In his later years, most of Picasso's portraits are of women, and usually depict the woman (or women) in his life at the time. Picasso had been married to his wife Olga (née Khokhlova) since 1918, and their son Paulo was born in 1921, but the artist's feelings for her had cooled by 1923. Picasso initiated a liason with Marie-Thérèse Walter, a girl still in her teens, perhaps as early as 1925 but no later than 1927. The artist's paintings from this period reflect his growing estrangement from his family. In some paintings Olga is clearly an angry and menacing presence. Some portraits contain coded references to Marie-Thérèse. Others, such as the present work, appear to have two faces, mingling elements of both wife and mistress which suggest the conflicted nature of Picasso's relationships during this period.
Portraits such as Femme assise are intriguing for the psychological weight they carry, as well as for the extremely reductionist and subjective stylization of the painter's imagery. In the mid-1920s Picasso became friendly with André Breton, the prime mover of the Surrealist movement in Paris. Breton desperately tried to enlist Picasso in their program. He wrote, "Surrealism, if it tends to define a line of action, simply has to go where Picasso has gone, and where he will return" (quoted in C. Piot et al, The Ultimate Picasso, New York, 2000, p.232).
Picasso met the Surrealists part way by attending some of their events, and allowing his paintings to be illustrated in their journals. As Pierre Daix has noted, "the fecundity of Max Ernst and innovations of Miró and André Masson had re-created a climate of discussion and novelty of a kind that Picasso had not encountered since 1914" (in Picasso: Life and Work, New York, 1993, p. 211). In the end, however, Picasso resolutely remained his own man. The Surrealists wanted him more than he needed them. Unlike the Surrealists, Daix explained, "Picasso was not trying to give form to the unconsciousness of dreams or fantasies--yet another category of subjects external to painting. What Picasso drew from Surrealist ideas was the liberty they gave to painting to express its own impulses, its capacity to transmit reality; its poetic" (ibid.).
Despite his reluctance to become an active participant in the movement, the new possibilities inherent to Surrealism offered Picasso a means of rejuvenating his cubist painting and neoclassical subject matter. The seated woman or monumental figures in a landscape became evocative of the violent, psychological themes of the Surrealists. Michael FitzGerald has written, "As if darkly mirroring the consonance of Picasso's neoclassicism with the early years of his marriage to Olga, his immersion in Surrealism corresponded to the dissonance of their subsequent relationship" (in Picasso and Portraiture, exh. cat., The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996, p. 324). These emotional exigencies, translated into new forms derived from both Cubism and neoclassicism, helped Picasso to maintain his status as the leading artist in the changing field of the avant-garde.