Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Property from a Private American Collection 
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

Femme assise

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Femme assise
dated '15.3.38.' (on the stretcher)
oil on canvas
27¼ x 19¼ in. (69 x 48.9 cm.)
Painted on 15 March 1938
David Duncan, London.
The Pace Gallery, New York.
Private collection, New York (acquired from the above, circa 1987).
By descent from the above to the present owner.
C. Zervos, Pablo Picasso, Paris, 1958, vol. 9, no. 135 (illustrated, pl. 66).
W. Rubin, ed., Picasso and Portraiture, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, 1996, p. 404 (illustrated in a photograph).
The Picasso Project, ed., Picasso's Paintings, Watercolors, Drawings and Sculpture, Spanish Civil War, San Francisco, 1997, p. 141, no. 38-043 (illustrated).
B. Baer, S. Nash and R. Rosenblum, Picasso and the War Years: 1937-1945, exh. cat., Fine Arts Museum, San Francisco, 1999, p. 214 (illustrated in a photograph).
A. Baldessari, Picasso, Life with Dora Maar, exh. cat., National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2006, p. 215 (illustrated in a photograph).
Picasso: Painting against Time, exh. cat., Albertina, Vienna, 2006, p. 25 (illustrated in a photograph, fig. 10).

Lot Essay

Having devoted a supreme effort to painting Guernica during May and early June 1937, Picasso then returned a more familiar and congenial theme, the Femmes assises, picking up a thread that he had been treating frequently since the middle of the decade. These seated portraits began with paintings of Marie-Thérèse Walter, since 1927 Picasso's mostly hidden mistress and the mother of his second child, his daughter Maya, who was born in 1935. The Femmes assises paintings, together with a related series of Femmes au chapeau, went on to spotlight the other women in his life, including those connected with certain close male friends, all of whom made up a lively circle that congregated around Picasso during his summer holidays on the Côte d'Azur from 1936 through 1938. There was the poet Paul Eluard's beautiful German wife Nusch, as well as Lee Miller, a statuesque American photographer whom Roland Penrose had introduced to the artist. The most dramatic portraits of all depict the woman who was quickly becoming the leading star in Picasso's eye, supplanting Marie-Thérèse in the role as his primary paramour and object of obsessive desire--Dora Maar. The raven-haired woman seen in the present Femme assise, with long slender eyebrows and dark, mesmerizing eyes, is instantly recognizable as Dora.

As the photographer Brassaï recalled, "It was... at the [café] Les Deux-Magots that, one day in autumn 1935, [Picasso] met Dora Maar, just as Marie-Thérèse Walter was bearing him a daughter, Maya. On an earlier day, he had already noticed the grave, drawn face of the young woman at a nearby table, the attentive looks in her light-colored eyes, sometimes disturbing in its fixity. When Picasso saw her in the same café in the company of Paul Eluard, who knew her, the poet introduced her to Picasso. Dora Maar had just entered his life" (Conversations with Picasso, Chicago, 1999, p. 51). Dora was then twenty-eight. She was born Theodora Markovic, the daughter of a Yugoslav architect, whose family name she shortened to Maar. She had grown up in Argentina, and Picasso was delighted to converse with her in Spanish. She was already an accomplished photographer and was interested in becoming a painter as well.

Brigitte Léal has described Dora as having "the face of an Oriental idol, with its marked iconic character, impenetrable, hard, and unsmiling, and whose haughty beauty is enhanced by makeup and sophisticated finery" (Picasso and Portraiture, exh. cat., op. cit., 1996, p. 387). Her mysterious and complex personality intrigued Picasso from the outset. Françoise Gilot recounted an unforgettable incident at Les Deux Magots that Picasso had told her about, in which Dora "was wearing black gloves with little pink flowers appliquéd 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 the knife, her hand was covered with blood. [Picasso] was fascinated... He asked Dora to give him her gloves and kept them in a vitrine with other mementos" (Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, pp. 85-85).

During the winter of 1935-1936, Dora photographed Picasso in his Paris studio on the rue d'Astorg, and Picasso later returned the favor (fig. 1). Their relationship took a crucial turn in August 1936, when Picasso was vacationing at the Hôtel Vaste Horizon in Mougins, near Cannes, surrounded by his friends Christian and Yvonne Zervos, Roland and Valentine Penrose, Man Ray and his companion Adrienne Fidelin. Picasso learned that Dora was staying nearby in Saint-Tropez, and called on her. According to Penrose, "After lunch they disappeared together for a walk along the beach. He talked to her with candour, telling of her of the complications in his life and the existence of his small daughter Maya. He asked her to accompany him back to Mougins" (Picasso: His Life and Work, Berkeley, 1981, p. 292). Dora accepted Picasso's invitation, and joined him at the Hôtel Vaste Horizon.

