever she were in need, to throw herself upon Gertrude's generosity" (Autobiography, p. 151). In these few lines, Stein has made her own portrait of Fernande. It reveals more than Fernande's awkward and archaic use of English words ("she would always remember their intercourse with pleasure") and subtly reenacts Fernande's graceful way of abandoning herself ("she would permit herself, if ever she were in need, to throw herself upon Gertrude's generosity"). Poor Fernande.

"Fernande was a tall beautiful woman with a wonderful big hat...." (Gertrude Stein)