This picture represents Lee Miller, the model and photographer who was Sir Roland Penrose's mistress and later his wife. It was painted in the summer of 1937, when Miller and Penrose went to Mougins to join Picasso and other friends who were vacationing at the Hôtel Vaste Horizon. After the enormous creative effort which he expended to paint Guernica earlier that summer, Picasso relaxed at Mougins by painting fanciful portraits of his friends, sometimes in costume. He painted Paul Eluard once and Lee Miller three times in the local costume of Arles; in the present work, the costume inspired Picasso to allude to van Gogh's celebrated L'Arlésienne: Madame Ginoux (fig. 1), which is specifically evoked by the intense yellow background.
Sir Roland Penrose has given a lengthy account of that summer and of the first pictures of Lee:
The next move in this climactic season was to France by way of London. I set out with Lee by road to Brussels and from there we headed south down the Rhône valley, stopping on the way at Hauterives where the phenomenally inspired postman Le Facteur Cheval had patiently built his Palais Idéal with the rocks he had collected in his wheelbarrow. Our goal was to rejoin Eluard, who was again staying at the Hôtel Vaste Horizon at Mougins. We found him already installed with Nusch, Picasso, Dora Maar and Man Ray. The coast was still not over-run by tourists and in such company each day brought new stimulus...
From Mougins there were expeditions every morning to La Garoupe near Antibes, then a secluded beach, followed by lunch on terraces shaded by vines overlooking the sea, during which the presence of Picasso and Eluard created continuous play of wit, oscillating from bawdy jokes to tragic or comic references to the precarious state of our so-called democracy. Picasso, who occupied the only room in the hotel with a balcony which offered just enough space for him to sleep and paint, would appear at table at midday saying that he had painted another portrait. For the majority of these Dora Maar was his model. They were highly coloured, in contrast to Guernica, which he had finished only a week or two before in Paris, and of a gaiety which showed that he contained a triumphal vigour as well as the fury he had fed into his great mural. Although he made drawings from life, chiefly of Nusch and Dora, most of the paintings were made without a sitter. One day it had been Paul Eluard dressed as an Arlésienne and unexpectedly giving suck to a cat. Next he announced he had made a portrait of Lee Miller. On a bright pink background Lee appeared in profile, her face a brilliant yellow like the sun with no modeling. Two smiling eyes and a green mouth were placed on the same side of the face and her breasts seemed like the sails of ships filled with a joyous breeze. It was an astonishing likeness. An agglomeration of Lee's qualities of exuberant vitality and vivid beauty put together in such a way that it was undoubtedly her but with none of the conventional attributes of a portrait. That it was mysteriously a most convincing likeness was proved more than ten years later when I lifted our two-year-old son Tony in my arms to look at it for the first time. His instant cry of delight was "Mummy, Mummy." (R. Penrose, Scrap Book, New York, 1981, pp. 108-109)
(fig. 1) Vincent van Gogh, L'Arlésienne: Madame Ginoux, 1888
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York