Painted on 18th June 1932, Femme nue couchée au collier (Marie-Thérèse) is one of the rhapsodic outpouring of colourful, love-filled paeans that Pablo Picasso painted of his blonde haired muse and lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter in the first half of this seminal year. One of the artist’s greatest muses, Marie-Thérèse’s presence in Picasso’s life aroused an unprecedented creative explosion; her vitality and voluptuous forms unleashing an ecstatic rebirth in every area of his artistic production. The canvas became the site of impassioned expressions of love, wonder and worship; the blank page a surface to be filled with amorous daydreams; and plaster the material with which to declare his physical adoration of his lover’s form. It was in 1932, widely regarded as one of the greatest years of Picasso’s career, that the influence of Marie-Thérèse truly made itself felt in Picasso’s art, as he began an extraordinarily bold and euphoric series of erotically charged depictions of his new muse that saw the artist reach a peak of his painterly production. ‘There is no doubt,’ William Rubin declared, ‘that 1932 marks the peak of fever-pitch intensity and achievement, a year of rapturous masterpieces that reach a new and unfamiliar summit in both his painting and sculpture’ (Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation, New York, 1996, p. 361).
Femme nue couchée au collier presents a particularly intimate view of Marie-Thérèse. Blissfully unaware of her lover’s gaze, her eyes closed in private reverie, she reclines in front of a richly-coloured Baroque-style backdrop in the somnolent state that would become her pictorial signature. Indeed, this same pose can be found in Nude, Green Leaves and Bust (Sold, Christie’s, New York, 4 May 2010, $106,482,500) and Le Miroir (Private collection; Zervos, vol. 7, no. 379), both painted earlier in the spring of this year. Applying paint in lavish, sensuous strokes that amplify the vivid physicality of Marie-Thérèse, in the present work Picasso adorned his muse in a necklace, so to emphasise the seemingly unending undulating, soft white curves of her outstretched form.
Femme nue couchée au collier is one of the finest of an important series that presents Marie-Thérèse in this same closely cropped, intimate format and Ingres-esque pose, painted throughout the spring and summer of 1932, while Picasso was still completely in her thrall. Begun on 4 April with the Musée Picasso’s larger Nu couché (Zervos, vol. 7, no. 332), Picasso once more returned to this motif immediately following the highly anticipated opening of his first major retrospective, held on 16th June at the Galeries Georges Petit, Paris.
Just as Marie-Thérèse’s voluptuous forms and luminous complexion filled many of the large, vibrant canvases that Picasso had been working on intensely to include in the show, so she clearly occupied every corner of the artist’s mind. Just two days later, on 18th June, having escaped the hordes of admirers, critics and journalists eager to see the artist and his work, and with his wife and son away in Juans-les-Pins, Picasso was back in Boisgeloup, his idyllic rural château north west of Paris, where he could once again indulge in his muse unimpeded. He painted the present work on this same day, which was quickly followed on the next by the Centre Pompidou’s closely related Femme nu couchée. The Metropolitan Museum’s large-scale Nu couché aux fleurs (Zervos, vol. 7, no. 407) followed in July.
‘Without a doubt the most voluptuous version is that of 18 June [the present work],’ Josep Palau i Fabre has written, ‘in which the roundness of the figure reaches its climax’ (Picasso 1927-1939: From the Minotaure to Guernica, Barcelona, 2011, p. 119). This remarkable series allows a glimpse of the intimacy and dream-like atmosphere which prevailed between Picasso and Marie-Thérèse at this time; as John Richardson, the artist's biographer, has described, ‘The small reclining nudes of Marie-Thérèse asleep exude a tenderness and intimacy that was missing from most of the larger, more stylised portraits that Picasso had done of her for his retrospective’ (A Life of Picasso, Volume III, The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932, London, 2007, pp. 479-480).
