Maya Widmaier-Picasso has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
Claude Picasso has confirmed the authenticity of this work.
An icon of pre-war painting and a profound tribute to the relationship between artist and muse, Pablo Picasso’s Femme assise, robe bleue is an outstanding portrait of Dora Maar. From swathes of raw pigment, rendered in thick, coarse impasto, her twisted visage emerges in near-sculptural splendour, gazing in two directions at once. Of all his paramours, Dora’s darkly seductive beauty and mercurial persona inspired his most significant responses to the fundamental issues of love, death and creation. Painted on 25 October 1939–the artist’s birthday–she is here no longer Picasso’s Weeping Woman: his Mater Dolorosa of two years previously. Instead, in her blue dress and a jaunty plumed chapeau, she regales him with a beaming smile, lips tensed as if on the verge of outright laughter. The angular lines and sharp geometries of his earlier melancholic masterpiece are here resolved into softer, curvilinear forms that reflect the artist’s contentment on a day of celebration–a momentary respite from the encroaching tremors of the Second World War. The work’s provenance tells an extraordinary tale that later formed the basis of John Frankenheimer’s 1964 film The Train. Originally owned by Picasso’s long-time friend and gallerist Paul Rosenberg, the painting was subsequently confiscated by the Nazis. By astounding coincidence, the work was discovered and rescued by Rosenberg’s son, who led a mission to intercept a train carrying plundered art. It later became a prized acquisition for the Pittsburgh financier George David Thompson, whose pioneering collection of modern and contemporary art is now largely dispersed in museums throughout Europe and America.
"The name Dora Maar, for most true enthusiasts of Picasso's work," Brigitte Léal has written, "conjures up one of the greatest moments of his creative efforts" (Picasso and Portraiture, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996, p. 385). Dora and Picasso had met in 1936; she was a young photographer who was friends with Paul Eluard and closely connected to the Surrealist movement. Her haunting presence and sharp intellect captivated Picasso. His depictions of her during this period were characterised by incisive and frequently dramatic pictorial transformations, through which he sought to capture the essence of her physical and psychological being. Picasso probably completed Femme assise, robe bleue towards the close of the day, after festivities had ended and he was alone with his muse. Dora’s face glows in the lamplight of the dark interior like a full moon against the night sky, the diamond-flecked wallpaper pattern standing in for distant stars and galaxies. Noting the similarities of the prominent foreground hand, blue attire, elaborate headwear, a turning three-quarter view, and especially the rare smile, one may suspect that Picasso was thinking of Rembrandt’s Bust of Saskia Smiling, 1633-“Every painter takes himself for Rembrandt,” he later asserted (F. Gilot, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, p. 51). Picasso may even have considered the irony that Rembrandt’s exquisite portrait of his fiancée was located in a German museum, the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, in a land where his portrait of Dora would have been excoriated and banned as degenerate art. A powerful symbol of its time, Femme assise, robe bleue speaks to a pivotal moment in global history, filtered through the complex relationship between Picasso and his lunar muse.
Femme assise, robe bleue: An Extraordinary Provenance
Femme assise, robe bleue was perhaps one of five works in the final wartime transaction between Picasso and Rosenberg, for which the dealer paid 50,000 francs on 1 February 1940. Rosenberg took the precaution of storing what remained of his collection in France at two locations near Bordeaux, where he resided with his family, for a quick departure to America if necessary. Belonging to a well-known Jewish family, Rosenberg held no illusions about the intentions of Nazi racial ideology. The Rosenbergs left France for New York soon after the Armistice in June 1940. Paul’s son Alexandre fled to Britain, where he became a junior officer in De Gaulle’s Forces françaises libres (FFL).
The Nazi Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (ERR, led by Alfred Rosenberg, no relation to the dealer) was responsible for locating, collecting, and storing valuable fine arts for eventual shipment to Germany. They found most of the Rosenberg cache, including the present Picasso, and placed the works in storage at the empty Jeu de Paume in Paris. Rose Valland, a museum staff employee who stayed on during the Occupation, surreptitiously supplied intelligence of these movements to the French Resistance. She sent them word that train 40.400, one of the last to leave Paris before the Liberation in August 1944, was carrying 148 crates of French-owned Impressionist and modern art, destined for a German depot in Nikolsburg, Moravia.
Higher priority traffic sidetracked the train at Aulnay, outside Paris, for nearly a week. Railway officials warned the FFL of its location; allied aircraft must avoid bombing or strafing this easy target. General Leclerc placed Lt. Rosenberg in command of a detachment of nine volunteers who overpowered the guards and captured the train on 27 August. Opening the doors of the cars, and learning the contents of the crates, the young officer was stunned to find numerous paintings belonging to his father, among which were many he had known during his childhood. Femme assise, robe bleue was among the 64 Picassos recovered that day. These paintings were the first of many holdings that the French Commission de Récuperation eventually restored to the Rosenberg family. Under Frankenheimer’s direction, Burt Lancaster, Jeanne Moreau, and Paul Scofield would later bring a version of this story to life on the silver screen.
