1932 has long been recognized as one of the highpoints of Picasso's career. Inspired by his love for his mistress Marie-Thérèse Walter (figs. 1 and 2) and excited by his return to making sculpture, Picasso reached an extraordinary pitch of creativity and produced one major masterpiece after another, including such notable paintings as Le miroir (fig. 3). Robert Rosenblum recently called it "that great vintage year...a year of rapturous masterpieces that reached an unfamiliar summit in both his painting and his sculpture" (R. Rosenblum, exh. cat., Picasso and Portraiture, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996, pp. 360-361).
The story of Picasso's first encounter with Marie-Thérèse is well told by John Richardson:
Outside the Galeries Lafayette, one freezing afternoon, he was captivated by the sight of a very young, very voluptuous blond with intensely piercing blue eyes--the quintessential femme enfant. Picasso grabbed her arm, but his opening gambit almost misfired: "Mademoiselle, you have an interesting face. I would like to do a portrait of you. I am Picasso." She had never heard of him; and he was obliged to take her to a nearby bookstore and show her publications in which his photograph appeared. In the course of this maneuver he managed to charm the girl into meeting him two days later at the Métro Saint-Lazare, well away from his usual haunts. "We will do great things together," he said and took her to a movie. Despite thirty years difference in age, she found him attractive; she liked the way he dressed. (J. Richardson, op. cit., n.p.)
While it has traditionally been said that this meeting occurred in January 1927, recently discovered evidence strongly indicates that the two actually first met in 1926 or even 1925, when Marie-Thérèse was only fifteen years old. When they became sexual partners is not known, but certainly they were lovers by the summer of 1927, when Picasso vacationed with his wife Olga at the resort Dinard and secretly installed Marie-Thérèse in a nearby pension.
In 1930 Picasso bought a seventeenth-century chateau at Boisgeloup in Normandy, and it was there that his relationship with Marie-Thérèse reached a climax. For the next five years, she became the major subject of his paintings and sculpture. Indeed, Pierre Daix has called Picasso's oeuvre from this period a "hymn to Marie-Thérèse," while William Rubin has written:
None of Picasso's earlier relationships had provoked such sustained lyric power, such a sense of psychological awareness and erotic completeness...Picasso proceeds from his intense feeling for the girl...he paints the body contemplated, loved and self-contemplating. The vision of another's body becomes an intensely arousing and mysterious process. (W. Rubin, Picasso in in the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1971, p. 138)
Rubin has also said:
It cannot be doubted that Picasso's long, intense, and sexually passionate liaison with Marie-Thérèse helped inspire, what is, after all, the most erotic style in the whole of modern painting. (W. Rubin, exh. cat, op. cit., New York, 1996, p. 63)
At Boisgeloup Picasso also threw himself into the production of sculpture, a medium he had not investigated for nearly twenty years. In 1931 he began a series of sculptures of Marie-Thérèse, including reliefs and four monumental heads (figs. 4 and 8). All these sculptures emphasize her classic profile, the beautiful straight line formed by her nose and forehead; clearly Picasso was especially fascinated by this feature. Sir Roland Penrose has further suggested that this emphasis in the sculptures on Marie-Thérèse's profile was inspired by a mask from the Baga tribe which Picasso kept in the foyer of the chateau:
This piece, with an exaggerated arched nose and a head almost detached from the neck, found its echo in the monumental plaster heads in the stables across the courtyard. (R. Penrose, Picasso, His Life and Work, London, 1981, p. 267)
John Richardson has also stressed the primal power of these sculptures of Marie-Thérèse and has connected them with the following statement by Picasso:
Men had made masks...for a sacred purpose, a magic purpose, as a kind of mediation between themselves and the unknown hostile forces that surrounded them in order to overcome their fear and horror by giving it a form and an image. At that moment I realized what painting was all about. Painting isn't an aesthetic operation; it's a form of magic designed as a mediator between this strange hostile world and us, a way of seizing power by giving form to our terrors as well as our desires. When I came to that realization, I knew I had found my way. (Quoted in J. Richardson, op. cit., n.p.)