The meeting between Marie-Thérèse and Picasso has become the stuff of legend. It was a January evening in 1927 that the artist, in part inspired by the Surrealists’ fascination for l’amour fou, had caught sight of the luminous blue-eyed, blonde-haired Marie-Thérèse outside the Galeries Lafayette, a department store in Paris. ‘You have an interesting face,’ he said to her. ‘I would like to do a portrait of you. I feel we are going to do great things together. I am Picasso’ (quoted in ibid., p. 323). Though she had no idea who Picasso was, Marie-Thérèse was nevertheless beguiled. She agreed to meet him again, and, just a few days later, she visited his rue la Boétie studio. ‘He took me to his studio,’ she recalled. ‘He looked at me, he seduced me. He kept looking at my face. When I left he said “Come back tomorrow.” And then afterwards it was always “tomorrow”’ (quoted in D. Widmaier Picasso, ‘Marie-Thérèse Walter and Pablo Picasso: New Insights into a Secret Love,’ in exh. cat., Pablo Picasso and Marie-Thérèse Walter: Between Classicism and Surrealism, Münster, 2004, p. 29).
Soon after this first fateful meeting in the winter of 1927, the pair fell deeply in love. Picasso was at this time still married, sharing his Right Bank apartment with Olga and their son Paulo. Shrouded in secrecy, Picasso’s relationship with Marie-Thérèse therefore consisted of clandestine meetings. As a result, at first, she entered his painting in a veiled form – particularly in cypher-like monograms that appear in the still-life paintings of spring 1927.
It was not until 1931, four years into their relationship, that Marie-Thérèse’s image would blossom in clear, glorious and triumphant form in his art. By this time, Picasso was living in Boisgeloup, the secluded and picturesque château situated near Gisors, a small village northwest of Paris that he had bought in the summer of 1930. Boisgeloup provided the perfect place to spend time with his muse, as well as serving as a much-needed refuge from the ever-increasing jealousy, neuroses and stifling bourgeois aspirations of Olga. At weekends, Olga left their fashionable Right Bank apartment and travelled to Boisgeloup, where she relished playing the role of the chic châtelaine. Once she departed for Paris at the end of the weekend, Marie-Thérèse bicycled in, and the pair spent a joyful week together, holed up in this blissful refuge, rapturous in each other’s company. ‘During the week [Picasso] played Mars to Marie-Thérèse’s Venus,’ Richardson has described. ‘Weekends he played the role of an affable père de famille in a three-piece suit and spats, having fun with a much fussed over child and a very large dog’ (op. cit., 2007, p. 417).
With Marie-Thérèse a more constant presence in Picasso’s life by the beginning of 1931 her image, which had up until this point remained coded and concealed in his art, began to saturate his sculpture and painting in radiant, euphoric form. Over the course of this year, Picasso created a battalion of monumental plaster busts based on her striking, classical physiognomy, and as 1932 dawned, her image flooded uncontrollably into his painting.
It was in Boisgeloup that Picasso painted what are now recognised as the greatest depictions of Marie-Thérèse; works such as the 1932 Le Rêve (Sold, Christie’s, New York, 10 November 1997, The Collection of Victor and Sally Ganz, $48,402,500; Zervos VII, no. 364), Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, Femme nue dans un fauteuil rouge (Tate Gallery, London; Zervos VII, no. 395), amongst numerous others. These paintings instigated a new expression of romantic love and eroticism in modern art. Gone are the rotund, somewhat lifeless nudes of Picasso’s Neo-Classicism, and the fractured, inflated multi-partite surrealist visions of the late 1920s, and in their place a sensuous lyricism and eroticism the likes of which had not been seen in twentieth-century art up to this point. With this breakthrough series of 1932 nudes, Picasso inaugurated a sequence of masterpieces all depicting Marie-Thérèse and all dedicated to the couple’s romantic and erotic rapture. Inspired by his love for his mistress, Picasso reached a pitch of extraordinary creativity as canvas after canvas was filled with her voluptuous curves, her crown of blonde hair and head thrown back in ecstatic pleasure.
The ecstatic explosion in Picasso’s palette that had come about during this period as he revelled in a new-found, rich colourism is evident. The cool, marble-like skin is made all the more intense by the dark contours at the lower edge and the green and red complementaries above, with which Picasso has encircled his model. Looking at this deceptively simple, deeply private painting, it is clear why John Richardson would refer to the reign of Marie-Thérèse as Picasso’s muse as, ‘his most innovative period since Cubism’ (ibid., 2007, p. 460).