Picasso in Royan: Painting at the Outbreak of War
At the time of the present work, the spreading conflagration in Europe was not yet two months old. Following the demise of the Spanish Republic earlier that year, Picasso had kept an ever more watchful eye on political developments in Europe, sensing that all-out war was imminent. In early July, about a week before he and Dora were to travel to Antibes for their annual vacation on the Mediterranean, Picasso made arrangements for his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter and their four-year-old daughter Maya to take refuge in the relative safety of Royan, a small resort town on the Bay of Biscay. On 26 August Picasso heard the news that the French government had ordered a general mobilization. From Antibes he, Dora, and his long-time friend and secretary Jaime Sabartés hurried back to Paris
Following Germany’s invasion of Poland on 1 September, Picasso began packing up his paintings, objects, and books, but quickly realized the task was like moving a sprawling museum, and gave up trying. Accounts vary on precisely when the artist departed for Royan–29 August (Sabartés and Daix), or 2 September (Brassaï)–but this exodus most likely occurred on 3 September, the very day Great Britain and France, as Poland's allies, declared war on Germany. That afternoon Picasso, fearing a sudden air raid, such as that he had allegorized in Guernica, warned Sabartés, “Don’t you know that there is the danger German planes will fly over Paris tonight... I’m going right home to pack my baggage... Pack yours and stop fooling, I’ll come for you tonight” (quoted in Picasso and the War Years, exh. cat., Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1998, p. 61). Around midnight, Picasso, his dog Kasbek, Dora, and Sabartés sped off in the artist’s luxury Hispano Suiza automobile, with Picasso’s chauffeur Marcel at the wheel. They arrived in Royan late the next morning, and Picasso and Dora took rooms at the Hôtel du Tigre. The artist set up his provisional studio in the villa Gerbier des Joncs, where Marie-Thérèse and Maya were already staying.
For the ensuing six months, as Hitler prepared for his next campaigns, there were only sporadic acts of aggression on the western front, a situation that the French dubbed the drôle de guerre, or as the British called it, a “phoney war.” For the time being, Picasso and his entourage were relatively sheltered; still the world’s most famous living artist, he continued to paint. Lacking all kind of art supplies when he arrived, he desperately scoured local shops to buy up whatever he could find. He returned to his makeshift studio with only a few sketchbooks, some drawing media, and tubes of gouache, which he nonetheless employed to good effect in the first works he painted and drew in Royan (Zervos, vol. 9, nos. 324ff). Picasso may have brought back some canvas and oil paints from his first trip to Paris in early September, which he then rationed selectively. He made a second trip to Paris in mid-October, during which he likely replenished his stock of materials for use in Royan. While in the capital he took initial steps toward storing as many of his most valuable paintings as possible in a secure bank vault.
Dora Smiles: Picasso’s Enigmatic Muse
Picasso returned to Royan from Paris in time for his birthday celebrations. It is improbable that Dora and Marie-Thérèse, rivals ever jealous of the artist’s affections, were present at the same time. At their first, accidental meeting in front of the newly completed Guernica in 1937, they fiercely argued. Picasso loved both women, “Marie-Thérèse because she was sweet and gentle and did whatever I wanted her to, and Dora because she was intelligent,” he later explained to Gilot. “I was satisfied with things as they were. I told them they'd have to fight it out themselves. So they began to wrestle. It's one of my choicest memories” (quoted in op. cit., 1964, p. 211).
Picasso effectively compartmentalized his feelings for the two women. Marie-Thérèse–the female presence in Guernica–would remain his loyal, nurturing, and classically beautiful blonde sun goddess, the mother of his daughter Maya, and his household deity. Dora, moody and intense, had taken the role of the artist’s enigmatic and creative muse. She could converse knowledgeably with Picasso about art, in which Marie-Thérèse showed only occasional, passing interest. “Dora was added onto Marie-Thérèse,” Pierre Daix observed. “Painting would be shared between them... Each woman would epitomize a particular facet of a period rich in increasingly dramatic repercussions” (Picasso: Life and Art, New York, 1993, p. 239).
