Meeting the viewer’s gaze with her own piercingly memorable, dark-eyed stare, the woman portrayed in Femme dans un fauteuil is the Surrealist photographer Dora Maar, Picasso’s great wartime mistress and muse. Picasso painted this arresting portrait on 19 June 1941, just over a year into the Nazi Occupation of Paris. Dora’s chicly modern garb, an extension of her avant-garde artistic identity, contrasts with the unembellished metal armchair and the gray ground, which evoke the stark realities of wartime Paris. It is the deformations and dislocations to which Picasso subjected Dora’s countenance, though, that most searingly embody the brutal events of this cataclysmic epoch. Picasso cast Dora as a universal mater dolorosa for those difficult times, a role with which she is still inseparably identified today. “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).
After Picasso, God.”
When Picasso painted the present portrait, Dora had been his chief paramour for a half-dozen years, at least in the public eye; Marie-Thérèse Walter, the mother of his daughter Maya, was the artist’s more tenured household goddess, whose importance in his life remained a secret to all but his closest friends. A well-known figure within Surrealist circles in Paris, Dora had made an unforgettable debut impression on Picasso at the Café Deux Magots in autumn 1935, as she repeatedly poked a knife point into the table between the splayed fingers of her hand, occasionally nicking the flesh and drawing blood. The deepening intimacy of Picasso’s liaison with Dora, the most artistically and intellectually engaged of his partners to date, coincided with Franco’s fascist uprising and the ensuing Civil War in Spain; indeed, the entire history of their relationship, which lasted until 1944, was tragically, ineluctably set against the backdrop of violence and war.
Dora, as Léal has described her, had 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” (ibid., p. 387). Picasso’s earliest portraits of Dora were naturalistic and flattering. Before long, though, her mysteriously intense but inscrutably impassive mien seemed to reflect, in the artist’s mind, the ominous mood in Europe. He began to inflict savagery on Dora’s visage in his painting, relentlessly deconstructing and reconfiguring her features. By the time the Second World War had become a daily fact of life, this impulse was inexorable. “For years I painted her in tortured forms,” Picasso later admitted, “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 Picasso was then in the later years of his mid-career, with great fame and accrued wealth, he refused offers from America and Mexico for the safety of temporary exile, and experienced the war, both physically and emotionally, in a most personal, subjectively intense way. His admirers looked upon the artist’s work in the studio as a form of resistance, although he never saw it that way—painting was simply what he did, no matter the circumstances. “I have not painted the war because I am not the kind of painter who goes out like a photographer for something to depict,” he explained after the Liberation. “But I have no doubt that the war is in these paintings I have done” (quoted in Picasso: Fifty Years of His Art, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1946, p. 223).
He got off to a slow start during the first year of the war, which he spent at the seaside town of Royan on the Atlantic coast, seeking to keep Dora, Marie-Thérèse, and Maya safe from the onslaught of Hitler’s Panzers during the Battle of France. The Royan period was notable for some fine heads of Dora, but even more riveting are the still-lifes of flayed sheep’s heads he purchased to feed his Afghan hound Kasbek. The masterwork of this period is the large, seated nude of Dora, Femme assise, seen dressing her hair (Zervos, vol. 10, no. 302; The Museum of Modern Art, New York).
In love doesn’t quite sum up Picasso’s feelings towards Dora. I think he was obsessed with her, a passionate sexual love. It was not that Dora was so beautiful—she was far more interesting than that. She added a whole new class and layer to his other mistresses.”
Following the defeat of France, Picasso and Dora returned in August 1940 to Paris, where they hunkered down to endure the Occupation; Marie-Thérèse and Maya followed later that year or at the start of the next. Getting his affairs in order was Picasso’s first concern and took up much of this period. There were shortages of all kinds, with decent food only to be found on the black market at prohibitive prices; as the new year dawned, temperatures plummeted, and Picasso found it impossible to obtain enough fuel to heat the cavernous rooms in his studio at 7, rue des Grands-Augustins. In early 1941, he devoted a major effort to writing his first play, a farce entitled Le désir attrapé par la queue, whose characters obsess over the dearth of provisions and the desire to find some semblance of love in a time of war.
It was not until 10 May 1941 that Picasso produced another major painting, Nature morte au boudin, one of the finest of his wartime still-lifes (Zervos, vol. 11, no. 112; sold, Christie’s New York, 10 November 1997, lot 12). Two weeks later, on 25 May, he began his inaugural series of Occupation Doras, which would occupy him intensively until mid-summer, constituting a powerful symbol of renewed artistic creativity in the face of the anxieties and depredations of the era. “It was not a time for the creative man to fail, to shrink, to stop working,” Picasso later recounted. “There was nothing else to do but work seriously and devotedly, struggle for food, see friends quietly, and look forward to freedom” (quoted in M. McCully, ed., A Picasso Anthology, Princeton, 1981, p. 224).
