Alberto Giacometti (1901-1966)
Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

Femme assise

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)
Femme assise
signed and dated 'Picasso 13.10.39.' (lower left); dated again and inscribed 'vendredi 13.10.39. Royan' (on the reverse)
oil on canvas
25 5/8 x 19 5/8 in. (65.1 x 49.8 cm.)
Painted in Royan, 13 October 1939
Galerie Simon (Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler), Paris.
Madeleine Renaud and Jean-Louis Barrault, Paris (by 1946).
Private collection, Europe (circa 1990); sale, Sotheby's, Paris, 30 May 2012, lot 17.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
R. Desnos, intro., Picasso: Peintures, 1939-1946, Paris, 1946 (illustrated in color, pl. I).
C. Zervos, Pablo Picasso, Paris, 1959, vol. 10, no. 118 (illustrated, pl. 38).
The Picasso Project, ed., Picasso's Paintings, Watercolors, Drawings and Sculpture: Europe at War, 1939-1940, San Francisco, 1998, p. 37, no. 39-263 (illustrated).

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Brooke Lampley
Brooke Lampley

Lot Essay

The Second World War was just six weeks old when Picasso painted this haunting, unforgettable image of a woman in an armchair, shrouded in black like a grieving war widow, her hair falling in a straight sheath like a veil of mourning or a Spanish mantilla. Her eyes wide open and her complexion ashen, she stares into the distance with frozen impassivity, watching as the entire world plunges into violence on an unprecedented and hitherto unimaginable scale. Having witnessed the atrocities of the Spanish Civil War, Picasso knew all too well what vast horrors were surely to come. Here, he has transferred this terrible burden of foresight to his model, transforming her into a modern Cassandra whose prognostications are met only with incomprehension and disbelief. Her mouth shut tight, she cannot speak; confined in an armchair, she cannot flee. She is a silent oracular presence, whose funerary garb is her prophecy.
So who, exactly, is this wartime Sybil? Is she Marie-Thérèse, Picasso’s nurturing and classically beautiful blonde sun goddess, the more tenured of his two mistresses and the mother of his young daughter Maya? Or is she Dora Maar, his darkly surrealist, enigmatic lunar muse, who had supplanted Marie-Thérèse by this time as his public companion and primary paramour? The answer is complicated and reveals a great deal about Picasso’s fraught and changeable state of mind during this opening salvo of the war. “He was a worried, distraught man who did not know what to do,” Brassaï recalled of an encounter with the artist on 1 September 1939, two days before the official outbreak of war (Conversations with Picasso, Chicago, 1999, pp. 48-49).
Picasso painted this portrait on 13 October 1939, re-working it extensively in the process. In its initial state, the picture surely represented Dora Maar, who bore the brunt of Picasso’s pictorial depredations throughout the war. “For years I have painted her in tortured forms,” Picasso later explained to Françoise Gilot, who would replace Dora as Picasso’s next lover, “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 F. Gilot, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, p. 122). Although Marie-Thérèse had been the female presence in Guernica, Picasso preferred thereafter to spare her from any association with violence, making her instead into a personal symbol of quiet domesticity and peace.
Picasso’s original idea for this canvas seems to have been unremittingly grim. The background was steely gray at first, and in Dora’s lap, to judge by the evidence of contemporaneous paintings and drawings, she held a flayed sheep’s head, purchased from the butcher to feed the couple’s Afghan hound Kasbec (Zervos, vol. 9, no. 352; vol. 10, nos. 54, 69-70). Suddenly, however, Picasso’s spirits lifted. He expunged the mutton carcass, leaving traces of red beneath the figure’s left wrist and forearm, and he painted out Dora’s signature hat. He scraped away some of the pigment on the face and chair to lighten the overall tonality of the canvas, and–most conspicuously–he re-painted the entire background, as well as part of the face and a streak of the hair, in a warm butter-yellow hue. In one fell swoop, he had transformed his grieving prophetess from Dora into Marie-Thérèse.