The subjects that Picasso painted that autumn in Royan describe a small, circumscribed domestic environment, as if the artist were attempting to keep the chaotic outer world at bay. His paintings feature one or the other of his dual mistresses, Maya, Sabartés (as a 17th century courtier; Zervos, vol. 9, no. 366), and an occasional local, including the street cleaner (vol. 10, no. 196). A series of pictures showing two women together (vol. 9, nos. 335-337, 339-341) may represent Picasso’s wishful fantasy of a conciliation between his two lovers, whose close proximity to each other in Royan was quickly becoming a source of anxiety for all concerned. Even Kasbek and his needs contributed to Picasso's efforts; flayed sheep's heads, which the artist purchased at the local butcher to feed his dog, became the subjects of his first wartime memento mori still-lifes (Zervos, vol. 9, nos. 348-351; and vol. 10, no. 122).
Picasso’s portraits of Dora during this period represent a continuation of the pre-war series of femmes au chapeau and femmes assises. Defying the Nazi aesthetic of bland and mediocre classicism, as propaganda for their vaunted ideals of racial purity and superiority, Picasso’s Doras hold forth their “threefold dimension of precariousness, ambiguity and monstrosity,” as Léal has stated. “There is no doubt in signing these portraits, Picasso tolled the final bell for the reign of ideal beauty and opened the way for a sort of terrible and tragic beauty, the fruit of our contemporary history" (exh. cat., op. cit., 1996, p. 385). From the Weeping Women of 1937 onward, into the years that precipitously descended into an unrelenting state of war, Picasso persisted in distorting Dora’s mysterious and inscrutably impassive visage. The face of this beautiful young woman, bent and twisted into an elasticized hybrid of profile and frontal perspectives, is all the more disarming in the partly modeled, volumetric, and quasi-classicized treatment Picasso accorded Dora in Femme assise, robe bleue. "For years I have painted her in tortured forms," Picasso explained to Gilot, "not through sadism, and not with pleasure either, just obeying a vision that forced itself on me. It was a deep reality, not a superficial one" (quoted in op. cit., 1964, p. 122).
The crowning accessory in a memorable Dora portrait is the hat that Picasso invents for his consort, her “most provocative emblem,” Léal declared. “In its preciousness and fetishistic vocation, the feminine hat was, like the glove, an erotic accessory highly prized by the Surrealists... A crown of daffodils, an urchin’s beret or a cool straw hat for Marie-Thérèse; nets, veils and great wings of a voracious insect for Dora” (exh. cat., op. cit., 1996, pp. 387, 389, and 392). Dora’s hats soon acquired a military profile during the early months of the war; they sometimes resemble, as seen here, the silhouette of a warship steaming on the horizon, a plume of smoke trailing behind, and elsewhere the screaming propellers of those dread German dive-bombers that rained death from the sky. The Nazi Luftwaffe and U-boats were already sinking allied shipping in the coastal waters off England and France.
If Dora became an outlet for Picasso’s wartime depredations, it was perhaps due in part to her own macabre tendencies. “Pablo told me that one of the first times he saw Dora she was sitting at the Deux Magots,” Gilot recounted. “She was wearing black gloves with little pink flowers appliquéed on them. She took off the gloves and picked up a long, pointed knife, which she began to drive into the table between her outstretched fingers to see how close she could come to each finger without actually cutting herself. From time to time she missed by a tiny fraction of an inch and before she stopped playing with her knife, her hand was covered with blood. Pablo told me that was what made up his mind to interest himself in her. He was fascinated. He asked her to give him the gloves and he used to keep them in a vitrine at the Rue des Grands-Augustins, along with other mementos” (quoted in op. cit., 1964, pp. 85-86). Whilst Femme assise, robe bleue offers a superficial vision of gaiety, it is underpinned by a palpable strain of tension. The manic, repeating striations in Dora’s hat, hair, and dress suggest a human being wound like a spring: a stressful state for which laughter might provide the only release.
“The name Dora Maar, for most true enthusiasts of Picasso's work, conjures up one of the greatest moments of his creative efforts." -- Brigitte Léal
(Picasso and Portraiture, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996, p. 385).
“I have not painted the war because I am not the kind of painter who goes out like a photographer for something to depict. But I have no doubt that the war is in these paintings I have done. Later on perhaps the historians will find them and show that my style has changed under the war's influence. Myself, I do not know.” -- Pablo Picasso
(Picasso and the War Years 1937-1945, exh. cat., Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, 1998, p. 13).
“Dora was added onto Marie-Thérèse. Painting would be shared between them... Each woman would epitomize a particular facet of a period rich in increasingly dramatic repercussions.” -- Pierre Daix
(Picasso: Life and Art, New York, 1993, p. 239).
“In its preciousness and fetishistic vocation, the feminine hat was, like the glove, an erotic accessory highly prized by the Surrealists... A crown of daffodils, an urchin’s beret or a cool straw hat for Marie-Thérèse; nets, veils and great wings of a voracious insect for Dora.” -- Brigitte Léal
(exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996, pp. 387, 389, and 392).