Picasso first saw Marie-Thérèse on the streets of Paris in 1927, when she was only seventeen years old, 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 her, and many of his pictures, with their dramatic contrasts of light and dark, allude to their secret interludes.
The first dedicated series of paintings depicting Marie-Thérèse was executed in January 1932 in anticipation of the major retrospective that Picasso was planning that coming June. It was during these preceding months that he first cast his artistic spotlight on the voluptuous blonde. Up until this point he had only made reference to his extramarital affair with Marie-Thérèse in code, sometimes embedding her symbolically in a composition or rendering her unmistakable profile as a feature of the background. But by the end of 1931, Picasso could no longer repress the creative impulse that his lover inspired, especially as his marriage grew increasingly unbearable. John Richardson explains that while Olga organized large holiday parties that December in an attempt to demonstrate family unity, Picasso was involved in an artistic blood-letting, painting violent or murderous depictions of his wife. The exercise was a catharsis, Richardson claims, that better enabled him to focus on a “languorous, loving painting of a lilac-skinned Marie-Thérèse” (J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso, Volume III, The Triumphant Years 1917-1932, New York, 2007, p. 466).
It is in works such as Le Repos that Picasso most successfully celebrated Marie-Thérèse’s full, passive and golden beauty. Abandoning the prevailing strands of geometric figuration and shocking Surrealist deformation that characterized much of his work of the 1920s, Picasso began to use emphatic arabesques and ample, harmonizing curves. Early in 1930 Picasso provided his young lover with an apartment at 44, rue la Boétie, not far from where he and Olga lived. Soon afterward he bought the seventeenth-century Château de Boisgeloup near Gisors, where he was able to spend time with his young mistress away from his family. There he began to make massive plaster sculptures inspired by her classical profile and strong athletic body, a type of blonde beauty which had now become for him the personification of ripeness and fecundity.
“When a man watches a woman asleep,” Picasso confessed, “he tries to understand” (quoted in J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso, Volume I: 1881-1906, New York, 1991, p. 317). The theme of the sleeping woman recurred in a series of works that explored his mistress in different poses, either fully recumbent or seated. The image of sleep and the way in which Marie-Thérèse appears to lose herself in its oblivion links this work, via its association with the unconscious, to Picasso's most fertile Surrealist images. Roland Penrose, who was one of Picasso's Surrealist associates, said the following about these paintings: “Most of these figures painted with flowing curves lie sleeping, their arms folded round their heads... The sleeper's breasts are round and fruitlike and her hands finish like the blades of summer grass. The profile of the face, usually with closed eyes, is drawn in one bold curve uniting forehead and nose above thick sensuous lips” (R. Penrose, Picasso, His Life and Work, London, 1958, p. 243). In the present painting, Picasso combined yellow and violet, colors that he favored in his treatment of Marie-Thérèse’s hair and flesh. He also places her head between two other complementary hues, red and green, thickly applied onto the canvas and enhanced by the use of black. Writing about another of these sleeping women, Robert Rosenblum makes this point: “The eruptive force of Picasso’s passion could even be translated into language: for in words as well he made love to Marie-Thérèse, describing her rapturously and chromatically in the image-ridden, unpunctuated flow of his poetry of 1935, [with] her ‘cheveux blonds’ and her ‘bras couleurs lilas’” (Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation (exhibition catalogue), The Museum of Modern Art, New York & Galeries Nationales du Grand Palais, Paris, 1996-97, p. 345). It was not just in coloration that Picasso’s works evolved during the Marie-Thérèse years but also in form. Patrick McCaughey wrote about the canvases depicting Picasso’s muse: “Marie-Thérèse embodied for Picasso an ideal type – love, model and goddess. She offered him a release into sensuality and inspired the series of reclining, sleeping nudes of the early 1930s. Through Marie-Thérèse, Picasso discovered a new amplitude of form; less solemn than the monumental neo-classical nudes of the 1920s and with a promise of abundance and pleasure. She was also the model for an extensive series of large sculpted heads which progressively became more Sibyl-like – an image of eternal womanhood” (P. McCaughey in Picasso (exhibition catalogue), National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne & Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1984, p. 211).
A major event that coincided with the execution of the present work was the large retrospective exhibition held at Galerie Georges Petit in Paris in June and July 1932, and at Kunsthaus in Zurich from September to November that same year. Picasso was closely involved in selecting works for the exhibition, and chose to hang his recent portraits of Marie-Thérèse alongside his earlier Cubist and Surrealist compositions. The retrospective was a huge success, drawing large numbers of visitors daily, and included many important works, among them the seminal Marie-Thérèse oil Le Rêve. It was on this occasion in Paris that Olga, upon seeing Picasso's numerous references to a specific face that was clearly not her own, was alerted to the presence of another woman in her husband's life. Until the exhibition, Picasso's relationship with Marie-Thérèse had been a secret affair, the evidence of which he had kept sealed away at the studio he maintained at Boisgeloup. He had purchased this property near Gisors in 1930 as a retreat, where he could escape from Olga and spend time alone with his mistress. The Chateau at Boisegeloup was much larger than his studio in Paris, and the space allowed him to create the monumental plaster busts of Marie-Thérèse that were depicted in several paintings.
Writing about the days and weeks immediately after the opening of his retrospective at Galerie Georges Petit, John Richardson describes the present work “The day after the opening, Picasso was back working at Boisgeloup. He had the place to himself—and Marie-Thérèse. Olga and Paulo had been packed off to Juan-les-Pins; whether he ever intended to join them, he never did. The small reclining nudes of Marie-Thérèse asleep exude a tenderness and intimacy that was missing from most of the larger, more stylized portrayals that Picasso had done of her for his retrospective. Indeed, a profile of Marie-Thérèse cradling her head in her hands [the present work], silkily painted onto a small square canvas, is as loving as any of his images of her. With their flipper limbs and gorgeous buttocks, and free-and-easy facture, these little paintings—mostly done while the show was still on—constitute a touching epilogue to the daunting set pieces of the winter and early spring” (J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso, Volume III, The Triumphant Years 1917-1932, New York, 2007, pp. 479-80).
Having been released into the public domain, after this exhibition, Marie-Thérèse's features would become more readily identifiable in Picasso's art. Robert Rosenblum wrote about the young woman's symbolic unveiling: "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).
Picasso was not the only one who found Marie-Thérèse’s physical presence irresistible. “I found her fascinating to look at,” reported Françoise Gilot upon meeting her rival in 1949. “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.… She was very athletic; she had that high-color look of glowing good health one often sees in Swedish women. 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” (quoted in L’Amour fou, Picasso and Marie Thérèse (exhibition catalogue), Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2011, pp. 71-72).
The frank and uncomplicated avowal of Picasso’s desire and love for Marie-Thérèse is particularly evident in this work, and serves as a reminder that for her, too, this period was a happy and fulfilling one. As she said many years later, “He covered me with his love.”
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