In early 1937 Dora helped Picasso find a new studio, at 7, rue des Grands-Augustins, where he painted Guernica later in the spring. She made invaluable photographs of Picasso's mural while it was in progress. That summer Dora and Picasso returned to the Hôtel Vaste Horizon; by this time Dora had become an indispensable component in the artist's intricately compartmentalized love life. Separated from his wife Olga, Picasso now had two mistresses--Marie-Thérèse, his nurturing and classically beautiful blonde sun goddess, and Dora, his darkly surrealist, enigmatic and creative lunar muse. Pierre Daix has observed that "Dora was added onto Marie-Thérèse... Dora would be the public companion, Marie-Thérèse and Maya continued to incarnate private life. 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). Marie-Thérèse played an important part in Picasso's formulation of the imagery in Guernica; Dora, for her part, became the subject of the Weeping Woman series (fig. 2). John Richardson has written:

"Picasso had no hesitation in using Marie-Thérèse's image as the incarnation of peace and innocence at the mercy of the forces of evil in this supreme indictment of war as well as of totalitarianism... She is the desperate girl running from left to right across the foreground... She is also the light-giving girl clutching a lamp emerging from an upper window. The mother wailing over her dead child can also be identified with Marie-Thérèse... By contrast, Dora largely inspired the Weeping Women paintings, a separate series that should not be identified too closely with Guernica... The source of Dora's tears was not Franco, but the artist's traumatic manipulation of her. Picasso's obsession with her had intensified, but to judge from portrayals of her, it precluded tenderness. Marie-Thérèse was submissive out of love; Dora out of a Sadean propensity" (L'Amour fou: Picasso and Marie-Thérèse, exh. cat, Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2011, pp. 45-46).

Françoise Gilot retells in her memoir Picasso's description of the moment in which Marie-Thérèse, with Guernica in the background, finally met Dora--an encounter Picasso had hoped to prevent. Confronting her rival, Marie-Thérèse turned to Picasso and demanded, "'Make up your mind. Which one of us goes?' I [--Picasso considered--] liked them both, for different reasons: Marie-Thérèse because she was sweet and gentle and did whatever I wanted her to do, and Dora because she was intelligent... I was satisfied with things as they were. I told them they'd have to fight it out for themselves. So they began to wrestle. It's one of my choicest memories" (op. cit., 1964, pp. 210-211).

Picasso's life with his two women settled down into a feasible routine during early 1938. In his studio the artist moved back and forth between the image of one woman and the other, just as he traveled to and fro between the locations where he furtively trysted with each of his mistresses. He began the year with portraits of Marie-Thérèse, typically wearing her prim girlish hats, and painted a half-dozen canvases depicting little Maya with her playthings. In between, on 12 January, Dora made her pictorial debut for the year, sporting one of the odd creations of headwear that she favored (and Picasso obligingly half-invented for her), a compact little hat with a volcano-shaped crown (fig. 3). The present portrait displays the classic mixed three-quarter view by which Picasso liked to show off the features of both women, with one eye viewed frontally and the other from the side. Marie-Thérèse was always sensitive about the size of her nose, which Picasso liked, but the artist was wont to give Dora an even larger, more exaggerated and distinctive rhinal profile, with flaring nostrils. During the following year Picasso began to depict Dora with a pronounced nose rather like the snout of his new Afghan hound Kasbec. As in the earlier portrait (fig. 3), Dora in the present painting wears a blouse with a serpentine decorative pattern. Her sharply peaked shoulders lend the upper part of her body a winged, bat-like appearance, a visual analogy reinforced by Dora's distended nostrils and the hair bow she wears atop her head, shaped like little bat ears.

In this Femme assise, as well as in other portraits of Dora during this period, Picasso included in the background a box-like structure of perspectival lines. This simple compositional device serves to frame the head, while also indicating an interior context, a room in which Picasso has placed his sitter. These lines also constitute a metaphorical act of possession, Picasso's attempt, on an emotional level, to confine Dora within a space he has created for her. This will on the part of the artist to appropriate his subject and her image for personal needs and ends would take a strange turn in a self-portrait drawing done on canvas dated 22 March 1938 (fig. 4). Picasso has adopted in this painting, in order to depict himself, the same facial paradigm seen in the present portrait of Dora, which he masculinized, concentrating on the great glaring eyes (for which the artist was well known) and unusually full, sensual lips.

The Femmes assises and Femmes au chapeau series (fig. 5) became the basis for Picasso's ongoing line of female portraits, mainly featuring Dora, but also including Marie-Thérèse, although less frequently than before, which he painted on the eve of and during the Second World War. Pierre Daix has written: "[Dora] was the woman during the summer months when war threatened to break out over Danzig and Poland, Spain lay crushed beneath Franco's boot, and the Rome-Berlin Axis was imposing its rule through almost all of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. Picasso worked well in her company because of the understanding and sympathies which had united them since Guernica. But how to reconcile pairing with Dora and the tenderness he felt for Marie-Thérèse and Maya?" (op. cit., 1993, p. 259).

(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, Dora Maar de profil, Boisgeloup, March 1936. Picasso Archives, Musée Picasso.
Barcode 2501 2972

(fig. 2) Pablo Picasso, La femme qui pleure, Paris, 18 October 1937. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.
Barcode: 28975403

(fig. 3) Pablo Picasso, Buste de femme, Paris, 12 January 1938. Formerly the Estate of the Artist; private collection.
Barcode: 28975373

(fig. 4) Pablo Picasso, L'Artiste devant sa toile, Paris. 22 March 1938. Musée Picasso, Paris.
Barcode: 28975397

(fig. 5) Pablo Picasso, Paintings from the series 'Femmes assises' and 'Femmes au chapeau' in Picasso's studio at 7, rue des Grands-Augustins, Paris, late 1938-early 1939. Picasso Archives, The Musée Picasso, Paris. The present painting is visible in the top row, right of center.
Barcode: 28975380

More from Impressionist and Modern Evening Sale

View All
View All