The classic profile of these sculptures may also have found a referent and analogue in Greek sculpture. In 1932, Picasso said:
Raphael is a great master; Velázquez is a great master; El Greco is a great master; but the secret of sculptural beauty is located at a greater distance: in the Greeks at the time of Pericles. (Quoted in D. Ashton, Picasso on Art, New York, 1972, p. 165)
And in 1964 he commented:
Braque once told me: "Basically you have always loved classic beauty." It's true. Even today that's true for me. They don't invent a type of beauty every year. (Quoted in ibid., p. 74)
Indeed, there can be no doubt that Picasso consciously and explicitly connected Marie-Thérèse's beauty with the timeless quality of Hellenic sculpture: in a series of drawings and prints begun in December 1931 and continuing into the spring of 1933, Picasso depicts himself as a mythical, Daedelian sculptor from classical antiquity and represents Marie-Thérèse as his model (fig. 5). These images often show the artist and model joined in rapturous contemplation after the work has been completed; and they suggest the degree of love and intimacy the two enjoyed at that time.
It is against this background that we should see Femme assise près d'une fenêtre. Clearly, Picasso has modeled the head--with its emphatic classical profile--to look like one of his sculptures of Marie-Thérèse. As Alan Bowness has declared, "From the beginning Picasso had seen Marie-Thérèse as sculpture" (A. Bowness, "Picasso's Sculpture", in Picasso in Retrospect, New York, 1973, p. 141), and this seems to be true even of his paintings. Indeed, in 1932, he even began to represent Marie-Thérèse as his sculpture of her (fig.6), a suggestion which also exists in the present picture. The depiction of her body consists almost entirely of curved lines, stressing the voluptuous, beauty of his mistress. John Golding had commented on the outlines of Picasso's 1932 paintings of Marie-Thérèse:
Her limbs are rendered by the same undulating forms that had characterized much of Picasso's work since 1925, but whereas before these had so often seemed predatory or tentacular, their rhythms now become slower, softer, more welcoming, and more organic. (J. Golding, "Picasso and Surrealism," in ibid, p. 110)
The palette of the present work is also worthy of comment. It features three pigments which Picasso associated especially with Marie-Thérèse: green, yellow, and violet. Moreover, as is typical of his work from this period, the colors are applied in large unmodulated areas divided by narrow black lines; this creates an effect which is reminiscent of stained glass windows, where the polychromed glazed sections are separated by black lead. As Rosenblum has written:
Picasso's eagerness to reexperience the fullest range of kindergarten colors corresponds to a childlike joy and rebirth synonymous with the universal symbolism of the rainbow (another recurrent image in his poetry). (R. Rosenblum, op. cit., p. 345).
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 his current mistress for his model. He painted dozens of images of Marie-Thérèse in an armchair, but normally seen from the front rather than in profile (fig. 7). In a famous statement, the artist told Malraux, "When I paint a woman in an armchair, the armchair implies old age or death...or else the armchair is there to protect her" (quoted in J. Richardson, op. cit., n.p.). Given the sensual, amorous mood of the present picture, the armchair here certainly signifies protection.
In 1932 Picasso made two comments about portraiture which shed a certain light upon the present work and related images:
It is not important to me whether a certain portrait is a good likeness or not. Years, centuries pass, and it is not important if the physiognomical traits are exactly those of the person portrayed. The artist loses himself in the futile effort if he wants to be realistic. The work can be beautiful even if it doesn't have a conventional likeness. (Quoted in D. Ashton, op. cit., p. 110)
And that same year:
When you start with a portrait and search for a pure form, a clear volume, through successive eliminations, you arrive inevitably at the egg. Likewise, starting with the egg and following the same process in reverse, one finishes with the portrait. But art, I believe, escapes these simplistic exercises which consist in going from one extreme to the other. It is necessary to know when to stop. (Quoted in ibid, p. 110)
(fig. 1) Marie-Thérèse Walter, Paris, 1930
(fig. 2) Pablo Picasso, Visage, 1928
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
(fig. 3) Pablo Picasso, Le miroir, 1932
Private Collection (Christie's, November 7, 1995)
(fig. 4) Picasso's sculpture studio at Boisgeloup, 1932
(fig. 5) Pablo Picasso, Sculpteur et modèle, 1933
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
(fig. 6) Picasso at rue de La Boétie, circa 1932
(fig. 7) Pablo Picasso, Le fauteuil rouge, 1931
The Art Institute, Chicago
(fig. 8) Pablo Picasso, Tête de femme, 1931