The golden light from the scarlet flame of La Lampe bares a closely guarded secret, known in early 1931 to only a few of Pablo Picasso’s closest friends and his trusted chauffeur. Disenchanted with his wife Olga, indeed, having fallen far out of love from her and the haut bourgeois life-style that she relished, Picasso had been seeing, for more than four and a half years and on the sly, a lovely blonde mistress 28 years younger than himself. La Lampe shines on the image of Marie-Thérèse Walter, whom Picasso showcased here—in a large, elaborately orchestrated painting, as today one may instantly recognize her—for the first time.
To hide this liaison with his youthful inamorata—from Olga, of course, and for the sake of his privacy as well—Picasso needed to mask her presence in his art. He had hitherto depicted Marie-Thérèse in coded terms, such as the fruit in a still-life composition. Striking, although still anonymous inferences to her statuesque, shapely physique invariably lay beneath the “sum of destructions” to which Picasso typically subjected the female figure in his art. Marie-Thérèse is the summer holiday bather playing with a beach ball in Dinard; she enjoyed all kinds of outdoor sports and recreation. Having hidden away his girlfriend in a local pension, Picasso continued to act the family man with Olga and son Paulo in their hotel rooms or rented villa.
“Her forms were handsomely sculptural, with a fullness of volume and a purity of line that gave her body and her face an extraordinary perfection,” Françoise Gilot, who became acquainted with Marie-Thérèse during her own relationship with the artist, later wrote. “Marie-Thérèse brought a great deal to Pablo in the sense that her physical form demanded recognition. She was a magnificent model” (Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, pp. 235 and 241-242).
Picasso’s clandestine affair with Marie-Thérèse commenced in the early evening of 8 January 1927, when he simply walked up and introduced himself to her in front of the Galeries Lafayette department store where she had been shopping. She was seventeen and a half years old. “You have an interesting face. I would like to do a portrait of you,” Picasso told her. “I feel we are going to do great things together” (quoted in J. Richardson, op. cit., 2007, p. 323). Marie-Thérèse quickly became his reigning muse and—thus far—the great love of his life.
“In 1927 Picasso was forty-six years old—an age when the démon de midi is apt to strike,” John Richardson explained. “Picasso’s demon had been unleashed by André Breton, leader of the Surrealists… The influence of Breton was paramount, not least in helping liberate Picasso’s psyche from the bourgeois straitjacket that Olga had tried, with some success, to impose on it. Breton’s concepts of sex and love are especially relevant, concepts such as ‘l’amour fou,’ mad love, that could only be found in the street, and that would have as its object the eternal ‘femme enfant,’ guardian of mysteries... And sure enough, Picasso did find mad love on the grands boulevards” (“Picasso and Marie-Thérèse Walter,” Through the Eye of Picasso, exh. cat., William Beadleston, Inc., New York, 1985, p. 1).
Picasso painted in La Lampe the apotheosis of Marie-Thérèse, transfiguring her sweet, compliant nature and delectable physicality into the exalted image of a goddess, his idolized muse, in the form of a head modeled in lily-white plaster, appropriately textured in thickly impastoed oil paint. This head and bust rest upon a cloth-covered wooden table, which mimics the appearance of a dark dress with a leaf-form collar showing a tasteful hint of décolletage. The artist limned Marie-Thérèse’s profile, dominated by her Grecian nose, firmly contoured chin, and modish carré plongeant hair style, from a half-dozen such volumetric heads and reliefs, which he began modeling in the spring of 1931.
In June 1930, as a weekend country retreat for himself and his family, and to entertain friends, Picasso purchased the manoir Boisgeloup near Gisors, about 45 miles northwest of Paris. During the week, Boisgeloup provided Picasso the opportunity to attend to his work, away from Paris, while trysting with his adored mistress, undisturbed. He converted a spacious horse stable on the estate into his first studio dedicated to making sculpture. This barn-like interior is the backdrop to La Lampe; in this temple he enshrined the icon he created of his true love. The stone arch entrance to the stable encompasses the top and sides of the canvas.
Boisgeloup lacked the amenities of modern bathroom plumbing, central heating, and electricity. Picasso often worked at night, and in the absence of wired lighting he employed a large kerosene lamp. He often resorted to directing the headlights of his luxury automobile into the gloom of the stable for additionally needed illumination. The paraffin oil lamplight was preferably softer, more suffused and glowing, than that coming from an electrical source, imparting a classically rounded fullness to the sculptor’s modeled forms. This lamp casts a shadow—framed within, like one of the artist’s 1928 wire constructions, to suggest receding space—which falls upon the edge of the entrance as a slice of purplish hue.
