Estate of the artist
Bernard Picasso (by descent from the above)
The Pace Gallery, New York
Acquired from the above in 1981
Christian Zervos, ed., Picasso, 1930-1935 (Cahiers d'art), Paris, n.d., illustrated p. 56
Christian Zervos, Pablo Picasso, Oeuvres de 1932-1937, vol. 8, Paris, 1957, no. 191, illustrated pl. 82
Pierre Daix, Picasso, Life and Art, New York, 1993, discussed p. 229
The Picasso Project, ed., Picasso's Paintings, Watercolors, Drawings and Sculpture, Surrealism, 1930-1936, San Francisco, 2003, no. 34-043 , illustrated
Gary Tinterow & Susan Alyson Stein, ed., Picasso in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (exhibition catalogue), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2010, discussed p. 217
Picasso's striking portrayal of two women reading belongs to the extraordinary group of canvases depicting Marie-Thérèse Walter, his beloved mistress during the early 1930s. Distinguished by their rich coloration, harmonic curves and sweeping arabesques, these exceptional pictures are renowned as Picasso's most euphoric, sexually-charged, fantastical and inspired compositions, and they rank among the most instantly recognizable works of 20th century art. In fact, of all the manifestations of Picasso's exceptionally prolific career, it is during his 'Marie-Thérèse period' when his creative force was at its most powerful. Among the most monumental of these pictures is Femmes lisant (Deux personnages), created when Marie-Thérèse was firmly at the center of Picasso's artistic universe.
Marie-Thérèse's potent mix of physical attractiveness and sexual naivety had an intoxicating effect on Picasso. His rapturous desire for the girl gave rise to a wealth of images that have been acclaimed as the most erotic and emotionally uplifting compositions of his long career. Picasso's reverence is nowhere more apparent than in the depictions of his lover reading, sleeping or writing, the embodiment of tranquility and physical acquiescence. Her passivity in these pictures makes her body all the more pliant to Picasso's manipulations and distortions. It must be remembered that Marie-Thérèse came into Picasso's life when the collective consciousness of the avant-garde was enthralled by Surrealism. Exaltations of sexual deviance and grotesque manipulations of form fanned the flames of Picasso's creative and physical desire, resulting in some of the most extraordinary interpretations of his lover.
In later years, Françoise Gilot, another of Picasso's lovers and an artist herself, recognized the tantalizingly sculptural possibilities presented by Marie-Thérèse's body during this feverish period: "I found Marie-Thérèse fascinating to look at. I could see that she was certainly the woman who had inspired Pablo plastically more than any other. She had a very arresting face with a Grecian profile. The whole series of portraits of blonde women Pablo painted between 1927 and 1935 are almost exact replicas of her.... Her forms were handsomely sculptural, with a fullness of volume and a purity of line that gave her body and her face an extraordinary perfection. To the extent that nature offers ideas or stimuli to an artist, there are some forms that are closer than other to any artist's own aesthetic and thus serve as a springboard for his imagination. Marie-Thérèse brought a great deal to Pablo in the sense that her physical form demanded recognition."
Picasso first saw Marie-Thérèse on the streets of Paris in 1927, when she was only seventeen years old and while he was entangled in an unhappy marriage to Olga Khokhlova. 'I was an innocent girl,' Walter remembered years later. 'I knew nothing - either of life or of Picasso... I had gone to do some shopping at the Galeries Lafayette, and Picasso saw me leaving the Metro. He simply took me by the arm and said, 'I am Picasso! You and I are going to do great things together' (quoted in Picasso and the Weeping Women (exhibition catalogue), Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Los Angeles & The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 1994, p. 143). The couple's relationship was kept a well-guarded secret for many years, both on account of Picasso's marriage to Olga and Marie-Thérèse's age. But the covertness of the affair only intensified Picasso's obsession with the girl, and many of his pictures, with their dramatic contrasts of light and dark, allude to their secret interludes held under cover of darkness.
By the time Femmes lisant (Deux personnages) was painted in 1934, the girl who once "knew nothing of Picasso" had come to define the artist and his production. Marie-Thérèse's features were readily identifiable in Picasso's painting at this point, and Robert Rosenblum wrote about the young woman's symbolic unveiling in these works: 'Marie-Thérèse, now firmly entrenched in both the city and country life of a lover twenty-eight years her senior, could at last emerge from the wings to center stage, where she could preside as a radiant deity, in new roles that changed from Madonna to sphinx, from odalisque to earth mother. At times her master seems to worship humbly at her shrine, capturing a fixed, confrontational stare of almost supernatural power; but more often, he becomes an ecstatic voyeur, who quietly captures his beloved, reading, meditating, catnapping, or surrendering to the deepest abandon of sleep' (R. Rosenblum in Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996, p. 342).
While paintings of placid female readers were a preferred theme of Pierre-Auguste Renoir, one of Picasso's favorite painters, the implications of sexual availability were never as highly charged as they are in the Spaniard's interpretation of this subject. The context of Marie-Thérèse reading provided Picasso with a thematic narrative by which he could accentuate her docility and passivity. In 1932, his images of the young woman with an open book suggestively placed in her lap established Marie-Thérèse as an emblem of sexual permissiveness. In the present work from 1934, we see Picasso's golden muse reading with another girl; the sexual innuendos, although more discreet, are nonetheless present. This picture belongs to a series completed at the end of March featuring two girls sitting together and focused on a book. The most accomplished of this group is the present work, painted on March 27, and a closely related canvas now in the collection of the Michigan University Art Museum, painted the following day. Picasso's biographer Pierre Daix believed that the other figure in this picture was Marie-Thérèse's sister, Jeanne. But in his recent biography of the artist, John Richardson tells of how Jeanne's recounting of events in later years exaggerated her role in the couple's relationship, and how it was in fact Marie-Thérèse's other sister, Geneviève, who was a more frequent presence during this period.
Following his completion of Femmes lisant (Deux personnages) and its related compositions, Picasso painted a scene of Marie-Thérèse, garlanded like a classical muse and reading by candlelight, that is now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This image, like the present work, alludes to her transcendent importance as a source of inspiration and solace for the artist in the midst of a bitter marriage to Olga. Indeed, Marie-Thérèse would soon take on another role in the artist's life, giving birth to his first daughter Maya in 1935. But it is in these images from the early 1930s that her creative succor and its impact on Picasso's art is at its most powerful.
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