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Pablo Picasso's lyrical portraits of Marie-Thérèse Walter from the first half of the 1930s are considered one of the greatest pinnacles of his career, and by extension, of modern art. Completed and signed on 3 February 1935, Jeune fille endormie shows Marie-Thérèse sleeping, the theme of the most lyrical of these portraits. That intimacy is driven home by the composition, which is tightly focussed on the sleeper's head: it dominates the canvas, appearing only slightly larger than life size, giving a sense of the artist's highly subjective perspective while gazing upon his sleeping lover. Picasso plunges his viewer into his own charmed world. The swooping, sinuous lines convey a rich sensuality, with the artist himself vicariously enjoying the curves of her body by extension, through the proxy of his paintbrush. This is lent all the more impact by the rich, glowing colours that suffuse this canvas, an incandescent palette that is itself celebratory. This reveals Picasso's romance not only with Marie-Thérèse but also with colour itself, as the intense colours sing on the canvas with their vivacious intensity - they seem not merely to glow, but to burn.
The theme of the sleeping woman is one which has endured throughout the history of Western art, and so it was only natural that Picasso should turn towards it, especially with his somnolent lover often ensconced in his home. Picasso's visual erudition must have meant that he would consider and contemplate the wealth of artistic precedents: already in ancient times, artists clearly revelle in this theme, as is evident in the Hellenistic period sculpture of Ariadne which Picasso must have known in the Louvre, which he visited often, especially in the first years after his arrival in Paris. The sleeping woman gives the artist, and by extension the viewer, a voyeuristic insight into an intimate world of rest; it has often also been used to veil, albeit thinly, a world of eroticism. This is perhaps best encapsulated in Gustave Courbet's Le sommeil, an 1866 painting which shows two naked women intertwined. This subject matter would gain a new treatment, dragging the viewer into a forbidden world of decadence, in the pictures of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, one of Picasso's artistic heroes. At the same time, it would receive a more serene treatment, one which clearly parallels the head in Jeune fille endormie, in Constantin Brancusi's La Muse endormie of 1910. In the late 1920s, Picasso's friend and rival, Henri Matisse, experimented with the same subject - letting colour flow freely, in expressionistic swirls and patterns, contrasting paradoxically the contemplative mood of the sleeping model.
The lyrical Jeune fille endormie is one of the last of the pictures that Picasso painted during the ecstatic highpoint of his relationship with Marie-Thérèse; it appears related to several complex works showing two girls, one in the foreground drawing and another with her head on a table sleeping in the background, echoing the subject matter and composition of Jeune fille endormie. These pictures, La muse (jeune femme dessinant) now in the Musée National d'Art Moderne, Paris and Jeune fille dessinant dans un intérieur, now in the Museum of Modern Art, New York, would serve a slightly valedictory purpose, as Picasso, having completed the latter, ceased to paint for almost an entire year although he continued to work in other media including poetry. This hiatus may well have been the result of the combined effects of his stressful formal separation from his wife, Olga Khokhlova, and the prospect of the birth of a child by Marie-Thérèse, his lover. Jeune fille endormie must have been painted at approximately the time that he had learnt of her pregnancy. The golden period of the early 1930s portraits of her may have passed by the end of this pause, which began only weeks after Jeune fille endormie was painted and lasted for months; it was made all the more final because of the increasing presence of a new person in Picasso's life and art, Dora Maar, from 1936 onwards. However, Marie-Thérèse would reappear in works and retain an important place in Picasso's life for much of the following two decades: even Françoise Gilot, Picasso's lover from towards the end of the Second World War and into the 1950s, recalled how much the artist enjoyed reading out the ardent letters that he received from Marie-Thérèse.
While this picture clearly relates to the compositions of the two other paintings in the MoMA and the Pompidou, it appears that it may in fact have been begun sometime earlier: a photograph published in Christian Zervos' Cahiers d'art in 1935 showed Picasso's studio, with a caption dating the image to January the previous year, with this painting visible in what seems to be an earlier state, perhaps without some of the electric blue that helps to make Jeune fille endormie so expressionistically vibrant. Certainly, Picasso completed this painting in February 1935 when he signed it, perhaps having added those blues that add such a twilit emphasis to the picture's colourism and that, in contrast to the stark white which appears to be in evidence in the older photograph, introduce such an evocative nocturnal ambience. Indeed, it may have been this picture, as much as the frequent sight of Marie-Thérèse sleeping, that helped to inspire his later dual compositions.
