‘The day I met Marie-Thérèse I realised that I had before me what I had always been dreaming about.’
‘We would joke and laugh together all day, so happy with our secret, living a totally non-bourgeois life, a bohemian love away from those people Picasso knew then. You know what it is to be really in love? Well, who needs anything else then? We spent our time worrying about nothing, doing what every couple does when they’re in love...’
‘[Picasso] loved the blondeness of her hair, her luminous complexion, her sculptural body… At no other moment in his life did his painting become so undulant, all sinuous curves, arms enveloping, hair in curls…’
(Brassaï, quoted in D. Widmaier Picasso, ‘Picasso and Marie-Thérèse: Erotic Passion and Mystic Union’, in exh. cat., Picasso: The Artist and his Muses, Vancouver, 2016, p. 63)
‘She had no inconvenient reality; she was a reflection of the cosmos. If it was a beautiful day, the clear blue sky reminded him of her eyes. The flight of a bird symbolised for him the freedom of their relationship. And over a period of eight or nine years her image found its way into a great body of his work in painting, drawing, sculpture, and engraving. Hers was the privileged body on which the light fell to perfection.’
(F. Gilot & C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, p. 235)
‘She had a very arresting face with a Grecian profile. The whole series of portraits of blonde women Pablo painted between 1927 and 1935 are almost exact replicas of her… 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… She was a magnificent model.’
(F. Gilot and C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, pp. 241-242)
‘A flower more sweet than honey, Marie-Thérèse you are the fire of my joy.’
(Picasso to Marie-Thérèse, 20 November 1935)
‘This 23rd day of May 1936, I love you still more than yesterday and less than tomorrow. I will always love you as they say, I love you, I love you, I love you, I love you…’
(Picasso to Marie-Thérèse)
‘Just to say that I have loved you for nine years. I love you and give you everything I have.’
(Marie-Thérèse to Picasso)
Painted on 26 March 1934, Pablo Picasso’s Femme écrivant (Marie-Thérèse) is a joyous, colour-filled and deeply tender portrayal of Marie-Thérèse Walter, the young, golden-haired woman who, when she entered the artist’s life one winter’s evening in January 1927, changed the course of his art forever. Marie-Thérèse’s presence in Picasso’s life aroused a near-unprecedented creative explosion; her youthful innocence, irrepressible vitality and undying devotion unleashing an ecstatic rebirth in every area of his artistic production. The canvas became the site of rapturous expressions of love, wonder and worship; the blank page a surface to be filled with amorous daydreams and erotic fantasies; and plaster the material with which to declare his physical adoration of his lover’s form. Undoubtedly one of the Twentieth Century’s greatest muses, her name conjures images of some of the most lyrical and passion-filled depictions of the human form in modern art. At the time that he painted Femme écrivant, Marie-Thérèse’s supreme reign in Picasso’s art had reached its zenith. 1934 was a particularly prolific year for Picasso and was the final period that the pair spent wrapped in the uninterrupted bliss of their love. In 1935, a time that Picasso would later describe as the worst of his life, this peaceful idyll began to change as the threat of European war became ever more likely, and he separated finally and officially from his wife Olga. The only joyous news in a year of upheaval was the birth of his and Marie-Thérèse’s daughter, Maya. By the beginning of 1936, Picasso had a new woman in his life, the darkly enigmatic Dora Maar. Within this context, therefore, Femme écrivant is one of the final great portraits of Marie-Thérèse from this early, golden period, a radiant and intimate depiction of his lover, which, along with the preceding paintings of the early 1930s, are considered among the finest works of Picasso’s career.
