Picasso painted Tête de femme au chapeau on 30 November 1939. This picture has a striking, jutting angularity in its depiction of the features of Dora Maar, one of Picasso's great Muses. In this picture, which forms a part of a group of oils and drawings exploring variations upon the same composition (several of which are now in the Musée Picasso, Paris), the artist reintroduced the geometry and palette of the Cubist pictures he had created in the early part of the twentieth century. However, he has combined this reference to Cubism with the sharpness that marked out so many of his most celebrated pictures of Dora.
From the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War through to the end of the Second World War, Picasso's depictions of Dora often shared a jagged character, showing her as a tormented figure, often weeping, often in the armchair, that becomes almost one with her, as is the case in Tête de femme au chapeau. Dora was often shown wearing one of the many hats that were her trademark, that add an air of levity to the otherwise angst-ridden compositions. Dora was lucidly aware of her charm as a seductress. She had her nails painted weekly, even during the direst days of the Occupation, and she cared deeply about her appearance. She loved wearing hats, conscious that the emphasised her pure profile and fair, mysterious gaze.
Dora's own personality, which Picasso himself described as 'Kafkaesque,' was a perfect vehicle for the artist to express his unease during the times (Picasso, quoted in F. Gilot & C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, Toronto and London, 1964, p. 92). Dora had been one of the protagonists of the Surrealist movement before she met Picasso; their first legendary encounter supposedly occurred when Picasso spotted her in a café playing with a knife, which she was stabbing through the gaps in her splayed fingers, often missing, cutting her gloves and drawing her own blood. This dark side to her character was in stark contrast to the wholesome youth and femininity of Picasso's then lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter, the mother of his daughter Maya, and fascinated the artist. 'For me she's the weeping woman,' he would explain. 'For years I've painted her in tortured forms, not through sadism, and not with pleasure either; just obeying a vision that forced itself on me. It was the deep reality, not the superficial one' (Picasso, quoted in B. Léal, ''For Charming Dora': Portraits of Dora Maar', pp. 384-407, Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation, London, 1996, p. 395). For Picasso, the likenesses were of Dora; it was a form of coincidence or synchronicity that resulted in their aptness for the age.
Picasso painted Tête de femme au chapeau towards the end of 1939, when he had fled Paris because of the prospect of invasion, heading instead to Royan, a fishing port on the Atlantic coast, where Marie-Thérèse and Maya were already staying. Picasso journeyed there, driving all night at the end of August or beginning of September with an entourage that included his Afghan hound Kazbeck, Dora and Jaime Sabartés. He had to return to Paris several times, in part to gain a permit to stay in Royan from the Sûreté, but ended up staying there until August the following year. While he was in Royan, Picasso created a string of highly expressive portraits of Dora, including Tête de femme au chapeau. This work was therefore painted in a very poignant, intense moment for the artist, and is one of the rare works of the Royan period still in private hands.
The backdrop of conflict may have had an influence on the deliberately restricted palette with which Picasso has created Tête de femme au chapeau. While on the one hand this recalls some of the paintings that he created around the time of his early masterpiece Les demoiselles d'Avignon of 1907 (Museum of Modern Art, New York). It also has a militaristic dimension, a concept that is emphasised by the increasing presence of greys and greens reminiscent of the German uniforms and of camouflage that came to play an increasing role in Picasso's pictures during the years of the Second World War. At the same time, these earthen tones are evocative in parts of the picture of flesh tones. Picasso has created this picture with bold, flowing brushstrokes that have raked their way, often parallel to each other, up and down the geometric forms of the head and the flowing hair; the contrast between these densely-worked areas and the parts of the canvas that the artist has deliberately left in reserve and painted in with lighter colours thrusts the head all the more into relief, granting it a physicality that is emphasised by the gestural nature of the brushstrokes. This adds to the visceral, vivid expressive energy of this painting.