The explosion of highly poetic images of Marie-Thérèse, such as Jeune fille endormie, that formed an immensely colourful and lyrical release after Picasso's periods of Neo-Classicism and his often jagged, tormented Surrealism were the result of a change in the circumstances of their relationship. Picasso had met Marie-Thérèse while he was married to the ballerina Olga, whose aspiration and obsession with the hurly-burly of their social life had led to the headstrong artist feeling increasingly penned-in by the social whirlwind that had come to occupy so much of their lives. Marie-Thérèse was young, a mere teenager, whereas Picasso was in his forties. The encounter has become legendary: the young Marie-Thérèse was out shopping for a col Claudine when the artist confronted her, struck by her looks and encouraging him to meet her again. She apparently had no idea who he was, and when he pulled her into a bookshop to show her his work, could only find one book - in Japanese. 'When I first met Picasso I was 17,' Marie-Thérèse later explained in an issue of Life magazine devoted to the artist in 1968.
'I was an innocent gamine. I knew nothing - life, Picasso, nothing. I had gone shopping to the Galeries Lafayette and Picasso saw me coming out of the Métro. He simply grabbed me by the arm and said, "I'm Picasso! You and I are going to do great things together"... I was living with my family and I had to lie to them more and more. I would say I was spending the afternoon with some girl friend and I would come to Picasso' (Marie-Thérèse Walter, quoted in B. Farrell, 'Picasso: His Women: The Wonder Is that He Found So Much Time to Paint', in Life, 27 December 1968, p. 74).
In the early days of their relationship, the subterfuge extended to Picasso's pictures. 'I paint the same way some people write their autobiography,' Picasso explained, and therefore Marie-Thérèse naturally came to appear in his pictures, but in a tangential manner (Picasso, quoted in J. Richardson, 'L’Epoque Jacqueline,’ pp. 17-48, Late Picasso: Paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints 1953-1972, exh.cat., London & Paris, 1988, p. 28). At first, this was in the form of cryptic monograms which played the part of guitars, the M and T of Marie-Thérèse's name being placed together, and sometimes juxtaposed with the P for Picasso in compositions that appear in hindsight as overt declarations of the artist's infatuation; in several, the artist's own silhouetted profile is cryptically, spectrally present. A similarly covert impetus had also almost accidentally given birth to the celebrated sculptures of Marie-Thérèse which Picasso created, as he explained to Roland Penrose:
'Working at night in the studio at Boisgeloup he had first built up a very complicated construction of wire which looked quite incomprehensible except when a light projected its shadow on the wall. At that moment the shadow became a lifelike profile of Marie-Thérèse. He was delighted at this projection from an otherwise indecipherable mass. But he said, "I went on, added plaster and gave it its present form." The secret image was lost' (R. Penrose, Picasso: His Life and Work, London, 1958, p. 244).
Despite initially appearing via a coded presence in his work, Picasso's conflicted relationship with Marie-Thérèse would come to allow him to unite his emotions with his subject-matter to a new degree, a phenomenon that was later in evidence in the love-infused images of the 1930s but which at first made itself apparent in the more tense pictures of the late 1920s,for instance those showing amorphous figures on the beach at Dinard. In these pictures, Picasso often showed the bathers as Surreal, tumescent piles of disjointed flesh, conveying a sense of anxiety. This is made all the more clear by the contrast between his beach pictures from the late 1920s and those of the early 1930s, in which similar amorphous yet anthropomorphic forms are entangled in each other in frenetic passion, their more curvaceous, interpenetrating bodies giving a vivid sense of coupling.
By channelling his feelings in this way, Marie-Thérèse – and indeed his wife Olga, who, with their son Paolo, was very much on the scene - spurred the artist to develop a new vein of work that had a singular directness, relaying a visceral jolt to the viewer in a way that his earlier Blue, Rose, Cubist or Neo-Classicist works had not. Influenced in part by the contemporary developments of Surrealism which were taking place during the same period and whose protagonists Picasso knew, the artist increasingly channelled his state of mind and emotions into his work. Even his encounter with Marie-Thérèse has been linked to the Surrealists' influence, and especially the ideas of chance encounters and amour fou espoused by André Breton. Picasso himself, who had clearly been testing out new styles and aesthetics in the period running up to his fateful meeting outside the Galeries Lafayette, had even prophetically introduced a figure who resembled Marie-Thérèse in some of his earlier pictures. While this has led some critics to posit an earlier date of meeting between the two, John Richardson and Diana Widmaier-Picasso have both convincingly argued against this. In fact, Marie-Thérèse provided an almost Surreal epiphany to the artist; she was the embodiment of what Picasso was seeking. Indeed, he himself told his daughter that, 'The day I met Marie-Thérèse I realised that I had before me what I had always been dreaming about' (Picasso, quoted in D. Widmaier-Picasso, 'The Encounter Between Picasso and Marie-Thérèse Walter (1927): Thoughts on a Historiographical Revision', pp. 162-69, I. Mössinger, B. Ritter & K. Drechsel, eds., Picasso et les femmes,exh. cat., Chemnitz, 2002, p. 169).