Picasso painted Femme écrivant (Marie-Thérèse) in Boisgeloup, the secluded and picturesque château situated near Gisors, a small Normandy village northwest of Paris that he had bought in the summer of 1930. Since their fateful meeting outside the Galeries Lafayette, a department store in Paris in 1927, Marie-Thérèse and Picasso’s passionate relationship had been shrouded in secrecy. Picasso was a married man, living with his Russian ballet dancer wife Olga Khokhlova whom he had married in 1918, and their young son Paulo in the apartment they shared at 23 rue la Boétie. Though Picasso had his studio on the floor above where he could meet Marie-Thérèse, propriety prevented him and his young lover being seen publicly together. The château at Boisgeloup therefore provided the perfect place to spend time with his beguiling muse, as well as serving as a much-needed refuge from the ever-increasing jealousy, neuroses and stifling bourgeois aspirations of Olga. In addition, Picasso had grown tired of moving endlessly between his favoured summer retreats – Dinard in the north, or Cannes and Juan-les-Pins in the south – and wanted somewhere he could base himself and his artistic production more permanently.
Set within extensive but sheltered land, the Château de Boisgeloup was also surrounded by stables, which the artist soon converted into a sculpture studio. It was only accessible by car, meaning that surprise visits by prying acquaintances or admiring friends were improbable. At weekends, Olga left their fashionable Right Bank apartment and travelled to Boisgeloup, where she relished playing the role of the chic châtelaine. Once she departed for Paris at the end of the weekend, Marie-Thérèse bicycled in, and the pair spent a joyful week together, holed up in this blissful refuge, rapturous in each other’s company. ‘During the week [Picasso] played Mars to Marie-Thérèse’s Venus’, John Richardson, the artist’s biographer, has written. ‘Weekends he played the role of an affable père de famille in a three-piece suit and spats, having fun with a much fussed over child and a very large dog’ (Picasso, quoted in J. Richardson, A Life of Picasso, volume III, The Triumphant Years, 1917-1932, London, 2007, p. 417). This setup suited both women greatly; Marie-Thérèse, as she told Lydia Gasman in an interview of 1972, had no desire to be play the role of the lady of the house, but was happy to materialise when necessary, desiring nothing more than to spend time with her lover.
Here, freed from his strained marriage and his responsibilities as a father, and separated from his public life in Paris, Picasso could indulge himself entirely in his blonde muse. With Marie-Thérèse a more constant presence in Picasso’s life, by the beginning of 1931 her image, which had up until this point remained coded and concealed in his art, began to saturate his sculpture and painting in radiant, euphoric form. He saw her face and body everywhere; even still-life compositions morphed into voluptuous, erotic visions of his curvaceous model (the Musée Picasso’s great Grande Nature morte au guéridon of 1931, for example). Over the course of the year, Picasso created a battalion of monumental plaster busts based on her striking classical physiognomy, and as 1932 dawned, her image flooded uncontrollably into his painting. It was in Boisgeloup that Picasso painted what are now recognised as the greatest depictions of Marie-Thérèse; works such as the 1932 Le Rêve (Sold, Christie’s, New York, 10 November 1997, The Collection of Victor and Sally Ganz, $48,402,500; Zervos VII, no. 364), Femme nue, feuilles et buste (Sold, Christie’s, New York, 4 May 2010, $106,482,500), Femme nue dans un fauteuil rouge (Tate Gallery, London; Zervos VII, no. 395), amongst numerous others.
Femme écrivant is immediately identifiable as originating from this blissful artistic paradise. Enthroned in an ornate brown chair, pictured in the midst of writing a letter, Marie-Thérèse is seated in front of what appears to be a window, the daylight and pale blue sky of the outside world flooding into the secluded room and illuminating her delicate features. Indeed, the shuttered windows that flanked the façade of Boisgeloup bear the same pattern of panes as in this painting, suggesting that Picasso painted Marie-Thérèse in his studio situated on the second floor immediately above the entrance of his beloved home. The glimpse of rich red patterned wallpaper just visible in the background of the portrait was also a feature of Picasso’s Boisgeloup masterpieces. A similar trellis pattern can be found in the aforementioned Le Rêve, and likewise, a blue-chequered pattern envelops the reposing Marie-Thérèse of Le miroir (Sold Christie’s, New York, 9 November 1995, $20,022,500; Zervos VII, no. 378), and is electrified into an active compositional component in the Museum of Modern Art’s iconic Jeune fille devant un miroir (Zervos VII, no. 379). With these wall decorations, Picasso evoked a sense of atmosphere, using them to elaborate the character or identity of the sitter. In Femme écrivant, Marie-Thérèse consumes the space entirely, her body and face composed of a series of interlocking planes that integrate the space around her. Against the darker facets of the background, her soft, pale facial features radiate from the compositional space with a pure and intense luminosity.
