In the summer of 1932, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) was in love. Not with his wife, the fractious and increasingly unstable Russian ballerina Olga, but with a young woman of 22 called Marie-Thérèse Walter (1909-1977).
They met by chance outside the Galeries Lafayette in 1927, and soon became lovers. As Marie-Thérèse recalled, ‘He looked at me, he seduced me. He kept looking at my face, and when I left he said, “Come back tomorrow”, and then afterwards it was always “tomorrow”.’
It was the start of an intense love affair that would result in some of the most majestic paintings of Picasso’s career. Over the next decade, the artist painted Marie-Thérèse obsessively. First clandestinely and later, as their relationship developed, as a sensual, curvaceous being.
‘He loved the blondeness of her hair, her luminous complexion, her sculptural body,’ said the Surrealist photographer Brassaï (1899-1984). ‘At no other moment in his life did his paintings become so undulant, all sinuous curves, arms enveloping, hair in curls…’
Femme nue couchée au collier (Marie-Thérèse) is one of two portraits by Picasso being offered in the 20th Century Evening Sale on 23 March. It was painted at Boisgeloup, the artist’s rural retreat northwest of Paris, where Picasso, as his biographer John Richardson put it, ‘played Mars to Marie-Thérèse’s Venus’, culminating in ‘his most innovative period since Cubism’.
Picasso once said, ‘Reality must be torn apart’ — and perhaps that is especially true of his paintings of Marie-Thérèse. They are woozy and dreamlike; day seems to dissolve into night, and long, languid shadows wrap themselves around her sleeping form.
‘This work was not painted to be exhibited,’ says Keith Gill, co-head of the 20th Century Evening Sale. ‘It is an intensely private portrait of his love affair with his mistress and his art.’
Nonetheless, the work was exhibited four years later, in 1936, at Galerie Paul Rosenberg in Paris, and was later acquired by the American businesswoman Evelyn Sharp (1903-1997), becoming one of the highlights of her collection.
Picasso was a great caricaturist who sought out the details that made individuals instantly recognisable to themselves and others. As a schoolboy, he delighted in making quick character sketches of his fellow pupils, exaggerating their features and using props to identify them.
In his portraits, Marie-Thérèse is distinguished by her classical profile, pale lilac skin and blonde hair, while her love rival, the artist Dora Maar (1907-1997), is often portrayed with a hat and crimson fingernails.
Picasso’s second wife Jacqueline (1927-1986) is immediately identifiable by her almond-shaped eyes and dark hair. Femme assise dans un fauteuil noir (Jacqueline) was painted in 1962, a few months after their marriage. Gill describes it as ‘a more sculptural image, but like the Marie-Thérèse there is great physicality there.
‘At the time of the Jacqueline portrait,’ adds Gill, ‘Picasso was looking back at Old Master painters, engaging with artists such as Delacroix and Manet. The background has this very dramatic, Baroque feel, echoing Velázquez’s painting Las Meninas, which he had studied intensely.’
The personalities that emerge from the two portraits are very different: where Marie-Thérèse is soft and sensual, Jacqueline is regal and commanding, as if the artist is in thrall to his new wife.
According to Richardson, Jacqueline’s presence infused every aspect of Picasso’s art. ‘It is her image that permeates from 1954 until his death,’ he writes. ‘It is her body we are able to explore more exhaustively and more intimately than any other body in the history of art.’
Gill notes that the market for paintings made by Picasso in the 1960s has increased considerably in recent years. ‘There is an ever-growing appreciation of late Picasso that didn’t exist 20 years ago,’ he says, citing as a turning point the groundbreaking exhibition Picasso: Mosqueteros at New York’s Gagosian gallery in 2009.
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‘If you are a Picasso collector, you want to own a Jacqueline portrait,’ adds Gill, ‘just as you would want to own a Marie-Thérèse or a Dora Maar, because they are windows into the artist’s life at that time.’
Picasso would stare at his subjects for hours and often complete the painting after the sitter had left. ‘When you look at these portraits, you feel Picasso’s vitality and his intense, concentrated gaze,’ says Gill. ‘It is as if he is standing next to you.’