Marina Picasso (by descent from the above)
Galerie Jan Krugier, Geneva (acquired from the above in 1986)
Private Collection (acquired from the above in 1986 and sold: Sotheby's, New York, November 9, 2000, lot 48)
Acquired at the above sale
The Picasso Project, ed., Picasso's Paintings, Watercolors, Drawings and Sculpture: Surrealism, 19301-36, San Francisco, 1997, no. 32-003, illustrated p. 87
This exceptional work is one in a series of defining paintings in the artist's oeuvre in which he depicts his lover seated in a red leather armchair, the curves of her body transformed into a sumptuous confection with colorful swirls and sweeping arabesques. Marie-Thérèse's potent mix of physical attractiveness and sexual naivety had an intoxicating effect on Picasso, and his rapturous desire for the girl brought about a wealth of images that have been acclaimed as the most erotic and emotionally uplifting compositions of his long career. "When I paint a woman in an armchair," Picasso once recounted, "the armchair implies old age or death... or else the armchair is there to protect her." It is the latter sentiment that clearly governs his depiction of Marie-Thérèse here.
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 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.
The present work belongs to a group of works painted in January 1932 in anticipation of the major retrospective that Picasso was planning that coming June. It was during these 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 argues, that better enabled him to focus on a languorous, loving painting of a lilac-skinned Marie-Thérèse asleep just in time for Christmas: "On December 30, the day of the Christmas party, Picasso found time to turn her into a swirl of arabesques: a lunar octopus, which reminds us that he had associated her with the phases of the moon the previous summer. By January 2, Marie-Thérèse's moon face is full, her eyes stare us down. The fuzzy print in the open book that this moon goddess clutches in her anaconda arms signifies pubic hair. Over the next three weeks, Picasso produced a succession of large Marie-Thérèses, dozing in a chair with a red leather back, studded with brass nails" (J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso, Volume III, The Triumphant Years 1917-1932, New York, 2007, p. 466).
This composition was one of the pictures that remained with Picasso all of his life. Given its intimate size, it is conceivable that the artist may have painted it as a discreet keepsake while still attempting to hide evidence of his affair from his wife. The fact that Picasso did not sign the picture only reinforces his personal desire never to part with it, and indeed it remained quietly in his possession until his death in 1973.