The female model seated in an armchair was among Picasso's favorite subjects. In every phase of his career, he returned to this theme, usually choosing a current mistress for his model. These pictures form a kind of autobiography of the artist, in which one can trace the course of both his private life and artistic development. The present picture is one of the many varied and experimental representations of Dora Maar posed in an armchair which the artist painted in the fall of 1941. Created when Picasso and Dora were living in German-occupied Paris, the pictures from this period are characterized by extraordinary emotional intensity and fervent pictorial creativity.
Picasso had returned to Paris from Royan in late August 1940, and lived in his studio on rue des Grands Augustins. Dora Maar lived around the corner on rue de Savoie, and Marie-Thérèse Walter and Maya Picasso, whom he saw once a week, lived in an apartment on Boulevard Henri IV which he had found for them. The war created many hardships for Picasso, as for other Parisians. Shortages of food and coal were common and the scarcity of fuel made it impossible for Picasso to heat his studio during the winter, with the result that he could not paint during those months. In addition, Picasso's painting of Guernica had made him internationally recognized for his anti-fascist views. He even gave postcards of Guernica to German officers who visited his studio; and when one asked him, "Did you do this?", he replied, "No. You did!" Nevertheless, the Germans offered him special treatment, which he refused. Despite these many difficulties, the artist elected to remain in Paris, declining opportunities to move to the United States or to Mexico.
The war years were a period of intense productivity for the artist. As he later told Lee Miller, "There was nothing else to do except work seriously and devotedly and struggle for food, and see one's friends quietly, and look forward to the day of freedom" (quoted in M. Goggin, Picasso and his Art during the German Occupation: 1940-1944, Ph.D. dissertation, Stanford University, 1985, p. 395). For Picasso, the decision to remain in Paris and to continue to work was an act of passive resistance. He said, "It was not a time for the creative man to fail, to shrink, to stop working." And he later told his biographer Pierre Daix, "No food, no heat; a Spaniard is never cold! I was not looking for danger, but I don't like giving up" (quoted in P. Daix, La vie de peintre de Pablo Picasso, Paris, 1977).
During this period, the artist only rarely made works with overt political content. As he explained, "I have not painted the war because I am not the kind of a painter who goes out like a photographer for something to depict. But I have no doubt that the war is in these paintings I have done" (quoted in M. Goggin, op. cit., p. 1). Instead, much of his work from this era was private and personal in its subject matter. One genre to which he was especially drawn was the portrait, specifically images of his mistress Dora Maar, a woman of extraordinary intelligence and striking beauty (fig. 1). Picasso and Dora had become lovers in 1936, and the painter made hundreds of portraits of her. As another of Picasso's lovers, Françoise Gilot, reported, Dora Maar "had a beautiful oval face but a heavy jaw, which is a characteristic trait of almost all the portraits Picasso made of her. Her hair was black and pulled back in a severe, starkly dramatic coiffeur. I noticed her intense bronze-green eyes, and her slender hands with their long, tapering fingers" (F. Gilot, Life with Picasso, London, 1965, p. 14). Other friends of the painter remembered, "Her vigorously sculptured, expressive head with its characteristically asymmetric face, attracted him both as a painter and as a man" (W. Boeck and J. Sabartés, Picasso, London, 1961, p. 243). Of Picasso's pictures of Dora Maar, Roland Penrose has commented, "Since Picasso began to draw portraits of Dora Maar when he was staying at Mougins in 1936, her face became more and more an obsession at the basis of his inventions and reconstructions of the human head" (R. Penrose, Picasso: His Life and Work, London, 1958, pp. 303-304). And Brigitte Léal stated in the catalogue of the recent Picasso exhibition at The Museum of Modern Art, "[The] very different portraits that Picasso did of [Dora Maar] remain among the finest achievements of his art, at a time when he was engaged in a sort of third path, verging on Surrealist representation while rejecting strict representation and, naturally, abstraction" (B. Léal, exh. cat., Picasso and Portraiture, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996, p. 385).
Picasso's study of Dora Maar reached a feverish pitch in the summer and fall of 1941, when her image became virtually the sole subject of his art. He made dozens of drawings and paintings of her in this period, including thirty-two pictures of her seated in an armchair. His exploration of this theme intensified in October of that year; he painted seventeen canvases of her in that month. Picasso varied nearly every aspect of these pictures, including palette, design and costume. The present painting, dated by the artist October 8, 1941, was made in the middle of this creative outpouring. Here, as in several other works in the series, Dora is depicted half-nude, one breast seeming to hang out from her clothing; she is hatless, in contrast to many of these pictures (fig. 2). The composition of the picture is based upon a series of triangles, which are repeated throughout the image, from Dora's hands to the components of her chair; the same chair, variously deconfigured, reappears in many works from this period. The forms in the picture are rendered in large, generally unmodulated, fields of color. The present painting is especially distinguished from the other works in the series by the bold green stripe at its center, which contrasts strongly with the red wings of the chair. The picture was published in 1943 as an exemplary work from this group (R. Desnos, op. cit., pl. 5), and it was included in the artist's first post-war exhibition at the Galerie Louise Leiris in June 1945 (fig. 3).
In 1946, Harriet and Sidney Janis published Picasso: The Recent Years, a book intended to introduce to an American audience the artist's work since the epochal show at The Museum of Modern Art in 1940. In this book, Picasso's recent portraits were hailed as "by far the most impressive group of paintings made by Picasso during [the war].... Picasso's portraits are not of people posing, but of people remembered with the special, selective and pitilessly penetrating clarity of this artist's memory" (H. and S. Janis, op. cit., pp. 33-34). The present picture was singled out for its totemic power akin to that of Les demoiselles d'Avignon: "So strange is the interpretation of these persons that they seem transformed into archaic fetishes...one recalling a New Ireland ceremonial totem" (ibid., opposite pl. 85).
Pierre Bonnard kept a reproduction of the present painting on the wall of his studio, as is documented in a photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson (fig. 4). This reproduction was possibly from the portfolio of Picasso paintings published by Robert Desnos in 1943.
(fig. 1) Dora Maar, 1936
(Photo by Man Ray)
(fig. 2) Pablo Picasso, Femme assise dans un fauteuil, 1941
Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf
(fig. 3) Exhibition at Galerie Louise Leiris, June, 1945,
with the present painting in the upper right
(fig. 4) Pierre Bonnard's studio at Le Cannet
(Photo by Henri Cartier-Bresson)