Painted in 1938, Femme au chapeau is a large portrait of one of Picasso's most celebrated muses, the tormented photographer Dora Maar. In his paintings of Dora, Picasso managed to condense a sense of his lover's character, of the nature of the times, and of his own feelings. All these factors have been processed by Picasso, for whom paintings were an extension of his own persona, a litmus test revealing his state of mind, resulting in the angular features in Femme au chapeau, which contrast somewhat with some of the warm colours in the palette, not least the flesh tones.
Picasso's first meeting with Dora Maar has become the stuff of legend. She had for several years been a friend of Paul Eluard and had associated with many of the Surrealists in Paris, thus taking part in a movement in which Picasso himself had had a part. She was often seen about, a striking, beautiful woman, dark and mysterious, well-attired, often wearing distinctive hats such as the one shown in Femme au chapeau, apparently painting her nails in colours that reflected her mood each day. Françoise Gilot, the lover who to some extent would usurp Dora's position some years later, recounted the tale of the first encounter between painter and photographer:
'Pablo told me that one of the first times he saw Dora she was sitting at the Deux Magots. She was wearing black gloves with little pink flowers appliquéed on them. She took off the gloves and picked up a long, pointed knife, which she began to drive into the table between her outstretched fingers to see how close she could come to each finger without actually cutting herself. From time to time she missed by a tiny fraction of an inch and before she stopped playing with her knife, her hand was covered with blood. Pablo told me that was what made up his mind to interest himself in her. He was fascinated. He asked her to give him the gloves and he used to keep them in a vitrine at the Rue des Grands-Augustins, along with other mementos' (F. Gilot & C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, Toronto and London, 1964, pp. 85-86).
This unpredictability revealed Dora as the quintessential Surrealist, as well as the quintessential Surrealist muse, and was in stark contrast to the wholesome, healthy, un-intellectual Marie-Thérèse Walter, Picasso's lover at that time who had recently borne his daughter. On seeing Dora, Picasso was apparently subject to a coup de foudre, and when he met her on holiday later that year, became increasingly involved and fascinated with her. She began to feature in more and more of his pictures. The early examples were often tender and highly personal. Within a short time, though, Picasso introduced the jutting angularity which so crucially informs Femme au chapeau, where some of the features, especially the heavy nose, have been rendered with recourse to a non-classical, bold, pioneering aesthetic. This may have reflected Picasso's increasingly deep knowledge of Dora's personality, which was tormented and troubled in many ways, a factor that would culminate towards the end of the Second World War in a breakdown. The unpredictability and whiff of blood that had initially fascinated Picasso were increasingly revealed as symptoms of a dark, brooding intellect that increasingly informed his portraits of her, for instance in the pictures showing her weeping. 'For me she's the weeping woman,' Picasso explained. 'For years I've painted her in tortured forms, not through sadism, and not with pleasure either; just obeying a vision that forced itself on me. It was the deep reality, not the superficial one' (Picasso, quoted in B. Léal, ''For Charming Dora': Portraits of Dora Maar', pp. 384-407, Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation, London, 1996, p. 395). In this way, the stylised, abstracted forms that comprise the features of Dora in Femme au chapeau and the almost corrugated brushwork that results in the subtle striations in her face appear to hint at some profound aspect of Dora's own personality.
As well as reflecting a deeper understanding of her character, Picasso appears to have been condensing Dora's intense sensitivity to the changing and worrying political situation in Europe into his painting. Dora had long been associated with the left wing, and was horrified by the creeping gains of Fascism in so many countries across the continent, not least the increasing encroachments of Germany's National Socialist government into the surrounding territories. She was notoriously volatile, wearing her heart on her sleeve, and so her own feelings about the political situation would have been clear for all to see, let alone a keen observer like Picasso. It was this shared anxiety that had resulted in Picasso allowing her, his lover, to photograph the various stages that comprised the creation of one of his greatest masterpieces, Guernica, the previous year, in place of his more regular chronicler, Brassaï, a mutual friend of both painter and lover alike.
Guernica provides a vital insight into Picasso's motivations in his paintings from the late 1930s and early 1940s. The picture, which was created for exhibition in the Republican Spanish Pavilion during the Paris World Fair, commemorated the tragic results of a German air raid on the eponymous Spanish town during the Civil War. The picture was subsequently toured internationally as it summed up some of the horrors of the war. Picasso was using his art as a tool, not only as a decoration. As he explained, 'artists who live and work with spiritual values and should not remain indifferent to a conflict in which the highest values of humanity and civilization are at risk' (Picasso, to the American Artists' Congress, 1937, in Picasso and the War Years 1937-1945, exh. cat., New York, 1998, p. 13). This appears equally pertinent to the very public Guernica and to his other works of the period, all of which were to some extent fuelled or at least flavoured by the tumults in Europe as the Second World War loomed. 'I have not painted the war because I am not the kind of painter who goes out like a photographer for something to depict,' Picasso would claim. 'But I have no doubt that the war is in these paintings I have done. Later on perhaps the historians will find them and show that my style has changed under the war's influence. Myself, I do not know' (Picasso, ibid., ed. Steven. A. Nash, exh. cat., New York, 1998, p. 13). Femme au chapeau shows that, be it for personal, political or historical reasons, this style did change. The question becomes how much of it was a direct reflection of Picasso's own feelings and how much a reflection of his subject.
Certainly Dora, in her role as the 'Weeping Woman' in the works of these years, was eminently suited for the role of muse and inspiration during this period. The dark side that had initially attracted Picasso now suited his mood, reflected his own concerns, and became the pictorial vehicle for him to be able to convey his sense of the tension and desperation of the global situation, as well as that of his own complex family unit. Picasso, who still saw both his wife Olga and his lover Marie-Thérèse during this period, clearly had conflicts on a domestic level as well. Indeed, this was, on one occasion, literal: when Marie-Thérèse visited his studio once while Dora was there, he suggested that they fight for possession of him in what he referred to as one of his choicest recollections.
Just as history had resulted in the creation of Femme au chapeau, so too history and its vicissitudes would exert their influence on the picture over the subsequent years. Photographs from the era show the picture on the wall and also on display alongside many of the other pictures of Dora that he had painted during this time. And crucially, one picture shows Picasso with Femme au chapeau in the vault of the Banque Nationale pour le Commerce et l'Industrie, where he was obliged to store his pictures, clear examples of Entartete Kunst, during the Occupation.