The raven-haired and dark-eyed woman in this powerful drawing is immediately recognizable as Dora Maar, Picasso's lover since 1936. In the fall of the previous year, at the Café Deux Magots, she made her famously unforgettable debut impression on Picasso by quickly poking a knife into the table between the spread fingers of her hand, nicking the flesh and drawing blood. The deepening intimacy of their liaison coincided with the Fascist uprising and ensuing Civil War in Spain; in fact, the entire history of their relationship, which lasted until 1944, was tragically and inescapably set against the backdrop of violence and war.
Picasso's earliest portraits of Dora, while he was becoming familiar with her features, were naturalistic and flattering. Brigitte Léal has described Dora as having the "face of an Oriental idol, with its marked iconic character, impenetrable, hard, and unsmiling, and whose haughty beauty is enhanced by makeup and sophisticated finery" (in Picasso and Portraiture, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996, p. 387). Indeed, the ornate broach at the collar of her dress featured in the present work appears to have been a favorite type of decoration (see fig. 1). Dora's mysteriously intense but inscrutably impassive visage seemed to reflect the ominous and troubled mood in Europe during the increasingly violent years that preceded the Second World War. However, as John Richardson has pointed out: "After World War II broke out, Picasso came to portray Dora more and more frequently as a sacrificial victim, a tearful symbol of his own pain and grief at the horrors of tyranny and war" (in "Pablo Picasso's Femme au chapeau de paille," Christie's, New York, sale catalogue, 4 May 2004, p. 113).
It was in May 1943, shortly after the execution of the present work, that Picasso met Françoise Gilot, a young painter, in the restaurant Le Catalan on the Rue des Grands-Augustins, down the street from the artist's studio. He invited her and a girlfriend to his studio, and they showed up at the beginning of the following week. She returned many times thereafter, and by the end of the year she was appearing in his drawings. During this time Picasso maintained his relationship with Dora Maar, and also continued to see his previous mistress, Marie-Thérèse Walter and their daughter Maya.
(fig. 1) Pablo Picasso, Portrait of Dora Maar, Boisgeloup, March 1936. Picasso Archives, Musée Picasso, Paris. BARCODE 25012972