"When it comes down to it. Essentially, there is only love. Whatever it may be."
Described as “one of the most beautiful [portraits]” that Pablo Picasso ever made of his famed golden-haired muse and lover, Marie-Thérèse Walter, Tête de femme (Marie-Thérèse) is filled with an intimacy and untempered tenderness that is rarely seen in the artist’s portrayals of his young lover (J. Palau i Fabre, op. cit., 2011, p. 344). With her head bowed, eyes lowered and her lips pursed in an expression of concentration, she appears unaware of the artist’s gaze, her serene pose allowing Picasso to capture her delicate, leonine profile unhindered. From the time of their first fateful meeting in January 1927, Picasso depicted Walter in myriad ways, transforming her statuesque form and classical features into exaltations, by turn ecstatic, erotic or tender, of romantic love: she became a sensuously reclining Venus, resplendent fertility goddess or hieratic sphinx. Here however, Picasso has rendered his beloved companion and mother of his young daughter with a naturalism that radiates his love and affection, using his skill as a draughtsman to capture his lover’s pure, unblemished visage with an exquisite perfection. It is perhaps no surprise that Picasso chose to keep this poignant declaration of love in his collection for the rest of his life.
The gentle serenity that pervades this peaceful portrait belies the angst-filled times in which it was created. Executed on 23 October 1937, Tête de femme dates from a period of anxiety for the artist, both public and private. Picasso’s native Spain was in the midst of civil war, while the rest of Europe stood on the precipice of all-out conflict. In May, the artist had painted his great magnum opus and anti-fascist statement, Guernica, before embarking on his Weeping Women series, a group of female portraits in which the artist literally etched the anguish and anger he felt into the face of his other lover of the time, Dora Maar. Intense, enigmatic and raven-haired, Maar was in every sense the antithesis of the blonde, untroubled and easy going Walter, their presence in the artist’s life providing him a duality that served as a constant inspiration. While the politically active Maar embodied the tensions of the era, Walter, with whom the artist had a daughter, Maya, offered a peaceful domestic idyll into which Picasso could escape. Just three days after Picasso had created the present work, he painted the culminating La femme qui pleure, now in the Tate, London. Regarded in this context, this intimate portrayal of Marie-Thérèse takes on an even greater poignancy; as Josep Palau i Fabre has written, “Probably Picasso never again made a eulogy of Marie-Thérèse as compelling as the one he made here… Picasso is telling us his private life in a language that is scarcely veiled. The presence and the action of the two women who shared his life at this time were radically opposed. I wonder if this vital dialectic did not, deep down, satisfy the constant dialectic that existed in the artist’s mind” (ibid., p. 345).