This was an extraordinary way for Picasso to depict Marie-Thérèse, arguably without peer in his wartime oeuvre. Her voluminous mourning garb stands out dramatically against the newly lightened ground, and she swings her right foot jauntily beneath the heavy folds of the skirt, a startlingly naturalistic touch that heightens the expressive force of the scene. Picasso has added a patch of yellow to her face to emphasize the strength of her premonitory gaze, piercing beneath a linear black brow. Yet, in its final state, the painting suggests that Picasso still clung, however tenuously, to hope. Dark pentimenti may roil like a threatening cloud beneath the sunny yellow background, but the storm–for now, at least–has been averted.
Picasso painted this exceptional canvas in Royan, the seaside town on the Atlantic coast where he took refuge for the first year of the war. On 1 September 1939, Germany invaded Poland; two days later, Great Britain and France, as Poland’s allies, declared war on Germany. “Don’t you know that there is the danger German planes will fly over Paris tonight,” Picasso warned his secretary Jaime Sabartés that afternoon. “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, Dora, Kasbec, Sabartés, and his wife sped off in the artist’s car, with his chauffeur Marcel at the wheel. They drove through the night and arrived at Royan the next morning.
Picasso and Dora took rooms at the Hôtel du Tigre, and the artist provisionally set up his studio in the villa Gerbier des Joncs, where he had installed Marie-Thérèse and Maya over the summer, as war clouds darkened. The close proximity of the artist’s mistresses quickly became a source of anxiety for all, and in later September Picasso made several paintings of two women side-by-side that suggest a wishful conciliation (Zervos, vol. 9, nos. 335-337, 339-341). Beginning on 30 September, he filled a notebook with naturalistic studies of Marie-Thérèse and more distorted ones of Dora, along with numerous sketches of sheep’s skulls. From one page to the next, the two women seem to morph into one another, setting the stage for the remarkable act of shape-shifting that would occur in the present canvas.
By the time Picasso painted Femme assise, a German invasion of France loomed large on the horizon. The Polish armed forces had capitulated to Germany on 28 September, and Hitler had begun to make preparations for his next campaigns. On 6 October, Hitler made a peace offer to France and Britain, hoping that they would acquiesce in the conquest of Poland. Three days later, before they even had time to respond, he issued the Führer-Directive Number 6, ordering an attack on Belgium and the Netherlands at the soonest possible date and an occupation of the border areas in northern France. Britain declined the offer of peace on 10 October, and France followed suit on the 12th, the very day that Picasso began to paint his black-clad oracle.
Picasso remained in Royan, making periodic trips to Paris, for nearly a year. Hitler’s forces finally attacked Belgium and the Netherlands on 10 May 1940, and two days later crossed the frontier into France; on 25 June, badly beaten, France surrendered to Germany. Although the United States extended an offer of asylum to Picasso, he determined that it would be impossible to transplant his valuable art and many complicated personal relationships into foreign exile with him. Instead, he would have to stay put. On 24 August, the artist returned by car with Sabartés to Paris, this time for good; Dora followed by train, and towards the end of the year Marie-Thérèse and Maya arrived back in the capital as well. Picasso and company hunkered down for the German Occupation, which lasted for more than three and a half years.
The first owners of Femme assise were the actors Jean-Louis Barrault and Madeleine Renaud, close friends of Picasso during the war years, who acquired the painting from him by 1946. During the mid-1930s, Dora and Barrault were both part of the intellectual and political circle that orbited around Georges Bataille. The capacious studio at 7, rue des Grands-Augustins where Picasso worked from 1937 to 1945 had previously been Barrault’s rehearsal space, known colloquially as the Grenier de Barrault (“Barrault’s Attic”). Barrault was present at Michel Leiris’s apartment in March 1944 when Picasso presented the first reading of his play Le désir attrapé par la queue, testament to the continued strength of artistic and literary pursuits in Paris despite the restrictions and privations of the Occupation.

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