Picasso’s love affairs were legendary and they fuelled his creativity. Ahead of the sale of four portraits of his different muses from the Sam Rose and Julie Walters Collection, we focus on the women he came to depend on so passionately
‘I paint the way some people write their autobiography,’ said Pablo Picasso, explaining that his pictures were like the pages of a diary. For an artist with a prodigious sexual appetite, this perhaps reveals why many of his paintings focus on the women in his life.
For Picasso, sex and art were intertwined — the procreative act in harmony with the creative act. He devoured his lovers on canvas and in the bedroom with the appetite of a Minotaur, insinuating himself into the pictures through coded symbols — often phallic.
Each of his lovers represented a key moment in his career, from the illicit eroticism of his association with Marie-Thérèse Walter in the late 1920s, which typified his late Cubist period, to the watchful sensuality of Jacqueline Roque in his final years. On 11 November, four paintings by Picasso, each depicting a different lover, will be offered in the Impressionist and Modern Art Evening Sale at Christies in New York.
The Washington real-estate developer Sam Rose and his wife Julie Walters spent years acquiring the portraits, and what these powerful depictions of women reveal is that Picasso had a far more complex relationship with the muses in his life than first thought.
Leading the collection is Femme au béret orange et au col de fourrure (Marie-Thérèse), painted on 4 December 1937, which portrays Picasso’s clandestine mistress, the voluptuous and luminous Marié-Thérèse Walter.
The story of their meeting, outside the Galeries Lafayette in 1927, has entered folklore. ‘You have an interesting face. I would like to do a portrait of you,’ he told the bewildered teenager. ‘I feel we are going to do great things together.’
This portrait encapsulates that early impulse: the young muse depicted as a cosmopolitan girl-about-town. The art historian David Sylvester has written that ‘Picasso probably didn’t become a truly great erotic artist... until he started composing his celebrations of the joys of making love to Marie-Thérèse.’
And yet he soon tired of his languid and adoring mistress, and turned his attentions instead to the brilliant and highly-strung Surrealist photographer Dora Maar.
Bust de femme, painted in 1939, is a robust portrait of the raven-haired Maar as a woman warrior — both a Joan 0f Arc-like figure and a Cassandra, warning of the cursed war to come. ‘For me she’s the weeping woman,’ explained Picasso of the muse who sat for his most celebrated work, Guernica, in 1936. ‘For years I’ve painted her in tortured forms, not through sadism, and not with pleasure, either; just obeying a vision that forced itself on me.’
Their relationship was volatile and when Picasso left her for her sexual rival — the 21-year-old Françoise Gilot — Maar declared with dramatic intensity, ‘After Picasso, only God’.
Despite her youth, Gilot was surprisingly adept at navigating the painter’s desire. Portrait de Françoise Gilot, painted between 2 May and 26 December 1947, has a Spartan intensity that marks the late period of Picasso’s black and white phase. Consumed by the shadow of ‘the black dog’, he looked out on a Stygian post-war world and used Gilot’s innocence to depict it with a bleak clarity.
Many years later, Picasso’s biographer John Richardson asked Gilot why their relationship eventually broke down. Her answer was telling: ‘Je ne suis pas une femme soumise’ (‘I’m not a submissive woman’).
This was not the case of the artist’s final muse and second wife, Jacqueline Roque. For Picasso, this dark, compliant beauty represented an atavistic, Mediterranean ideal. Picasso likened his wife’s face to the prostitute in Eugene Delacroix’s Femmes d’Alger dans leur appartement (1834), and in homage made his own series, Les Femmes d’Alger, a version of which was sold at Christie’s in 2015 for over $179 million — a world auction record at the time.
Buste de femme nue, painted in 1963, reflects the artist’s perennial obsession with his wife’s Romanesque profile, one he explored in paint more exhaustively than any other.
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Richardson once said that a day with Picasso was like being with Dracula. He fed off your energy and ‘drained your last drop’. For some of the women in Picasso’s life , his personality and demands drove them to nervous exhaustion. Yet these portraits testify to another Picasso, one that celebrated the strength and endurance of his lovers, a power he always depended on.