The timbre of Picasso's psychic expressions in his pictures of Marie-Thérèse changed during the early 1930s, as a result of his increasing ability to secure space for her in his life. Having purchased the Château de Boisgeloup near Gisors, in Normandy, he managed to make his wife Olga a châtelaine, fulfilling one of her desires; yet when she was not in residence, Marie-Thérèse often was. 'We would joke and laugh together all day, so happy with our secret, living a totally non-bourgeois love, a bohemian love away from those people Picasso knew then,' Marie-Thérèse recalled. 'You know what it is to be really in love? Well, who needs anything else then? We spent our time worrying about nothing, doing what every couple does when they're in love. Yes, you've understood me...' (Marie-Thérèse Walter, quoted in Farrell, ibid., 1968, p. 74).
The house therefore became a love nest, and this made itself apparent in the increasingly overt sensuality of Picasso's paintings and, indeed, the sculptured heads of Marie-Thérèse that he now created there. Even in some of his still lifes from this period, be they from Paris or Boisgeloup, Marie-Thérèse was increasingly present. This is clear from Pichet, coupe de fruits et feuillage of February 1931, now in the Saint Louis Art Museum: there, the ghostly outlines of Marie-Thérèse's curvaceous body snake their way through the composition, sometimes evoking the objects, while the yellow of the pitcher forms a substitute for her blonde hair and one of the items of fruit for one of her breasts. Likewise, Picasso's passion would make itself apparent in the various fantastical and mythological scenes that he created in his exquisite drawings and prints during this time, showing himself as a monster or an artist often juxtaposed with the luminous form of Marie-Thérèse.
The real release came in 1932, when Picasso and Marie-Thérèse spent a great deal of time together, and he began to create the arresting, luminous, sensual images of her that remain so celebrated to this day. A further impetus came with Picasso's retrospectives later in the year, first at the Galerie Georges Petit in Paris and later in the Kunsthaus in Zurich: it was clear for all to see that a curvaceous blonde woman had become a key focus in the artist's life, a figure who was in stark contrast to the dark-haired ballerina to whom he was married and who so often appeared as a staid and static presence in his more Neo-Classical pictures. It was from the beginning of 1932 until shortly after Jeune fille endormie was completed in February 1935 that Picasso created the greatest of his pictures of Marie-Thérèse, unrestrained images that are suffused with passion and eroticism. Even when Marie-Thérèse is shown sleeping as here, with only her body above her shoulders visible, there is a possessive aspect to the caressing brushstrokes, and this resonates through many of the most famous paintings from this period. The increased link between Picasso's emotional state and his pictures would take another turn in the years after Jeune fille endormie was painted: having met Dora Maar, a dark and tormented figure who was also intellectual and had been linked to the Surrealists, Picasso conveyed her state of mind and his own distress at the unfolding conflicts that were to wrack Europe beginning with the civil war in his own homeland in his jagged, jarring images of her weeping.
The pictures of Marie-Thérèse that he painted before Dora came onto the scene are bucolic introductions to a world of sensuality. The contrast is made all the more explicit by comparison between Jeune fille endormie and its predecessors and Picasso's 1939 painting of Marie-Thérèse reading in the Musée Picasso, Paris, which is filled with the muted greys and blues that would gain increasing hold during the subsequent years of Dora's ascendancy. The contrast between Jeune fille endormie and that later image of Marie-Thérèse illustrates one of the great changes in Picasso's pictures of the first half of the 1930s: the new, explosive role that colour played during the early 1930s. As is clear in Jeune fille endormie, the artist was espousing vibrant, vivid colours, reds, yellows and blues that sing with incandescent life. In this picture, those colours are emphasised by the arabesques and other details of the background which thrust the pools of single colours of the figure of Marie-Thérèse into bold relief. While Picasso had clearly explored colour earlier in his career, be it in his Blue or Rose Periods or some of his later Cubist images, he had never immersed himself as entirely in it as he has here; he may have been showing some response to the sensual pictorial universe of his friend and rival Henri Matisse in these works. That love of raw colour was something that would reverberate through Picasso's pictures for the rest of his life, be it in the paintings of Dora Maar from the period of the Spanish Civil War or even his later reprisal of Eugène Delacroix's celebrated masterpiece Les femmes d'Alger in the mid-1950s. In Jeune fille endormie, this electric range of colours conveys Picasso's passion, his joie de vivre, revealing the rejuvenating effect of his affair with Marie-Thérèse.
