The beginning of 1932 witnessed the extraordinary outpouring of large-scale, color-filled, rhapsodic depictions of Pablo Picasso’s clandestine, golden-haired lover and muse, Marie-Thérèse Walter. Having deified her statuesque form and classical profile in the great series of plaster busts the prior year, Picasso allowed the influence of his young mistress and the romantic and erotic bliss in which he found himself to fill his painting. Pictured both seated and reclining, this series saw Picasso perform artistic alchemy with these two revered motifs. Marie-Thérèse is turned from a stylized image of sexual reverie, to an exaggeratedly voluptuous lilac-hued nude; transformed from a surrealist-inspired multipartite assemblage of forms in one canvas, into allegorical form as a classical bust in another. With this great succession of paintings—which includes iconic works such as Le Rêve, Nude, Green Leaves, and Bust, Le Miroir, and Jeune fille devant le miroir—Picasso reached the height of his artistic powers. “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, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996, p. 361).
At first her master seems to worship humbly at her shrine, capturing a fixed, confrontational stare of almost supernatural power.”
Painted on 30 October 1932, Femme assise près d'une fenêtre (Marie-Thérèse) is one of the final great portraits that crowns the euphoric series of masterpieces from this seminal year. By this time, Marie-Thérèse had risen to ascendance in every area of her lover’s output. Here, in one of the most impressive and stately portraits Picasso ever painted of her, she has claimed absolute dominion, an idolized muse now reigning deity-like over the artist and his creation. On a monumental scale, Marie-Thérèse fills the expanse of the large canvas, and is pushed up to the very edge of the picture plane. As a result, she not only presides over the light-filled room of the composition, but her command breaks through into the viewer’s own space, rendering us mere mortals in her presence as we gaze up at her. No longer made of flesh and blood, Picasso has presented her as a winged goddess, a modern day Nike, aglow with light and life. Framed by a panel of sky blue, her head is lunar, luminous and sculptural as if carved from marble, while her body is sensuous and soft, a composite of curving planes orbiting around her fiery red torso. No more the languorously reclining nude lost in a private reverie, in the present portrait she is clothed, alert and upright, her omniscient gaze demonstrating that she is in complete command of her subjects: the artist, her lover, clearly held completely in her thrall.
He loved the blondeness of her hair, her luminous complexion, her sculptural body…At no other moment in his life did his painting become so undulant, all sinuous curves, arms enveloping, hair in curls…”
The youthfulness and statuesque beauty of Marie-Thérèse inspired a new pictorial vocabulary in Picasso’s work, her presence arousing in the artist a desire to convey her body in both two and three-dimensional form. The present portrait is the apotheosis of Marie-Thérèse in Picasso’s art, as he transfigured her easygoing, compliant nature and sensual physicality into a painting that combines the artist’s sculptural and painterly incarnations of her. Immediately reminiscent of the plaster busts of 1931, her instantly recognizable profile has a strongly sculptural quality, its outline rendered with a single incised line, as if her lover’s finger has traced the course of her face. It was this visual iconography that would serve as the definitive artistic shorthand for his portrayals of Marie-Thérèse throughout the 1930s.
The story of how Marie-Thérèse came to occupy this supreme position in Picasso’s art is well known. As 1927 began, the artist was feeling increasingly disenchanted and constrained by the haute-bourgeois world of Right Bank Paris that his wife, the Russian ballet dancer, Olga Khokhlova adored. Fast falling out of love with Olga, Picasso was seeking new inspiration, looking in particular for the mythical l’amour fou. On a January evening, he found just this in the form of a statuesque, bright blonde and blue-eyed young woman, whom he met outside the Galeries Lafayette in Paris. “You have an interesting face,” his famous opening lines supposedly went. “I would like to do a portrait of you. I feel we are going to do great things together. I am Picasso” (quoted in J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso, The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932, London, 2007, vol. III, p. 323).
Immediately taken by him, Marie-Thérèse agreed to Picasso’s suggestion to meet the following Monday at the Gare Saint-Lazare. “The name Picasso did not mean anything to me,” she later recalled. “It was his tie that interested me. And then he charmed me” (quoted in P. Cabanne, “Picasso et les joies de la paternité,” in L’Oeil, no. 226, May 1974, p. 7). Within just a few days’ time, she visited the artist at his home on the rue la Boétie. “He took me to his studio,” she explained. “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 Pablo Picasso and Marie-Thérèse Walter: Between Classicism and Surrealism, exh. cat., Graphikmuseum Pablo Picasso, Münster, 2004, p. 29).
At first, Picasso needed to hide Marie-Thérèse’s presence in his art—a married man, her arrival in his life had to remain secret. He depicted her in coded terms, such as the fruit in a still-life composition, or her entwined initials appearing as the strings of a guitar. Striking, although still anonymous inferences to her statuesque, shapely physique invariably lay beneath Picasso’s biomorphic reimaginings of the nude gallivanting on the beach in the summer of 1927 and 1928. These drawn studies and related paintings display a radical re-imagining of the female body, represented in bizarrely surreal, abstractly reconfigured and monumentalized forms.
