In June 1929, two years into his passionate affair with Marie-Thérèse Walter, Picasso painted this radical re-imagining of the female body, transforming the recumbent form of his lover into a biomorphic phantasm of emphatically sexual potency. The painting has its inception in a sequence of erotically charged oils that Picasso made the previous August at Dinard, which depict Marie-Thérèse sprawled on the beach, playing ball, or unlocking a cabana. The artist had installed his young paramour in a pension de jeunes filles across town from the villa that he rented for himself, his troubled wife Olga, and their son Paulo. “A breathtaking series,” Pierre Daix has called the paintings to which this clandestine arrangement gave rise. “The touch of Freudianism, and the renewal of sexual exuberance in the boldness of reconstructions and dissociations of form, are illuminated by the presence of Marie-Thérèse” (Picasso: Life and Art, New York, 1993, pp. 208-209).
On September 5th, the Picassos rushed back to Paris when Olga required emergency surgery. She remained hospitalized for months, suffering physically and mentally, while the artist immersed himself in sculpture-making and in his newly unfettered access to Marie-Thérèse. By February, Olga was home again; Picasso exorcised his resentment in a series of jagged, fissured heads with dagger-like tongues. Finally, in April, he returned to the image of his sensuous, pliant mistress. He worked from memory on another group of bather pictures, and from life on a new series of Marie-Thérèse reclining odalisque-style in an elegantly appointed “love nest” that he had recently rented on the Left Bank.
The present Figure is the culminating and most formally inventive of this latter group of canvases, painted just weeks before the Picasso clan left again for Dinard. The flat, schematized signs of the earlier examples–the angular breasts and stick-like limbs–here give way to an almost ecstatic plasticism tinged with surrealism. Picasso did not follow up immediately on this extraordinary conception of the figure, allowing it to gestate for the remainder of the year. In January 1930, it re-emerged in the monumental Baigneuse assise, the undisputed masterpiece of this period (Zervos, vol. 7, no. 206; The Museum of Modern Art, New York).