Woman with a Large Hat, 1962
Pablo Picasso, Spanish, 1881–1973
Oil on canvas
55 × 42 in. (139.7 × 106.7 cm)
Bequest of Caroline Wiess Law

Habits of Mind

  • SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications

Picasso’s Gray Area

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Curriculum Objectives

  • Make inferences and identify symbols in text
  • Understand and apply metaphor and symbolism, especially in relation to characterization






Language Arts



Connecting to the Work of Art

Seated Woman is a depiction of Spanish artist Pablo Picasso’s second wife, Jacqueline Roque, a frequent subject for the artist. Her portraits are characterized by an exaggerated neck and a “feline” face. Her dark eyes and eyebrows, high cheekbones, and classical profile would eventually become familiar symbols of Picasso’s late paintings. In this particular work, the artist presents Roque seated and facing outward toward the viewer. As the blue tones recede into the background, the work prominently features red and green tones, two complementary colors that add visual excitement to the composition.


Picasso explored ways to present three-dimensional objects on a flat, two-dimensional surface. Although this painting still includes some recognizable elements from its original subject matter, the artist fragmented those forms into geometric shapes and rearranged them into a seemingly chaotic composition. Amidst this imaginative structure, Picasso uses color to help the viewer focus on the face as the center of attention. Drawn in thick, black outlines, the face is conveyed in the most detail, while the body is composed of simple lines and shapes. The face is split into two sections; one red and the other white. A thick, green line divides the face into two sides. For the figure’s hair and torso, Picasso fills in the space between the lines with either light washes or thick dots of paint. Roque’s blue hair allows for her distinctive facial features to stand out. Furthermore, the artist places emphasis on her eyes and eyebrows with bold lines and exaggerated detail. The composition is anchored by a brown hat, whose shape echoes the curves of the figure’s torso.


Already inspired by Roque’s beauty, it is likely that Picasso’s series of paintings derived from Eugène Delacroix’s The Women of Algiers. The artist once commented that “Delacroix has already met Jacqueline.” In 1963, Picasso painted her portrait 160 times and continued to paint her in increasingly abstract forms until his death in 1973.


Picasso’s work is often categorized into periods. While the names of many of his later phases are debated, the most commonly accepted periods in his work are: the Blue Period (1901-1904), the Rose Period (1905-1907), the “African-influenced” Period (1908-1909), Analytic Cubism (1909-1912), and Synthetic Cubism (1912-1919). In the period following WWI, Picasso also produced works in the styles of Neoclassicism (“return to order”) and Surrealism. His later works, like this example, were a mixture of styles. They continued to push the boundaries of art as daring, colorful, and expressive works.


  • Although he fragments forms into geometric shapes and rearranges them into a seemingly chaotic composition, Picasso’s paintings still includes some recognizable elements from the original subject matter. What clues does the artist include to allow the viewers to recognize the figure?
  • How do the thick, black lines and geometric shapes add an energetic tone to the work?
  • How does the color add emphasis and energy to the work? In your opinion, what stands out more in the work of art: the geometric shapes or the color? Explain.
  • Why do you think the artist colored in some shapes with planes of color, while filling others with dots? Consider the placement of the shapes and their size.
  • Red and green are complementary colors, meaning they are colors that are opposite of each other on the color wheel. When used together, they create a pleasing effect. Why do you think Picasso chose to use red and green on the figure’s face?
  • Notice the figure’s blue hair, which frames the face. What effect does the inclusion of blue to the rest of the color palette add to the painting?
  • How does the artist draw attention to the figure’s face? Think about the color and composition of the geometric shapes.
  • The figure was known in real life for her dark eyes and eyebrows and high cheekbones. How does Picasso emphasize these features in the work?


  • Considering the elements and tone of this work of art, do you think that the artist is celebrating the sitter, or depicting a realistic viewpoint?
  • Even though the identity of the figure is known, Picasso chose not to include her name in the title. Why do you think he chose to title the painting Seated Woman? Explain your opinion using evidence from the painting and your previous knowledge about the artist.
  • Despite the fact that the composition seems chaotic, how do you know that it is actually considered and intentional? Use visual evidence from the work of art to justify your answer.
  • This work of art was created late in Picasso’s life, after his Cubist phases. Compare this work to an earlier Cubist work by Picasso. How does the artist build off of and push past Cubism in Seated Woman?
  • Next, compare this work of art to more traditional portraits. Picasso often referenced established artists and traditional art historical elements. What elements reference more traditional portraits? Why do you think Picasso would choose to include these elements?
  • Why do you think Picasso chose to observe his subject from different angles instead of from just one? What advantages might that present the artist with? Is it advantageous to the viewer? Why?
  • Picasso once said, “Nature does many things the way I do, but she hides them!” What do you think he meant by this? How does this quote apply to Seated Woman?


By using unconventional and unrealistic colors and shapes in Woman with a Large Hat, Picasso asks us to accept a new interpretation of an ordinary sight. In discussing this painting, ask your students how Picasso’s approach differs from other portraits they may have seen, and what Picasso might be trying to tell us about Roque through this unusual depiction. These discussion questions encourage students to consider abstraction and metaphor in descriptions of everyday life—students may have varying opinions or interpretations, and that’s ok.

After working through the “gray area” of Picasso’s depiction of Roque, students can apply the same thinking exercises to novels (or other texts) that they are reading for class. Prompt students to represent characters in the novel, and their relationships to one another, using visual symbols. What shapes or colors might best represent the protagonist? The antagonist and supporting characters? How do the characters relate to one another? Students can represent these characters and symbols through drawings and/or writings.

Subject Matter Connection

A student who is accomplished in language arts needs to feel liberated to express himself or herself freely. Much of literature analysis is a “grey area” open to various interpretations; what matters is that students have the ability to overcome the fear of that ambiguity and the fear of failure so that they can critically evaluate works of literature in depth. Similarly, various literature genres—such as fantasy or science fiction—ask readers to stretch basic beliefs. When analyzing Picasso’s work, students must cast off preconceived notions of ordinarily recognizable ways to interpret the human form—just as reading a work of science fiction requires the reader to accept alternate views of the universe.

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.