“Picasso is the painter of woman: goddess of antiquity, mother, praying mantis, blown-up balloon, weeper, hysteric, body curled in a ball or sprawled in sleep… no painter has ever gone so far unveiling the feminine universe in all the complexity of its real and fantasy life” (M.-L. Bernadac, ‘Picasso, 1953-1972: Painting as Model’, Late Picasso, exh. cat., Tate Gallery London, 1988, p. 80).
The drawing Femme en buste exemplifies the fascinating relationship which Pablo Picasso had with the female subject. Identifiable as a portrait of Marie-Thérèse Walter, and as one of Dora Maar at the same time, this almost abstract depiction of a female bust blurs the line of portraiture.
The work was drawn in circa 1939, at a time when Picasso was alternating between portrayals of his two lovers, Marie-Thérèse Walter and Dora Maar. Dora Maar became acquainted with Picasso during the fall of 1935, and less than a year later, she assumed the role of the artist's primary paramour. As such she supplanted Marie-Thérèse, Picasso's young mistress since 1927, who had given birth to their daughter Maya shortly before the artist met Dora. Picasso loved these two women in different ways and cleverly wielded their respective affections to draw inspiration for his portraits. Marie-Thérèse would remain his loyally nurturing and private muse. Dora, on the other hand, was a photographer and an artist in her own right. They could exchange on art and their creative process, something that was outside of Marie-Thérèse’s realm.
Picasso's subjection of the female body and visage to daring dislocations and increasingly drastic deformations, which was born from his interest in Surrealism from the mid-1920s to the late 1930s, was a fundamental driving force in his approach to figuration. With Europe on the brink of the Second World War, Picasso’s portraits showed ever more depredations of form. However, despite the attack on the integrity of the female form which Femme en buste depicts, the work also evokes a form of quiet domesticity and peace. There is a closeness to the approach with which the subject is rendered and roundness of the form together with the resting and embrace-like posture adds a sense of calm.