The guiding force that drove Picasso to such creative heights in 1932 was his romantic involvement with Marie-Thérèse Walter (fig. 1), Picasso's mistress and muse. Their tumultuous affair inspired him to immortalize her in masterpiece after masterpiece. She remained Picasso's private obsession, becoming the exclusive subject of a sequence of large-scale canvases. Pierre Daix poetically referred to Picasso's oeuvre from this period as a "hymn to Marie-Thérèse". Indeed, Les amants stands as both a romantic and deeply poetic visual homage to his beloved muse.
What they did together as artist and model would revolutionize the face of modern art. Their five-year affair would prove to be a life-changing experience for the artist as his art took a profound new direction. As John Richardson commented, "Picasso was deep into the most passionately physical relationship of his life, one that would inspire some of his most ecstatically erotic as well as some of his most profoundly disturbing works" (ibid., pp. 59-60).
Of all the works to come out of this artist-model collaboration, Les amants is the most expressive of romantic love and the timeless ritual of courtship. A male figure holds in his hands a glittering jewel that he presents, on bended knee, to a reclining female nude. Picasso's complete absorption in his subject matter is critical to the picture's balance of eros and art. Les amants must have had particular resonance for Picasso whose art so mirrored his own experiences that the depiction of the adoring male figure is likely a self-portrait.
This composition appears again in a series of monotypes produced by the artist in January 1933 (Baer 464-526). The close link between the monotypes and the present work is emphasized by Picasso's technique of first grounding the canvas in black paint, instead of the more customary white, and then incising the outlines of the figures through the wet paint of the completed composition.
Whether posed in front of a mirror (fig. 2), sitting in an armchair or reclining on a chaise (fig. 3), Marie-Thérèse came to life on canvas through his inventive permutations of the female figure. She represented what Roland Penrose, Picasso's friend and biographer described as "a new highly sensuous version of the female nude". (R. Penrose, Picasso: His Life and Work, Berkeley, 1981, p. 269). But no pose fascinated the painter more than that of Marie-Thérèse asleep and supine, so much that he wrote in a 1935 poem about Marie-Thérèse "Combien je l'aime maintenant qu'elle dort" (How much I love her while she is sleeping). It was not until 1930, three years into their affair, that Picasso began to portray Marie-Thérèse asleep, nude and supine. He returned to the theme in the summer of 1931, making a series of beautiful, neo-classical drawings of a man watching a woman sleep (fig. 4).
The sleeping nude, as a pictorial subject has enjoyed popularity in the history of painting from as early as the sixteenth century. For example, Giorgione's celebrated The Sleeping Venus circa 1508, in the Gemaldegälerie in Dresden, depicts a female nude sleeping in a pastoral landscape, her arm gracefully stretched behind her head. The tradition continued into the nineteenth century with such artists as Ingres who displays his sensual nude in a Turkish harem in Odalisque avec ésclave of 1839-1840.
As François Gilot comments, Marie-Thérèse had very appealing qualities that made her the perfect model:
Her forms were handsomely sculptural, with a fullness of volume and a purity of line that gave her body and her face an extraordinary perfection. To the extent that nature offers ideas or stimuli to an artist, there are some forms that are closer than others to any artist's own aesthetic and thus serve as a springboard for his imagination. Marie-Thérèse brought a great deal to Pablo in the sense that her physical form demanded recognition. She was a magnificent model. Pablo didn't work from the model in the usual sense of the term but the mere fact of seeing her gave him a part of nature that was particularly suited to him (quoted in ibid., pp. 241-242).
Endowed with generous curves, her arm draped over her head, Picasso's shapely nude is charged with erotic overtones. Stylistically, her bulbous head, and reclining position is a variant of the pose Picasso first showcased in Nu au fauteuil noir painted a few months earlier. One of the most striking elements of Les amants is its undulating and serpentine line, which the artist to have associated with romantic and sexual fulfillment. Regarding the outlines of Picasso's 1932 pictures of Marie-Thérèse, John Golding has commented:
Her limbs are rendered by the same undulating forms that had characterised much of Picasso's work since 1925, but whereas before these had so often seemed predatory or tentacular, their rhythyms now become slower, softer, more welcoming, more organic (J. Golding, "Picasso and Surrealism", in eds. R. Penrose and J. Golding, Picasso in Retrospect, New York, 1973, p. 110).
Furthermore, by defining the two figures with black outlines, Picasso allowed color to take on its own identity in the composition--further evidence of his desire to challenge the limits of figure and abstraction. Each color from his pastel palette boldly occupies an area of the composition in a series of abstract shapes, resulting in a harmonious balance of color and form.
(fig. 1) Passport photo of Marie-Thérèse Walter, Paris, 1930.
(fig. 2) Pablo Picasso, Le miroir, 1932.
(Sale, Christie's, New York, 7 November 1995, lot 45).
(fig. 3) Pablo Picasso, Nu au fauteuil noir, 1932.
(Sale, Christie's, New York, 9 November 1999, lot 507).
(fig. 4) Pablo Picasso, Femme endormie et homme assis, 1931. Musée Picasso, Paris.