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.
The present work, painted in May 1929, represents Marie-Thérèse Walter (fig. 1), Picasso's mistress at that time. William Rubin has written about Picasso's relationship with Marie-Thérèse:
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 the Collection of The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1971, p. 138)
Rubin has also stated:
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, in exh. cat., Picasso and Portraiture, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1996, p. 63).
Femme dans un fauteuil is one of Picasso's most abstract portraits of Marie-Thérèse. Indeed, so stylized are the forms that initially it is difficult to be certain whom the painting represents, or even that it is a portrait at all. Any doubts on these matters, however, are immediately resolved when we look at another picture from the same period, Grand nu au fauteuil rouge (fig. 2), painted on May 5, 1929, just eight days before the present work. As its title states, Grand nu unequivocally depicts a nude female seated on a large white sheet in a red armchair placed before a wall. The similarities between Grand nu and Femme dans un fauteuil are unmistakable, and Grand nu thus helps us to read even the most abstract passages of the present picture. The least ambiguous component of the present work is the red chair, whose forms are clearly indicated. (Picasso had used a red chair for portraits of his lovers at least since 1923, and was to go on doing so into the early 1930s.) The face of the sitter, however, is difficult to read: Picasso has intentionally left it unclear whether the face is seen in profile or rotated ninety degrees to the left (counter-clockwise). A similar situation occurs in the related picture, Grand nu au fauteuil rouge, but there the head is turned in the opposite direction. In the present work, the features of the face, comprised of two holes and a vertical cut, are also ambiguous: it is impossible to say exactly what they are intended to represent, especially since the lower of the two holes alternately appears to signify Marie-Thérèse's mouth and her right eye. What is certain, however, is that the grayish-brown segments to the right of the face are meant to depict Marie-Thérèse's short blond hair. In many of Picasso's portraits of his mistress, her hair appears, as here, in a shape like the horn of a crescent moon. Examples of this include Le fauteuil rouge (Zervos, vol. 7, no. 334) and La lecture (fig. 3). The drive to formal abstraction and purification in the present work is still more radical in the depiction of Marie-Thérèse's body: her torso (or upper torso--one cannot be sure) has been reduced to an inverted pyramid, and her hips (or perhaps lower torso) are rendered as a circle or cylinder. Radical simplification is evident as well in the background of the painting. Whereas in Grand nu the wall is covered with busy, decorative wallpaper in bright acid green, here it is undecorated and represented as a cool gray-green. Picasso has also increased the size and height of the chair-railing and painted the lower portion of the wall in a darker brown, chromatically coordinated to the red of the chair. Finally, in comparison with Grand nu it is possible to suggest that the grayish-white form at the bottom of the present canvas was inspired by white drapery lying underneath the figure.
The parallels between the two pictures are all the more interesting since it is certain that Grand nu au fauteuil rouge depicts not Marie-Thérèse but Picasso's wife Olga Kokhlova, as is indicated by the figure's brown hair and by the vagina dentata mouth (a common feature in Picasso's pictures of Olga in the late 1920s). That is to say, in the space of eight days Picasso made two portraits of his wife and his mistress, both depicted in the same fashion: nude and seated in a red armchair. The differences between the pictures are thus all the more significant and intentional. The high-valued palette and nervous lines of Grand nu au fauteuil rouge suggest the anxiety that had entered Picasso's relationship with his wife, whereas the cool, soothing luminosity of the present work indicates the sanctuary he sought in his lover's arms.
From the beginning of his relationship with Marie-Thérèse, Picasso had devised a private iconography by which he could secretly depict his mistress; abstraction permitted a high degree of intimacy that would have been impossible in realist representation. Although cool in its palette and highly stylized in its treatment of form, the present painting is a work of intense feeling. In this context, one should recall Picasso's famous statement about abstraction:
There is no abstract art. You must always start with something. Afterward you can remove all traces of reality. There's no danger then, anyway, because the idea of the object will have left an indelible mark. It is what started the artist off, excited his ideas and stirred up his emotions. (Quoted in D. Ashton, Picasso on Art, New York, 1970, p. 9)
And also his comment about art and love:
Art is not the application of a canon of beauty but what the instinct and the brain can conceive beyond any canon. When we love a woman we don't start measuring her limbs. We love with our desires--although everything has been done to try to apply a canon even to love. (Quoted in exh. cat, Picasso: Sculptor/Painter, Tate Gallery, London, 1994, p. 105)
The second owner of the present work was James Johnson Sweeney, who acquired it in Paris just two years after it was painted. Sweeney enjoyed a long and illustrious career in modern art, serving as the director of the Department of Paintings and Sculpture at The Museum of Modern Art, and as the director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Moreover, he was instrumental in the introduction of Picasso's work to American audiences: he collaborated with Christian Zervos on his catalogue raisonné of Picasso's oeuvre, organized a watershed exhibition in 1939 entitled Panorama of Picasso, and published an important study in 1941 on Picasso and Iberian sculpture. Sweeney loaned the present painting to the important retrospective of Picasso's work at Galerie Georges Petit in 1932 (fig. 4).
(fig. 1) Marie-Thérèse Walter, circa 1927
(fig. 2) Pablo Picasso, Grand nu au fauteuil rouge, 1929
Musée Picasso, Paris
(fig. 3) Pablo Picasso, La lecture, 1932
Musée Picasso, Paris
(fig. 4) The present picture on view at Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, 1932