In the present Femme dans un fauteuil, Picasso painted Dora with the distorted features that had become his quintessential mode of representing her, cubist by way of precedent and grippingly psychological in their impact. Her nose is rendered as a snout-like appendage, projecting from her split, divergent physiognomy; her hypnotic, kohl-rimmed eyes are positioned akilter and out-of-place. Her smoothly coiffed, chestnut hair and alluring scarlet lipstick stand out against the prevailing cool tones of the painting, drawing the viewer’s gaze to her face. She wears a white ruffled blouse, a blue checked blazer, and a matching hat topped with a white feather, an angelic emblem evoking protective love, peace, and freedom; such extravagant headwear had become a regular feature in Picasso’s portraits of Dora, functioning as a symbolic extension of her psyche. “Among the objects tangled in the web of life,” the Surrealist poet Paul Éluard wrote in 1937, “the female hat is one of those that requires the most insight, the most audacity. A head must dare wear a crown” (quoted in exh. cat., op. cit., 1996, p.389).
I noticed her intense bronze-green eyes, and her slender hands with their long, tapering fingers. The most remarkable thing about her was her extraordinary immobility. She talked little, made no gestures at all, and there was something in her bearing that was more than dignity—a certain rigidity. There is a French expression that is very apt: she carried herself like the holy sacrament.”
This painting is one of two closely related portraits of Dora that Picasso created on a single day, 19 June 1941, depicting her in the identical outfit and seated in the same chair; the companion picture was sold at Christie’s New York on 6 October 2020, lot 8 (Zervos, vol. 11, no. 191). The palette is slightly brighter and warmer in the present painting, suggesting that Picasso may have painted it first, under natural light. In the other version, Dora’s face and blouse have fallen into shadow, and the greenish glow on the rear wall suggests lamplight.
The two portraits, which Dora herself photographed side-by-side in Picasso’s studio, convey subtly different emotional states, despite their analogous iconography. The contours in the present painting are softer and more pliant, lending Dora a certain vulnerability. The set of her mouth looks apprehensive, even fearful, and her hands rest nervously in her lap. In the second version, by contrast, Dora appears steadfast and composed. Picasso has turned her chair nearly square to the canvas, creating the impression of a throne. Her diaphanous ruffled blouse is now solid and unyielding like armor, and she crosses one arm protectively across her body, clasping her hands assuredly at her hip. The present painting, we may propose, lays bare the profound, ceaseless unease that defined the wartime experience, while the sister canvas embodies the dignity and resilience with which Picasso had resolved to face the Occupation.
As the creator of the blatantly, unrepentantly anti-fascist mural Guernica, Picasso had good reason to worry for his safety. While the Occupation authorities and their French collaborators did not prohibit Picasso from painting, the artist was not allowed to publicly show his work. The Gestapo once barged into his studio, after which Picasso notified a French policeman with whom he was friendly: “They insulted me, called me a degenerate, a communist, a Jew. They kicked the canvases. They told me, ‘We’ll be back’” (quoted in G. van Hensbergen, Guernica: The Biography of a Twentieth Century Icon, New York, 2004, p. 139). The Gestapo did not return, but nonetheless kept his studio under close surveillance.
Dora too was at risk under the Occupation, even more so than Picasso, who had his reputation as the world’s most famous living artist to provide him a measure of protection. Like Picasso, Dora was foreign-born, she in Croatia to a French mother; her full name was Henriette Theodora Markovic, and there was a rumor circulating that her father was Jewish. In mid-May 1941 the Nazis began rounding up non-native Jews in Paris, and on 2 June, two weeks before Picasso painted the present canvas, the French government at Vichy passed a new Statut des Juifs that severely restricted the rights of Jews. Picasso and Dora were understandably on edge throughout this period—stories of Jewish lineage, falling on the wrong ears, could swiftly result in detention by the Gestapo for questioning, and then worse.
The power of Picasso’s wartime paintings has endured precisely because he avoided overt reference to contemporary events such as these, instead mining deeper veins of understanding and compassion, evoking the experience of the Occupation through private, subjective metaphor. So too did Dora—speaking now for herself, not through the way Picasso painted her—in her contemporary poetry: “Tall buildings, facing the sun, the even sky / are visible from the bedroom at the summit of the landscape. / I don’t move. / That’s how I used to do it before; I weighted everything down. / Oppressed by solitude, the thing was to imagine love / time passes. / Today, a Sunday at the end of the month / March 1942 in Paris the songs of pet birds / are like little flames burning calmly / in the silence. I despair” (quoted in A. Baldassari, Picasso: Love and War, 1935-1945, exh. cat., National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2006, p. 235).
Lot Essay Header Image: Pablo Picasso holding a piece of sculpture. Photo: George Konig/Keystone Features/Getty Images. Artwork: © 2021 Estate of Pablo Picasso / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.