While Marie-Thérèse most often appears as a sensuously reclining, somnolent nude or a stylised vision enthroned in a chair, a passive object of adoration, in the present work, Picasso has depicted her in an upright, active state, engaged in the act of writing a letter. Pen in hand and eyes downturned she writes not legible words but zigzagging black lines that vibrate against the surface of the page. Letter writing was something that was central to the relationship of Marie-Thérèse and Picasso. As their relationship was wrapped in secrecy – even at the time he painted this work, only very few people knew Marie-Thérèse’s identity – and the couple were rarely alone for extended periods of time, Picasso and Marie-Thérèse wrote prolifically to one another. Indeed, it has been stated that Picasso insisted Marie-Thérèse write to him regularly. ‘He asked me to write to him every day, otherwise, he said, he was ill,’ Marie-Thérèse recalled in an interview of 1974. ‘He wrote me also small letters, full of tenderness, words of love… flowers, doves, small drawings…’ (Marie-Thérèse, quoted in P. Cabanne, ‘Picasso et les joies de la paternité’, in L’Oeil, no. 226, May 1974, p. 9). Long after the initial passion of their illicit romance had burnt out and Picasso had embarked on new love affairs with Dora Maar and subsequently Françoise Gilot, Marie-Thérèse continued to write to Picasso. Gilot recalls the daily letters that the artist received from her, ‘She always wrote in the most affectionate vein, and addressed him with great tenderness. She gave him an account of each day, right down to its most personal detail, and there was much discussion on finances. There was always news of Maya, their daughter, and sometimes snapshots of them both’ (F. Gilot & C. Lake, Life with Picasso, New York, 1964, p. 129).
The few letters that have been published tell of a romance that was deeply passionate, and their words to each other speak of an intense devotion and an idealised romance. ‘Marie-Thérèse, my love Marie-Thérèse,’ Picasso wrote to her on 12th October 1929, arranging a rendezvous at an apartment on the rue de Liège that he had rented as a meeting place for their secret amorous liaisons. ‘I will be in Liège. Come. I am in a mad hope to return quickly to Paris on Friday. Yours always and more than always. P.’ (Picasso to Marie-Thérèse Walter, quoted in D. Widmaier Picasso, ‘Marie-Thérèse Walter and Pablo Picasso: New Insights into a Secret Love’, in exh. cat., Pablo Picasso and Marie-Thérèse Walter: Between Classicism and Surrealism, Münster, 2004, p. 30).
In the summer of 1936, two years after he painted the present work, he wrote to Marie-Thérèse with one of his most poetic declarations of love: ‘I see you before me my lovely landscape MT/and never tire of looking at you,/ stretched out on your back in the sand,/my dear MT, I love you./MT my devouring rising sun./You are always on me, MT, mother of sparkling/perfumes pungent with star jasmines./I love you more than the taste of your mouth,/more than your look, more than your hands,/more than your whole body, more and more/and more and more than all my love for you/will ever be able to love and I sign Picasso’ (Picasso to Marie-Thérèse Walter, 29 August 1936, quoted in ibid., p. 32). There also exists a text that Picasso wrote earlier in this same year, in January, onto which Marie-Thérèse has added a short love note at the very top of the sheet, ‘Just to say that I have loved you for nine years. I love you and give you everything I have’ (M.T. Walter, in M-L. Bernadac & C. Piot, eds., Picasso Collected Writings, London, 1989, p. 394).
