"Her gaze possessed remarkable radiance but could also be very hard. I observed that she was beautiful, with a strong, straight nose, perfect scarlet lips, the chin firm, the jaw a trifle heavy and the more forceful for being so, rich chestnut hair drawn smoothly back, and eyelashes like the furred antennae of moths."
James Lord, Picasso and Dora, New york, p.31
In July 1936, Picasso was reunited with Dora Maar in Mougins. The daughter of a Croatian architect, Maar attended classes at the Union Centrale des Arts Décoratifs and the École de Photographie in Paris during the 1930s, and she met Picasso at the beginning of the year, by way of an introduction from Paul Éluard. Their love affair lasted nine years.
At the time, Dora was a member of the Surrealists. Her photographs were everywhere. She caused a sensation with her brightly painted nails and Schiaparelli hats. In 1936, she still had a flapper haircut; at Picasso’s request, she let it grow out in the Spanish style. And Marcel Jean recalled how one evening, all eyes were on her again when she appeared "with her hair loose, falling over her face and shoulders, looking like a drowned woman" (in Mary Ann Caws, Les Vies de Dora Maar, 2000, p.57).
Portrait de femme shows Dora Maar in a three-quarter pose with shoulder-length hair. The black pencil line is lively. The white sheet is bathed in light. Executed in 1936, this drawing (which can be linked to a canvas dating from 7 November 1936, characterized by pastel tones) is a far cry from the tormented, "Kafkaesque" drawings that echoed through the many portraits of "The Weeping Woman". It should be said that in the summer of 1936, despite the looming Spanish Civil War, it was an idyllic period. In July and August, the couple split their time between the house in Mougins that belonged to Man Ray’s parents, and Saint-Tropez. Dora Maar and Picasso’s mutual friends, Paul Éluard and his wife, were at the heart of this summer gathering. They were joined by Christian and Yvonne Zervos, Roland Penrose and Lee Miller, Man Ray and his mistress, and André Breton and Jacqueline Lamba. Time went by on the beach, where Dora took photographs, in the studios, and in the bedrooms where everyone seemed to be engaged in lovers’ games. Encouraged by Breton, Picasso wrote poems for her that were full of sensuality; they were later translated and published in the journal Cahiers d’Art.
During 1936, the year when Portrait de femme was made, Dora Maar had a growing influence on the work of the artist who was about to paint Guernica (she was a photographer before she became a painter). From 1936 to 1937, combining his genius with her expertise, they collaborated on a series of rayographs. Picasso’s line drawings are also reminiscent of the silhouette technique, one of the historical origins of photography. Portrait de femme is a radical stripping away of colour; the scene is flooded with the intense light of the Mediterranean. A few months later, at the beginning of 1937, in the Rue des Grands-Augustins studio, Dora Maar is the only person allowed to enter the room where the last great historical painting in the history of art took shape in black and white. Nine portraits of Picasso at work would result from her intense, often nocturnal, photographic sessions documenting its progress. Portrait de femme is a beautiful and tender flash of brilliance in the midst of a highly charged political, professional and passionate moment.