When Picasso first saw the voluptuous Marie-Thérèse Walter in Paris in 1927, he confronted her with the exclamation, 'I am Picasso! You and I are going to do great things together' (P. Daix, La vie de peintre de Pablo Picasso, Paris, 1977, p.217). His bravura introduction was punctured by the simple fact that the seventeen year-old girl had no idea who he was. Despite this, his statement was to prove more prophetic than perhaps even he imagined. Picasso's images of Marie-Thérèse rank amongst the most impressive, expressive and sought after paintings of his entire oeuvre. Amongst the most celebrated of his paintings of Marie-Thérèse are Le rêve, Nu dans un fauteuil rouge, Le miroir, Nu au fauteuil noir and La lecture. It is notable that these were all painted in 1932, the golden year for his Marie-Thérèse portraits. Indeed, it has been said that there is not precedent in the history of art for such a sequence of great pictures.
Nu au collier was painted in 1932 at Boisgeloup, the chateau Picasso had purchased in 1930 essentially as a hide-away for the lovers. Before then, he had installed her in a flat conveniently situated near his own Paris home and his dealer Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler. The proximity of Kahnweiler's gallery provided the ultimate alibi for the artist's frequent departures from his home and, importantly, his wife Olga. However, the purchase of Boisgeloup allowed Picasso to enjoy fully and without restraint his life with Marie-Thérèse. This became even more true following his retrospective at the Galerie Georges Petit in June 1932. If Olga had at all doubted the presence of a lover in her husband's life before then, those doubts were dispelled by the incontrovertible evidence that hung on the walls of the exhibition. In painting after painting, the unambiguous and recurring features of an anonymous semi-clad blonde woman appeared - Picasso's pictures declared publicly his love for Marie-Thérèse. Following this exhibition, Picasso returned to Boisgeloup with the spectre of his wife less worrying to him. The secret was out, and Picasso could relax in the company of his young lover. Picasso's inscription on the reverse of Nu au collier dates the picture to the period immediately following this exhibition. Even the subject matter is a reflection of the new-found freedom the couple enjoyed at Boisgeloup, with Marie-Thérèse in a relaxed, contemplative posture wearing her necklace, yet otherwise naked.
Everything in Picasso's life during this period was a reaction to the constraints imposed upon him by his wife. Her endless search for bourgeois respectability was alien to the capricious Spanish artist. Although for some time his art had taken on an Ingres-esque and Neo-Classical character, Picasso soon tired of the endless striving for respectability, the world of exteriors, of fine clothes and chauffeurs that the marbled sculptural tones of his classical works captured so well. In the late 1920s, his art exploded with new forms and ideas as he began his ferocious figurative surrealist paintings. These often violent and sexually unambiguous paintings reflect Picasso's discontent with his home life.
It was against this backdrop of angst and inner turmoil that Marie-Thérèse appeared, a safety-line prompting Picasso's return to the more Bohemian existence he had always favoured. Both her attitude and her physique made Marie-Thérèse the perfect antidote to all of Picasso's perceived ills. The fluid style the artist developed in his depictions of Marie-Thérèse in the early 1930s was the perfect development out of the organic forms of his Surrealist paintings. As John Golding has observed of Picasso's 1932 pictures of Marie-Thérèse:
'Her limbs are rendered by the same undulating forms that had characterized much of Picasso's work since 1925, but whereas before these had so often seemed predatory or tentacular, their rhythms not become slower, softer, more welcoming and more organic' (J. Golding, 'Picasso and Surrealism' in Picasso in Retrospect, ed. R. Penrose and J. Golding, exh. cat., New York, 1973, p.110).
The swirling curves of her body, the ripeness of her breasts, is filled with fecundity as Picasso rediscovered both a liberating sexual existence and the intoxication of groundbreaking artistic creation. The viewer can feel Picasso's palpable enjoyment of Marie-Thérèse's curvaceous body as he sweeps the brush around, leading our eyes across the entirety of her body, charting out and marking his domain. It is no coincidence that during this relationship Picasso also rediscovered the potential of sculpture - Marie-Thérèse's entire form begged to be sculpted, and indeed even the figures in his paintings from this period have an intense and innovative plasticity.
To some extent, the novel style that Picasso adopted in his depictions of Marie-Thérèse reflects a preoccupation with the art of Henri Matisse. During his Nice period, the latter had largely forgone the use of lines in his work, despite this being one of his trademarks. Instead he had focussed on colour and light. However, during the early 1930s the cloisonné effect that had marked his earlier work began to reappear as he once again embarked on an investigation and reinvigoration of his art. Picasso appears to have taken note of Matisse's reinvention of his art, and responded. Indeed, to some extent it appears as though Matisse pulled Picasso out of the respectable 'retirement' of his Classical period. However, Picasso has manipulated the stained glass effect so central to Matisse's colourism - where Matisse used the dark lines to heighten the impact of his bold fields of colour, here Picasso has used them in the opposite way, emphasising the slightest differences in the white, lilac and pink that makes up Marie-Thérèse's flesh. Likewise, the subject matter in Nu au collier appears in part to pay tribute to the work of his adversary with the woman draped over a seat by a window. However, it has been rendered in Picasso's inimitable style, the woman more sensuously naked than Matisse's Odalisques, the colours delicate and the light incidental.
Nu au collier is distinct from many of Picasso's other depictions of Marie-Thérèse in several ways. Picasso's images of her reflect the intense mutual discovery that the couple enjoyed at Boisgeloup, detached from the rest of the world. This sense of exploration filled his paintings of Marie-Thérèse, who was most often shown asleep, each painting the artist's snapshot of his languid, sated lover. Nu au collier, however, shows Marie-Thérèse awake and contemplative. She appears relaxed, at ease. However, more than in any other depiction of Marie-Thérèse, Picasso has focussed on her eyes. Although other paintings occasionally show her awake, they sometimes give the eyes no colour, while in other examples the blue of the eyes is lost amongst all the other colours in the picture. Here, Picasso has limited the colours of the background in order to fully emphasise their sheer blue. The red and dark blue that dominate so many of the Boisgeloup works like Le rêve and Le miroir have been almost completely suppressed, and yet there remains just enough bold, contrasting colour in various parts of the picture to bring the ardent blue of her eyes to the fore. While the artist has clearly reveled in capturing the curves of her body, to some extent Nu au collier does not merely celebrate the sexual freedom that the couple enjoyed in Boisgeloup, but also captures a rare mutual tenderness.
The complexity and brilliance of these 1932 masterpieces was recognised at once. After visiting Picasso's studio that year, Kahnweiler wrote to Michel Leiris that:
'Painting is really sustained by Picasso: and so wonderfully. [His recent work] is without painterly artifice: very alive, very erotic, but the eroticism of a giant. For some years now, Picasso has not had any rival... We left feeling quite overwhelmed' (Kahnweiler, quoted in P. Daix, Picasso: Life and Art, New York, 1993, p.221).