The artist’s granddaughter, Diana Widmaier Picasso has stated that from looking at their correspondence, throughout 1934 and 1935, the pair must have spent a great deal of time together because, in her words, ‘the frantic rate at which they exchanged letters abated’ (D. Widmaier Picasso, op. cit., p. 32). In 1934, Olga, having seen the great outpouring of nudes in Picasso’s iconic 1932 exhibition at the Galerie Georges Petit, had become increasingly consumed by jealousy at the knowledge of this unknown voluptuous blonde who had stolen her husband’s affections. Incensed, she moved with Paulo out of the couple’s apartment and into the nearby Hôtel Californie, leaving Picasso free to spend more time with the beloved Marie-Thérèse.
Whether they were together or not when Picasso painted Femme écrivant is not known. Has Picasso imagined his beloved Marie-Thérèse in the midst of writing a love letter to him, picturing her as the devoted lover that she was? Or, perhaps she was at Boisgeloup when he painted this work, completely immersed in her activity, unaware of Picasso’s presence as he studied her face and body. Either way, this painting is imbued with an erotic intimacy and an incredible tenderness that is less frequently seen in many of the artist’s stylised visions of Marie-Thérèse. Like the iconic visions of her sleeping, here Picasso has caught her unawares; as Robert Rosenblum has written, ‘At first her master seems to worship humbly at her shrine, capturing a fixed, confrontational stare of almost supernatural power; but more often, he becomes an ecstatic voyeur, who quietly captures his beloved reading, meditating, catnapping, or surrendering to the deepest abandon of sleep’ (R. Rosenblum, ‘Picasso’s Blonde Muse: The Reign of Marie-Thérèse Walter’, in W. Rubin, ed., Picasso and Portraiture: Representation and Transformation, New York, 1996, p. 342). In the present work, every curve of her body is celebrated in radiant colour, faceted and simplified to leave only the parts Picasso admired most: her exaggerated, phallic-like nose, pouted lips, wide, moon-shaped face and buxom breasts. The sinuously interlocking lines that coalesce across the composition and the softly sensual, impastoed brushstrokes reflect the gently undulating curves of her body and the softness of her skin. Painted with the intimate knowledge that only a lover could have, this painting radiates, in Rosenblum’s words, ‘an erotic intimacy gleaned from a lover’s close-up gaze and touch’ (R. Rosenblum, ibid., p. 342).
The idyllic, blissful and idolised vision of Marie-Thérèse seen in Femme écrivant was how Picasso portrayed her time and time again. Her image filled Picasso’s art with a dreamlike, fantastical quality far removed from the monstrous deformations with which he had depicted Olga in the decline of their relationship. These paintings are daydreams, joyous imaginings and erotic fantasies. The pair never lived together, nor spent extended periods of time alone together, thus their romance remained filled with a romantic escapism, unsullied by the banalities or strains of everyday life together. As a result, Picasso imagined her in any way he wanted; she became a Greek muse, hieratic sphinx, a classical nude being devoured by a Minotaur, or a bountiful fertility goddess. Blooming with youthful vitality, Marie-Thérèse often appears in this final fecund guise: sprouting philodendron leaves from her undulating torso, for example (Zervos VII, no. 377), or pictured crowned with flowers within a bucolic, blossoming outdoor setting as in The Metropolitan Museum’s wondrous Femme nue couchée aux fleurs of 1932 (Zervos VII, no. 407). This floral symbolism is evident in Femme écrivant. Her body appears to ascend from below the table top; the swathe of deep green that flanks her right side – possibly her shadow against the window – could be seen as a stem-like form from which her head triumphantly blooms, the facets of her face and hair the delicately coloured petals of a flower. Picasso has depicted his lover quite literally blossoming in front of his eyes, coming into flower in the light of the artist’s gaze. ‘I don’t work from nature,’ he declared in an interview of 1932 on the occasion of his Georges Petit exhibition, ‘but in front of it, facing it, and with it’ (quoted in P. Daix, Picasso: Life and Art, trans. O. Emmet, New York, 1993, p. 223). At the time, no one knew how literal this statement was: nature and Marie-Thérèse were one, and the artist was completely consumed by it.
