PABLO PICASSOBuste de femme de profil (Femme écrivant)
- Pablo Picasso
- Buste de femme de profil (Femme écrivant)
- signed Picasso (upper left); dated 1 Avril XXXII on the stretcher
- oil on canvas
Saidenberg Gallery, New York (acquired from the above)
Perls Galleries, New York (acquired from the above)
Evelyn Sharp (acquired from the above on 27th April 1965. Sold: Sotheby’s, New York, The Evelyn Sharp Collection of Modern Art, 12th November 1997, lot 26)
Private Collection (purchased at the above sale)
Private Collection (acquired from the above in 2003)
Editions Cahiers d’Art, Picasso 1930-1935, Paris, 4th January 1936, illustrated p. 13 (titled Peinture)
Christian Zervos, Pablo Picasso, œuvres de 1926 à 1932, Paris, 1955, vol. 7, no. 406, illustrated pl. 179
Picasso 1932 (exhibition catalogue), Musée National Picasso, Paris, 2017-18, illustrated in colour p. 141
Picasso ‘discovered’ Marie-Thérèse (fig. 2) in Paris in 1927, when she was only seventeen years old and while he was still 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).
They quickly became lovers and Marie-Thérèse’s distinctive profile and features began to appear in his work soon after. As a result of their age difference and Picasso’s marriage to Olga, their relationship remained a secret and was hidden even from Picasso’s innermost circle of friends. Many of his depictions of her show her in solitary, private moments – reading, writing, sleeping – as though to underline the particular intimacy of their relationship. As Françoise Gilot would later write, Walter was ‘the luminous dream of youth, always in the background but always within reach, that nourished his work… Marie-Thérèse, then, was very important to him as long as he was living with Olga because she was the dream when the reality was someone else’ (quoted in Picasso 1932 - Love, Fame, Tragedy (exhibition catalogue), Tate Modern, London, 2018, p. 18). This changed in 1932 when Picasso staged the retrospective of his painting at the Galerie Georges Petit. As well as exhibiting works from the earlier stages of his career, he included a series of paintings inspired by Marie-Thérèse that he had been working on in the first months of that year.
The works from 1932 – which has been described by the artist’s biographer John Richardson as Picasso’s annus mirabilis or ‘year of wonders’ – mark a high point of Picasso’s depictions of Marie-Thérèse. Consumed by his amour fou and inspired by her presence – and sometimes by her absence – he worked feverishly and the paintings from this year act as a kind of diary of their evolving relationship. They are widely acclaimed and their singular importance in Picasso's œuvre is reflected in the fact that they are the sole subject of the current Tate Modern exhibition (fig. 6).
Conceived on an impressive scale, Buste de femme de profil (Femme écrivant) dates from April 1932 when Picasso was working at the eighteenth-century Château de Boisgeloup that he had purchased in 1930. Boisgeloup had singular importance for the artist during these years; it enabled him to experiment in new ways, installing a printing press and working on the series of monumental sculpted heads that were also inspired by Marie-Thérèse (fig. 4). In the first few months of 1932 Picasso alternated between his Parisian studio on Rue la Boétie and Boisgeloup. As John Richardson writes: ‘Picasso spent most of this spring at Boisgeloup. While the wife stayed in Paris during the week looking after Paulo, the mistress would move into the château. Weekends, she would go home to Maisons-Alfort, and Olga would take over again. […] Picasso’s impersonation of a country gentleman was mitigated by self-mockery. He enjoyed playing the role, impeccably disguised in tweed suits […]. In public, Picasso would match his behaviour to his costume. Snapshots taken over these weekends make it clear that when a nanny or governess was around, or friends came to visit, family life at Boisgeloup could not have been more conventional. Paintings tell a very different story’ (J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso, London, 2007, vol. III, pp. 471-472).
