Pablo Picasso painted Buste de femme on 12 January 1938, at the height of his relationship with the photographer Dora Maar. This picture (above, left) is one of the best known of his series of images of Dora, and crucially one of the best known remaining in private hands. Buste de femme was one of the pictures with which Picasso appears to have been unable to part in his lifetime. It then passed into the collection of his granddaughter, Marina, from whom it was acquired by the legendary art dealer Jan Krugier.
It is easy to see why Buste de femme has been selected for exhibition on a number of occasions: the picture sings. The electric red lends the work an intensity that is only heightened by the colours of Dora’s face and clothing, the yellows, blues and greens, which are thrust into such bold relief through their contrast with the near-monochrome background. Meanwhile, the almost lavender-infused skin becomes like cool marble in contrast to these vivid colours.
The relationship between Picasso and Dora is one of the most discussed of his lifetime. Following a comment by Dora Maar herself, it has often been stated that Picasso changed his artistic style, as well as his life, friends and even dog, when he changed his mistress; indeed, this was arguably the premise of William Rubin’s landmark exhibition, Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation, held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York and the Grand Palais, Paris in 1996–97.
Pablo Picasso (1881 — 1973), Buste de femme (Femme à la résille), 1938. Oil on canvas. Estimate on request. This work and the one below are offered in Looking Forward to the Past — A curated Evening Sale on 11 May in New York
This change of artistic style can be seen in Buste de femme, which featured in the show: it is a far cry from the sinuous, flowing lyricism that had been inspired half a decade earlier by Marie-Thérèse Walter, and similarly has little in common in atmospheric terms with the fecund forms that would mark the reign of Françoise Gilot as his muse.
Instead, it is dominated by pulsing colour and jagged forms. Unlike Marie-Thérèse, who had been a young, sporty, wholesome ingénue when she had first encountered the artist, Dora was an independent and successful woman in her own right, prominent among the avant-garde artists and writers of the day. She had become increasingly involved with the Surrealist movement with which Picasso himself was involved, photographing Surrealists including Yves Tanguy and René Crevel and modeling for Man Ray.
During this time, Picasso painted a series of works in which the features of his two lovers are conflated or fused to some degree. This is clear in his Buste de femme now in the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington D.C., painted only three days after Buste de femme. There is a great similarity between the vivid yellow of the background and the red of Buste de femme, and also between their respective compositions, with the Hirshhorn picture crowned with a beret.
Commentators sometimes identify the subject in Buste de femme as Dora, sometimes as Marie-Thérèse, a reflection of the extent to which Picasso deliberately melded their features. Picasso would continue to explore these games of contrast and transformation a year later, when he created two highly similar portraits of Dora and Marie-Thérèse in the same pose as each other a mere days apart in January 1939.
While there was a dialogue between Picasso’s pictures of Marie-Thérèse and Dora, it is only really present in Buste de femme in the tenderness with which he has depicted his subject. At the same time, there is a vivid sense of humour present — a humour reflecting the characters of both the artist and Dora. This ensures that Buste de femme serves as an intimate and insightful record of their relationship when it was at its height, and perhaps helps to explain why it remained in Picasso’s personal collection.
Femme assise expresses something of Dora’s commonly accepted personality. She sits in a chair like a queen
on a throne
Executed with the sole aid of ink, Picasso’s Femme assise achieves the grandeur and poise of a painting, preserving nonetheless the delicacy and inventiveness of draughtsmanship. The size of a painted portrait, the drawing depicts a self-assured woman, of elegant and mysterious demeanour. Over a scaffolding of thin lines, Picasso built the portrait through a series of washes.
This monochromatic execution of the work gave Picasso the chance to prove his graphic talent even more assertively. He was able, for instance, to evoke space with an incredible economy of means. The corner, in which the figure appears to be seated, is created by two simple intuitive lines, separating the floor from the walls and — more impressively — by a subtle use of washes: Picasso suggested the depth below the chair by using a denser wash indicating shade; he then applied a wash only on the left of the figure, suggesting the slant of the wall, introducing perspective into the drawing with a simple sweep of the brush.
Pablo Picasso (1881–1973), Femme assise (Dora Maar), 1942. Gouache, gray wash, and brush and pen and India ink on Japan paper. Estimate: $4,000,000-6,000,000
The dark hair and the long, manicured nails of the figure depicted in Femme assise identify her as Dora Maar, the surrealist photographer who had entered Picasso’s life just before the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War and who shared the artist’s life throughout the Second World War. Executed on 5 March 1942, Femme assise expresses something of Dora’s commonly accepted personality. She sits in a chair like a queen on a throne. Her hands, self-assuredly placed on the chair’s arms, convey a welcoming, yet resolute authority. At the same time, however, the complex geometry of her dress immobilises her like a cage: she obediently poses for the artist, subordinating her image to his art.
By 1942, the year in which the work was made, the relationship between Picasso and Dora had started to become strained. The question of whether this tension can be perceived in the artist’s work ultimately remains a matter of speculation. War, on the other hand, was a real presence in 1942. Returning to Paris from the south of France in 1940, the couple continued to meet up with artists and intellectuals in the cafés of Paris, but many had by then left.
André Breton and several Surrealists had sought refuge in New York. In 1942, Paul Éluard, one of Picasso’s closest friends, had joined the Resistance, disappearing underground. That same year, the deportation of the Jews of France began. In 1944, Picasso would lose his dear friend, the poet Max Jacob, who was deported to the Drancy concentration camp, where he died of pneumonia. The Surrealist Robert Desnos was also deported, dying at Terezina shortly after the liberation of the camp in 1945.
Against the backdrop of the war, the black cloak of Femme assise acquires mourning undertones. Dora Maar had, after all, been Picasso’s inspiration for Weeping Woman. In striking opposition to that dramatic work, in Femme assise the figure is endowed with a stoic bearing. Her withdrawn, rigid posture signals a lack of animation that suggests, perhaps, the difficult times the artist and his muse were experiencing in 1942.
Femme assise seems to capture what the photographer Brassaï had once noticed of Dora during the war: her ‘grave, tense countenance’ and her ‘look that was so fixed and attentive it was sometimes disquieting.’ Commenting on his work, Picasso had once said: ‘When I paint a woman in an armchair, the armchair implies old age or death, right? So, too bad for her. Or else the armchair is there to protect her.’