With Femme écrivant, Picasso was inspired to begin a successive series of paintings in which Marie-Thérèse, now joined by another young woman with brunette hair – most likely one of her sisters – is pictured not writing, but instead reading a book. The day after he painted Femme écrivant, he began a work entitled Deux personnages (Private collection; Zervos VIII, no. 191), and after this, on successive days, he painted four more works of the same name and of similar sizes (Zervos VIII, no. 190-194), returning to this theme later, in April, with the most extreme stylisation of the series (Zervos VIII, no. 197). The majority of the paintings in this series of readers continue the stylised faceting seen in Femme écrivant, yet none of these works carry the same soft intimacy with which Picasso captured his muse in this painting. Standing at the beginning of this intensive series, the present work can be seen as the initial inspiration for this successive series, and as such it stands alone, pivotal.
Marie-Thérèse discovered she was pregnant in December 1934 and told the artist on Christmas Eve. Her pregnancy caused an undeniable shift in their relationship. In 1935, the artist attempted to divorce Olga, however, upon learning of the vast expense this would incur him – she would have been entitled to receive half of everything he owned, including half of his studio – they instead agreed upon an official separation. Picasso bought Marie-Thérèse an apartment close to his, at 45 rue la Boétie, and in September, their daughter Maya was born. Though a devoted father and still passionately in love with Marie-Thérèse, their relationship and, by extension, her presence in his art, would never be quite the same again. Towards the end of the year, Picasso was introduced to the woman who would become the new protagonist of his art of the war years, the enigmatic Surrealist photographer Dora Maar. Her complex character, dark psyche, fearsome intellect and chic demeanour were the complete antithesis of the sweet-natured and easygoing Marie-Thérèse; a contrast that he drew heavily upon in his portraiture of the following years. 1934 can therefore be seen as the final year in which this golden-haired muse reigned supreme in Picasso’s art; after this, his depictions of her changed; she appears somehow older, pictured in hats and ornate attires that concord with his portrayals of Dora Maar. Gone is the sense of euphoric joy, the amazement he felt at being with this young woman. The fantasy had unravelled; the innocence was lost. Painted at this final, ascendant moment of their love, Femme écrivant is therefore an image that radiates with youthful vitality and passionate sensuality, a euphoric and lyrical portrait of Marie-Thérèse.
A reflection of the significance that this painting had for Picasso, Femme écrivant remained in his collection until 1961, when he sold it to his long-term friend and dealer Daniel-Henri Kahnweiler, and his American partners, the Chicago-born, New York gallerists, Daniel and Eleanore Saidenberg. They had established their eponymous gallery in 1950, and five years later, Kahnweiler asked them to be Picasso’s primary representatives in the US, taking over from Curt Valentin. Over time the couple became close friends with Picasso, visiting him for the first time in 1957 at his villa, La Californie. When Picasso decided he wanted to sell works, Kahnweiler arranged for them to be shipped to Paris. The Saidenbergs were alerted and, as Michael Fitzgerald has explained, they had ‘first choice, since they stood atop the American market’ (M. Fitzgerald, ‘The Saidenbergs as Dealers and Collectors’ in The Collection of Eleanore and Daniel Saidenberg, sale catalogue, Sotheby’s, New York, 10 November, 1999, p. 15). Able to choose for themselves the greatest of Picasso’s work, the Saidenbergs amassed an outstanding collection of works by the artist – including early cubist masterpieces, as well as the 1931 Femme assise dans un fauteuil rouge (donated to the Art Institute of Chicago in 1957), one of the first clear representations of Marie-Thérèse that he painted – as well as other modern masters, Braque, Léger and Gris. Never before seen at auction, Femme écrivant has been rarely admired in public, remaining in private hands for over half a century.