Private Collection, France (by descent from the above)
Galerie Daniel Malingue, Paris (acquired from the above by 1984)
Acquired from the above by the father of the present owner in the 1980s
The Picasso Project (ed.), Picasso’s Paintings, Watercolors, Drawings and Sculpture – Spanish Civil War 1937-1939, San Francisco, 1997, no. 37-054, illustrated p. 24
Josep Palau i Fabre, Picasso 1927-1939. From the Minotaur to Guernica, no. 912, illustrated p. 293
Portrait de femme belongs to a series of works painted in 1937 in which Picasso experimented with the dynamic of a figure in front of a striped background. In many of his earlier portraits of Marie-Thérèse, Picasso, responding to his arch-rival Matisse, had depicted her against elaborately decorated backgrounds (figs. 1 & 3), but in the present work he focuses his attention on effects of the definition of space. Josep Palau i Fabre described these explorations in relation to the present work: ‘During the month of March 1937 his eye realises that the way we view a person in front of a wall covered with vertically striped wallpaper or strips of light is altered by these bands. He accentuated, he brought out that vision. This makes the face of Marie-Thérèse appear in one instance furrowed from top to bottom by one of the stripes of the wallpaper she has behind her, but note that the stripe that furrows her from top to bottom is not the light one, as, rationally, it seems it should be, but the dark one. It is narrower, but takes the place of the light stripe in passing across the woman’s face. And it is thanks to this, and not to the law of perspective, that the face is situated in front of the wallpaper and detached from it. To my knowledge, nobody had shown us this before’ (J. Palau i Fabre, op. cit., p. 292).
Picasso further explored this development in a number of similar canvases (figs. 4 & 5), and Fabre went on to characterise these works: ‘Of course, Picasso expressed all of this in a language that is the antithesis of that used by the Impressionists. Instead of touches or brushstrokes that indicate the gradual transition of the light, he shows us the leaps, the power light has to transform things. His language at this time would not have been possible without Cubism’ (J. Palau i Fabre, ibid., p. 294). In Portrait de femme the influence of Picasso’s Cubist years can be clearly felt. His muse’s strong facial features are broken down into their constituent parts, allowing Picasso to depict her both face-on and in profile. This technique was characteristic of Picasso’s portraits of Marie-Thérèse, reflecting his perception of her personality and sensuality as two distinct aspects of their relationship. In the present work Picasso masterfully juxtaposes this with the shapes of her face and the striped wallpaper behind to give the painting a constant sense of movement and energy as Marie-Thérèse seems simultaneously to look both towards and away from the viewer.
Picasso first met Marie-Thérèse Walter on 8th January 1927. Walking through the streets of Paris he caught sight of her outside the Galeries Lafayette department store: ‘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, 1994, p. 142). At the time Picasso was married to the Russian ballerina Olga Khokhlova, but the state of their marriage was deteriorating and the young Marie-Thérèse offered an important release from the increasingly intense atmosphere at home. Although kept secret at first, their relationship blossomed, and over the next decade Picasso painted and sculpted her continuously, producing some of the most iconic images of his long career.
Picasso was initially attracted by her alluring physicality; Françoise Gilot, a later lover of Picasso who met Marie-Thérèse in 1949 described her: ‘I found her 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… Her form was very sculptural, with a fullness of volume and a purity of line that gave her body and her face an extraordinary perfection’ (F. Gilot quoted in L’amour fou, Picasso and Marie-Thérèse (exhibition catalogue), Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2011, p. 71-72). It was this sculptural form that facilitated the extraordinary stylistic diversity of his many depictions of her (fig. 2). In the present work, Picasso captures both her striking profile and the voluptuous curves that dominate in earlier portraits of her, rendering them in the language of shape, as triangles or curving arcs of colour.
Portrait de femme was painted towards the end of Picasso’s relationship with Marie-Thérèse, but it nonetheless illustrates the inventive energy that she inspired in the great artist. Picasso had met the exotic Dora Maar early in 1936, and by 1937 he was seeing both women regularly, yet this would have no immediate effect on his relationship with Marie-Thérèse. She had been invited by Picasso’s great friend Ambroise Vollard to live at his country house in Le Tremblay-sur-Mauldre, and her move there allowed Picasso to spend the following years living a double life between the two women. As Pierre Daix observed: ‘The mother of Maya – and Maya, too, of course – lost nothing… Dora would be the public companion, while Marie-Thérèse and Maya continued to incarnate private life’ (P. Daix, Picasso. Life and Art, London, 1994, p. 239). His affection for her was also undiminished; letters from the late thirties contain repeated declarations of his love, and perhaps more tellingly, throughout this time she continued to be the subject of his paintings.
Picasso’s depictions of Marie-Thérèse are among the most celebrated in his œuvre. They are an act of possession, celebration and love. They also represent the continuing technical and stylistic innovation that Picasso pursued in an effort to articulate the emotions she aroused in him. In this respect, Portrait de femme is among his finest paintings of Marie-Thérèse; the duality at the heart of the work, inherent in the arrangement of her features and the subtle balance between intimacy and remoteness that this creates, vividly captures his feelings for her at this time. Fabre wrote: ‘A portrait, since the Renaissance, had been the embodiment of a personality as it was seen or perceived by the painter at that precise moment… Painting, then, is never static, it is never objective. It was, for Picasso, a form of action. He made these portraits as he would have talked to the woman, given her a gift, embraced her. The portrait was another physical act’ (J. Palau i Fabre, ibid., p. 282).
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