She became the luminous dream of youth, always in the background but always within reach, that nourished his work.”
It was not until 1931, four years into their love affair, that Marie-Thérèse’s image would emerge in recognizable form in Picasso’s art. By this time, the artist 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. Although, in Paris, Picasso had a separate studio on the floor above the apartment he shared with his wife, where he could meet Marie-Thérèse, propriety prevented him and his young lover from being seen publicly together. Boisgeloup provided the perfect meeting place, as well as serving as a much-needed refuge from the ever-increasing jealousy, neuroses and never-ending social aspirations of Olga.
Boisgeloup and its extensive stables and outbuildings also offered Picasso opportunity to establish a sculpture studio—the first time he had ever had such a space. In the spring of 1931, he immersed himself in this ramshackle domain. Working one night by the light of a kerosene lamp on the ground, he saw in the shadow of the wire constructions he had begun to construct the profile of his beloved Marie-Thérèse. Roland Penrose described, “[Picasso] was delighted at this projection from an otherwise decipherable mass. But he said, ‘I went on, added plaster and gave it its present form.’ The secret image was lost but a more durable and splendid version, visible to all, had been evolved. And he added: ‘When you work you don’t know what is going to come out of it. It is not indecision, the fact is it changes while you are at work.’” (Picasso: His Life and Work, London, 1958, pp. 243-244).
In the late 1920s, Picasso had predominantly explored concepts of negative space and abstraction in his sculpture—namely in his assemblage works. Now he embraced mass as a new form of monumental figurative sculpture emerged. Modeled in plaster, half-a dozen heads and reliefs constitute Picasso’s protean return to sculpture at this time. Imposing and hieratic, Buste de femme (Spies, no. 131) and the two Tête de femme (Spies, no. 132 and 133) are at once classically-inspired busts derived from the physiognomy of Marie-Thérèse—her high cheekbones, wide eyes and prominent Grecian nose—while at the same time are exaggerated, highly stylized conceptions of femininity and eroticism; the variously abstracted, amorphous features of the figure’s face morphing into myriad phallic symbols.
By the end of June 1931, Picasso concluded these plaster busts, and yet, the relationship between sculpture and painting, sculptor and painter, remained firmly lodged in his mind. The monumental sculptural language that Picasso invented in these works would go on to serve as the defining aesthetic for his depictions of Marie-Thérèse throughout the following year, as the present work exemplifies. At first, versions of the busts appeared in his painting. In early March, the luminous white heads appear as silent sentinels in two compositions that purport to be still lifes (Zervos, vol. 7, no. 376 and Musée Picasso, Paris), before appearing once again in a painting a few days later, Nude, Green Leaves and Bust (formerly in the Collection of Mrs. Sidney F. Brody; sold, Christie’s New York, 4 May 2010, lot 6). Here Marie-Thérèse is depicted both as a living body and a sculpted object. With these works, it is as if Picasso is conjuring the myth of Pygmalion: it is his longing for the subject that brings the sculpture to life. In Nude Green Leaves and Bust, his desire has been sated, his muse now lying resplendently before him.
There is a sense of reciprocal rivalry, of challenge between Picasso the painter and Picasso the sculptor, as if they were arguing about the best way to exalt Marie-Thérèse. And it is Boisgeloup, with its isolation and its possibilities for sculpture, which produced this sensual effervescence.”
In the present work, Marie-Thérèse is a perfect embodiment of these two artistic mediums. Picasso has captured her voluptuous forms with undulating planes of bold, flat color—a painted paean of his adoration for her body—while her visage is rendered with the same formal language as his sculpted depictions of her, an embodiment of classical idealism. The same open, expansive profile with which she is endowed in the present work can be found in three-dimensional form in the 1931 Tête de femme (Spies, no. 133); like this bust, Picasso has rendered her all-seeing eye in soft, flowing lines. Indeed, Penrose’s description of the plaster busts could likewise be applied to the painted appearance of Marie-Thérèse in the present work, a demonstration of how symbiotic Picasso’s practice was at this time: “Set high on a long tapering neck,” he wrote, “they seem to be detached from the earth and float like the moon racing through clouds. The eyes are sometimes drawn on the surface with a deep incision or in other cases modeled like a ball and added to the cheek like a satellite” (op. cit., 1958, pp. 243-244).
The symbiotic processes by which Picasso created his paintings and sculpture during 1931-1932 describe transformations and metamorphoses, from one medium into another, and then back again, in two and three dimensions, as well as a fourth in the timeless realm of poetic myth and boundless imagination. While this deft diversity was clearly the result of Picasso demonstrating his artistic virtuosity, it was also driven by love and desire and the myriad forms this could take in art. Love, art, the real and the ideal, the physical and the metaphysical, the being or thing itself and the power of images, are all bound together and interact to empower Picasso’s desire to generate the revelatory expression that defines 1932, this seminal “year of wonders.”