The aura of yellow light behind the head alludes to Marie-Thérèse’s blonde hair. Against the darkness of the stable interior, the light reflected off the plaster lends the head a moon-like appearance. For all her sunny, daylight attributes, Picasso ascribed to Marie-Thérèse a lunar character. “She has always done just what she wanted—strayed, wandered, changed her way of living,” Picasso explained to Roland Penrose. “Her long neck carried her head like the moon racing through the clouds…like a ball, a satellite” (quoted in E. Cowling, ed., Visiting Picasso: The Notebooks of Roland Penrose, London, 2006, p. 119).
For the first time in his career, Picasso was according equivalent weight to his art-making in both two and three dimensions—painting and sculpture. La Lampe is the fulcrum between these twin aspects of his oeuvre, the bridge that connects them. For the photograph that the American painter, critic, and collector Albert E. Gallatin made of Picasso with his hand-held Kodak in 1932, the artist chose to take a favorite seat in his rue la Boétie apartment between two sculptures, both executed in 1930—Personnage féminin on the left (hung with toys as Christmas ornaments; Spies, no. 74), and Femme assise on the right (a figure of Marie-Thérèse; Spies, no. 86)—with the cubist still-life Guitare, as de trèfle, verre, journal, 1914 (Zervos, vol. 2**, no. 510), on the wall behind him.
A remarkable confluence of events, both in the private and public spheres of Picasso’s life, led to the creation of an extraordinary line of thematically linked paintings, focused on Marie-Thérèse. “We need to remember that he had recently turned fifty (October 25, 1931),” Richardson has written. “Far from being welcome, this anniversary was a reminder of what he feared most—mortality... Picasso could not stop the clock, but he could ensure that his fiftieth year became his annus mirabilis. In the course of this amazingly productive year, he brought about a radical reinvention of sculpture and he saved painting from the insidious embrace of Surrealism... The paintings of his annus mirabilis were the crowning touch” (“Pablo Picasso’s Le Repos,” in Christie's New York sale catalogue, 2 May 2006, lot 43, pp. 6 and 8).
Picasso felt the need to assert his status in the public eye, especially as his rivalry with Matisse had heated up once again in the wake of several exhibitions devoted to the older artist, who in 1929 celebrated his sixtieth birthday. Picasso had seen Matisse’s sculptures in an exhibition at Galerie Pierre in 1930. A major Matisse exhibition, concentrating on the sumptuous Nice figure and interior paintings of the 1920s, opened at the Galeries Georges Petit in June 1931. Such as it was constituted, this show did not substantially advance the artist’s reputation, but another retrospective later that year at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, comprising works mainly done before 1917, clearly affirmed Matisse’s position as a leading, influential modernist.
The critics were once again harping on comparisons between the work of the two artists. Picasso turned down a proposal from MoMA for a retrospective in New York in favor of—as a direct response to the important Paris Matisse exhibition—an even more comprehensive landmark showing, using the same rooms at Galeries Georges Petit, slated to open in June 1932, exactly one year after the Matisse event. Picasso intended that his master showing include a more balanced representation of his entire career, and culminate in a dazzling series of his most recent works, large-scale canvases that he had yet to paint.
If Surrealism provided the key to Picasso’s transformative amour fou for Marie-Thérèse, the legacy of classicism—as the artist had already explored it in his art—stepped in once more to inform and enrich the content of his new sculpture and painting, to create vital and resonant, modern renditions of ancient myth and magic. In 1929, the art publisher Albert Skira, as his first, start-up project, commissioned Picasso to illustrate a collector’s edition of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which elusive nymphs and unfortunate mortals have been transformed for all eternity into trees, flowers, and constellations in the night sky. Picasso etched thirty plates to accompany selected myths in Ovid’s book. Skira presented the first copy of Les métamorphoses d’Ovide to Picasso on 25 October 1931, the artist’s fiftieth birthday.
Brigitte Léal has written that Marie-Thérèse “incarnated a wild beauty, a sporty and healthy beautiful plant” (Picasso and Portraiture, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996, p. 387). La Lampe refers directly to the sprawling philodendron she kept in the apartment the artist had rented for their use, further down on the rue la Boétie. “Picasso had been impressed by the overwhelming vitality of this plant,” Roland Penrose wrote. “He once left one that had been given him in Paris in the only place where it would be sure to have plenty of water while he was away in the south. On his return he found it had filled the little room with luxuriant growth and also completely blocked the drain with its roots” (Picasso: His Life and Work, Berkeley, 1981, p. 268).
Picasso included representations of philodendron stems and leaves in his welded metal sculpture La femme au jardin, 1929 (Spies, no. 72), his take on Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Apollo and Daphne, carved in 1625. Both Picasso and Bernini sourced Book I of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which the poet tells the story of the virginal nymph Daphne, who while fleeing the unwelcome amorous advances of the sun god Apollo, pleaded to her father, a river deity, for help—he transformed her into a laurel tree. In Bernini’s marble sculpture the girl’s upraised hands are turning into leaves. Picasso’s substitution of the philodendron plant for the laurel tree may claim a linguistic justification, from the Greek philo—“affection for”—and dendron—“tree”. In addition to the philodendron being a significant pictorial and poetic element in La Lampe, the plant also appears in two of the canvases that Picasso painted for his 1932 retrospective: Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, 8 March 1932, and Nu au fauteuil noir, completed the following day.