The paintings do indeed tell a different story, revealing Picasso’s feelings for his young muse in all their glorious complexity. Where the paintings from early March concentrate on Marie-Thérèse’s overt sexuality, in Buste de femme de profil (Femme écrivant) Picasso has sought to capture another side of his lover. A remarkably tender and intimate portrait, it celebrates her innocence and youthfulness. Picasso imagines her in the act of writing with her eyes demurely downcast, focusing on the paper in front of her in quiet contemplation. It is a scene inspired by real life and Picasso was evidently struck by the success of this compositional arrangement as he repeated it almost exactly in a smaller-scale work painted three days later. Here we see the wider scene – Marie-Thérèse is seated at a table in one of the rooms at Boisgeloup accompanied by another woman – probably her sister – once again absorbed by her writing. The idea of writing must have had particular significance; necessarily their relationship was one characterised by long absences so it is unsurprising that when he conjured her, it was often in activities – reading or writing – that suggest a woman waiting. In painting her in this way, Picasso lays claim not only to her body, but to her mind as well.
The setting is significant. John Richardson argues that Picasso used the backgrounds of these paintings to establish the mood: ‘Whereas Matisse, from whom Picasso supposedly borrowed his patterned backgrounds, uses patterns decoratively, Picasso uses them dramatically to establish a mood and characterise the woman in the picture’ (ibid., p. 467). The heavily wallpapered interiors that characterise the Paris paintings from this spring are redolent of the secrecy, and perhaps the contingent excitement, that surrounded his clandestine relations with Marie-Thérèse. In contrast, the clarity of the light and the delicate blues and greens of the present work suggest an altogether lighter air. Boisgeloup was a place of freedom for Picasso – much more so than Paris, where Olga was a permanent presence – and Marie-Thérèse also represented freedom and an important sense of rejuvenation that is particularly apparent in the present work.
As well as offering an important insight into Picasso’s feelings for Marie-Thérèse, it also reveals his continued experimentation with visual representation and the relationship between the reality of an object – or person – and his artistic vision of them. As Achim Borchardt-Hume argues: ‘Representation – and the triangulation this entails between physical appearance, the inner experience of this external reality and either’s translation into art – remained Picasso’s privileged playing field’ (A. Borchardt-Hume in Picasso 1932 - Love, Fame, Tragedy (exhibition catalogue), op. cit., p. 19). Marie-Thérèse is rendered instantly recognisable through her yellow hair and the pale violet skin tone which characterises many of his key depictions of her during this year. However, Picasso plays with the purely figurative; the curving arabesques that form her body are particularly reminiscent of the sculptures that he created at Boisgeloup in 1931. In the distinct shapes that make up her body Picasso also plays with the idea of the sculpted bust that acts more explicitly as a cipher for Marie-Thérèse in other works from this year.
Her distinctive profile is silhouetted against a window through which the pale spring sunlight shines, and again here Picasso perhaps had Matisse in mind. The 1930s mark a key point in the rivalry between these two masters of Modern art; Picasso’s June retrospective was in part conceived as a rejoinder to Matisse’s own retrospective which had taken place a year earlier at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. Matisse often used the device of a window as a means of framing his depictions of women and also sometimes employed strong verticals as a counterpoint to the figures in his works.
Characteristically, Picasso pushes this compositional device to its extreme; in Buste de femme de profil (Femme écrivant) pictorial depth becomes relative, with the frame of the window visible simultaneously both behind and through her figure. These spatial distortions recall his visionary Cubist experiments but the deliberate juxtaposition of the hard horizontals and verticals of the window frame with the soft curves of her body serve to emphasise the latter. More than this though, as his Cubist paintings sought to render reality through multiple viewpoints, so here we are presented simultaneously with both her figure and the window behind; Picasso opens out the space, bringing his muse to life and, even through his refined articulation of shape, succeeding in capturing a sense both of time passing and of the delicate play of sunlight through the window panes.
The paintings of 1932 have long been celebrated within Picasso’s œuvre. They document a crucial year for the artist, marking the fullest blossoming of his love for Marie-Thérèse as well as a series of important artistic and professional developments. A work such as Buste de femme de profil (Femme écrivant) adds a new voice to this story, articulating a further nuance of Picasso’s relationship with his muse and providing a touching glimpse of one of art history’s most legendary romances.