In Jeune fille endormie, those colours are lent all the more weight by the swooping black contours with which Picasso has delineated the form of Marie-Thérèse, an exercise in curves and curvaceousness despite the fact that it shows only her head and arms. These recall the cloisonnisme of the 1931 still life compositions, a trait that would come to inform many of Picasso's pictures of Marie-Thérèse. John Richardson has written that this may have been influenced in part by the nineteenth century stained glass that adorned the mediaeval chapel that was attached to the Château de Boisgeloup (see J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso: The Triumphant Years 1917-1932, London, 2007, p. 416).
Jeune fille endormie, then, dates from the brief window, which lasted only a few years, in which Picaso created his most sumptuous and sensual images of Marie-Thérèse. This picture combines that sinuous cloisonnisme with the vibrant palette influenced by Marie-Thérèse's youthful vigour while also showing her in one of the most celebrated of her activities: sleeping, observed by the artist from a position that is both up close and profoundly personal. This is an intimate insight into the passion that Picasso held for Marie-Thérèse, and also serves as a beacon for the rejuvenating and revitalising effect that she had on his life, his art, and indeed his career, which continued in the ascendant after the momentous retrospectives in which he had first shown his poetic, colourful pictures of his lover.
It is a tribute to the quality of this painting that it was formerly in the legendary collection of the industrialist and philanthropist Walter P. Chrysler, Jr., much of which formed the base for the Chrysler Museum in Norfolk, Virginia. Chrysler had begun to collect art at a young age and continued to do so for the rest of his life. Indeed, his dedication to art was reflected both in his influential activities on the behalf of the then fledgling Museum of Modern Art in New York and in his generous legacy to the museum that bears his own name. Chrysler collected objects ranging from stamps to glass as well as Old Master paintings, but much of his impetus went into collecting the works of Impressionist and modern masters such as Bonnard, Braque, Cézanne, de Chirico, Courbet, Degas, Gauguin, Van Gogh, Gris, Kandinsky, Fernand Léger, Manet, Matisse, Monet, Renoir and Soutine, as well as Picasso.
Chrysler had met Picasso as early as 1919 and would help to promote the artist's reputation, not least through the generous loans to exhibitions of pictures such as Jeune fille endormie, including to the momentous 1939 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art organized by Alfred H. Barr, Jr. On that occasion, tens of thousands of visitors flocked each week to see a show that featured works from throughout Picasso's career. This exhibition was a sensation: it dominated the press at a time of war, following close on the incredible impact that Picasso's Guernica had had on New York when it was exhibited at the Valentine Gallery earlier that year, at a time of mounting international tensions. It was there that Jackson Pollock would make repeated pilgrimages to observe the picture and its studies, a development that would have a huge impact on his own stylistic development. Guernica then became the centrepoint of Barr's show, a particularly apt and even poignant presence as the exhibition opened only weeks after the beginning of the Second World War. In part because of the tragically prophetic Guernica and in part because of the incredible fame that Picasso had already achieved by this stage in his career, the exhibition garnered huge press attention, featuring on the covers of many newspapers and magazines. Earlier in the year, following the announcement of Barr's retrospective, Time produced an extensive feature on the artist and his works, showing pictures illustrating each period of his life – Jeune fille endormie was included to represent the Marie-Thérèse period, although she was not named in the publication. Later in the year, Life would show a picture taken by Brassaï of Picasso warming himself in his studio after the outbreak of war, commenting:
'Warmed by stove, Picasso must also be warmed by news from New York. There the Museum of Modern Art is holding the biggest Picasso exhibition ever put on anywhere. So big are the crowds it draws that, from time to time, the Museum has had to shut its doors to keep people out. In the show's first month, 65,000 have come to see the work of this versatile Spanish-born artist who, at 58, has spanned the whole history of modern painting' (Life, 25 December 1939, p. 18).
Impressionist & Modern Art