The symbiotic processes by which Picasso created his paintings and sculpture during 1931-1932 describe transformations and metamorphoses, from one medium into another, and then back again, in two and three dimensions, as well as a fourth in the timeless realm of poetic myth and boundless imagination. Love, art, the real and the ideal, the physical and the metaphysical, the being or thing itself and the power of images, are all bound together and interact to empower Picasso’s desire to generate serious, revelatory expression. Every pictorial element in La Lampe is mercurial and Protean; it is that which it appears to be, then something else, and then something more beyond that—all contained within the eye and mind of Picasso.
Turning from his preoccupation with sculpture, Picasso at the end of the 1931 resumed painting, and began the canvases that he planned to debut as the jewels in the crown of his forthcoming exhibition at Galeries Georges Petit, slated to open some six months hence. Just as Marie-Thérèse’s presence had blossomed in Picasso’s recent sculptures, she appears front and center—in an even more exposed manner—in these paintings, the nine largest of which reprise the impressive scale of La Lampe. On 17 March 1932, Picasso’s long-time friend Daniel-Henry Kahnweiler visited 23, rue la Boétie at the artist’s invitation. Kahnweiler later wrote to Michel Leiris: “We saw two paintings at his place which he had just finished. Two nudes, perhaps the most moving things he’s done. ‘A satyr who has killed a woman might have painted this picture,’ I told him. It’s neither cubist nor naturalist. And it's without painterly artifice: very alive, very erotic, but the eroticism of a giant. For years Picasso hasn’t done anything like it. He had told me a few days before, ‘I want to paint like a blind man, who does a buttock by feel.’ It is really that. We came away, overwhelmed” (quoted in P. Daix, Picasso: Life and Art, New York, 1993, pp. 221-222).
Picasso completed the final canvases of his new Marie-Thérèse series in April 1932. His retrospective exhibition at the Galeries Georges Petit opened on 16 June and ran through 30 July. The artist had helped choose and assemble a balanced overview of his career from private and dealer holdings, drawing heavily on his own collection as well; the exhibition included a total of 225 paintings, seven sculptures, and six illustrated books. Picasso arranged the installation himself; instead of relying on a chronological and stylistic sequencing, he presented his own ideas of how his pictures would look interesting, side-by-side. His idiosyncratic approach, however, confused the public. Conservative critics decried the artist’s willful destruction of the figure and his abruptly shifting styles. Picasso’s partisans touted the event—Christian Zervos devoted a special number of Cahiers d’Art to Picasso, containing more pages than he had given Matisse the previous year. To mark the occasion of the exhibition, Zervos also brought out the first volume of his Picasso catalogue raisonné.
La Lampe was shown in the Grande Salle of the Galeries Georges Petit, together with fourteen of the 1932 paintings that featured Marie-Thérèse, including Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, Le Rêve, and Jeune fille devant un miroir. In the Salle Carrée, Picasso drew attention to the significance of the philodendron in his sculpture and paintings since 1929 by pairing a towering, potted specimen of the plant with his welded metal evocation of Marie-Thérèse, Tête de femme, 1929-1930 (Spies, no. 81; Musée Picasso, Paris). One may presume that by this time Olga was aware her husband had taken a lover; after viewing the 1932 retrospective, she might more clearly but distressfully imagine the young woman’s appearance, and even recognize her, if perchance they crossed paths.
With the addition of two hundred watercolors, drawings, and prints, the Galeries Georges Petit exhibition traveled largely intact in September to the Kunsthaus Zürich, thus allowing this venue the honor of having mounted Picasso’s first museum retrospective. Wilhelm Hartmann, the Kunsthaus director, installed the show in a chronological presentation, making it a model for all future comprehensive Picasso shows. La Lampe and Nude, Green Leaves and Bust, together with other recent Marie-Thérèse paintings seen in Paris, also featured in Zürich. The exhibition was a success, and had to be extended another two weeks to accommodate the record attendance.
Picasso spent only a single day in Zürich. He had skipped his Galeries Georges Petit opening and gone to the cinema instead. The next day he was back at work in Boisgeloup. After Olga and Paulo departed for their summer holiday in Juan-le-Pins, the artist (who did not join them) had Boisgeloup all to himself—and his girlfriend. For the next few weeks, without fear of being disturbed, he enjoyed the presence of Marie-Thérèse, painting her as a sleeping nymph in bucolic tranquility, amid flowers and greenery, in celebration of their year of wonders.