Picasso painted this Tête de femme (Dora Maar) on the first Saturday of the New Year 1939. The elephantine proboscis and the dark, predominantly grisaille tonality, relieved only with a lightning flash of pale chromium in the neck-length hair, proclaim the artist’s sitter to be Dora Maar. These features assist in distinguishing her from Picasso’s other leading subject in the series of femmes assises he was painting at this time, sometimes in the very same pose–Marie-Thérèse Walter, the artist’s more tenured mistress, whose presence, and the birth of their daughter Maya in 1935, precipitated Picasso’s legal separation from his wife Olga. The other portrait Picasso painted on 7 January displays a less startling nose, and likely depicts Marie-Thérèse (Zervos, vol. 9, no. 250).
With two women vying for his attention, each of whom he desired for particular reasons, Picasso cleverly manipulated the affections of both to his advantage. Marie-Thérèse would remain his loyal, nurturing, and classically beautiful blond sun goddess, the mother of his youngest child, and his household muse. A serious photographer, moody, enigmatic, and darkly surrealist, Dora filled the role of his creative lunar muse. “Dora was added onto Marie-Thérèse,” Pierre Daix observed. “Dora would be the public companion, Marie-Thérèse and Maya continued to incarnate private life. Painting would be shared between them… Each woman would epitomize a particular facet of a period rich in increasingly dramatic repercussions” (Picasso: Life and Art, New York, 1993, p. 239).
Both women possessed an attractive nasal aspect, although Marie-Thérèse thought hers to be too prominent. Picasso typically regaled each of them with parrot-like beaks, until 10 September 1938, when in two portraits he imposed on Dora a pronounced, dangling rhinal appendage (Zervos, vol. 9, nos. 214 and 228). He set aside this idea for a time, then re-introduced it on a canvas dated 31 December 1938, which may depict either woman. When painting the two Têtes de femme on 7 January 1939, however, Picasso authoritatively assigned the extended nose to Dora. This feature continued to signify her presence in many of the portraits done later that year, and well into the ensuing period of the Second World War.
He gave Dora, Picasso liked to say, the snout of his Afghan hound Kasbek. This feature more importantly alludes to the serious role in which the artist cast Dora, the Weeping Woman in paintings and prints of 1937, during the traumatic events of the Spanish Civil War and the World War that soon followed. She became for Picasso an oracular presence, an intermediary between an outer world in turmoil and the inner creative life of the artist. The Pythia, the priestess of Apollo in the temple at Delphi, pronounced upon things to come, boding good or ill, while inhaling the vapors arising from a chasm deep within the earth. Picasso pictorially enhanced Dora’s olfactory apparatus for a similar purpose.
"For years I have painted her in tortured forms," Picasso explained, "not through sadism, and not with pleasure either, just obeying a vision that forced itself on me. It was a deep reality, not a superficial one" (quoted in F. Gilot, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, p. 122).